Italy—home of the Roman Empire, birthplace of the Renaissance, and center of the Catholic Church—is showing signs of serious social change in recent years. And the example of the moment is the victory of Vladimir Luxuria, a 43 year-old transsexual, on one of Italy's most popular television shows.
Luxuria won L'Isola dei Famosi [Island of Celebrities], a program akin to a celebrity version of the American television show Survivor, by popular vote of Italian viewers. Luxuria spent 10 weeks on an island off of Honduras, hanging on to defeat Argentinian model Belen Rodriguez by popular vote. In the final episode roughly 680,000 people phoned in their votes, with 56 percent of those going to Luxuria. The show is broadcast on Rai, Italian state television, and has consistently been among the most popular programs on Italian television.
A clip from L'Isola dei Famosi of Luxuria in Honduras, floating in the ocean in a bikini and joking with other contestants, can be seen here:
Luxuria, who was born Wladimiro Guadagno, prefers to be referred to as "she", and dresses in a feminine manner, but does not specifically identify as male or female. Her name was well-known in Italy before her appearance on the television program, as she was the first openly transgender member of the Italian or European parliament. Elected in 2006 to the Italian Chamber of Deputies (one of two houses of the Italian parliament), Luxuria has long been an important member of the Italian Communist Refoundation Party. She lost her seat, however, with 2008 elections and the return of Silvio Berlusconi to power—who, ironically, is the owner of several Italian television networks.
Luxuria has said that she has been delighted with Italians' reaction to her presence in Italian public life. "The Italian public has shown itself to be more forward-looking than our politicians, who thought I would turn up in parliament dressed like (former porn-star politician) Cicciolina," Luxuria said. And, she added that she was glad she had not listened to those who were concerned that her appearance on the show would be destructive to her political reputation. "I listened to my instinct and not to the voices of the critics, as I did when I decided to come out as the trans that I am inside, and when I decided to be a politician," she said.
Her career has not been without its moments of discrimination, however. In 2007, the Catholic Church prevented Luxuria from acting as a witness at her cousin's wedding. Early in her time in parliament, a female MP complained that Luxuria should not be permitted to use the women's restrooms. And Alessandra Mussolini, a conservative politician and member of the Italian and European parliaments who is the granddaughter of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, famously said of Luxuria that it is "better to be a fascist than a faggot." Against this backdrop, Luxuria's enormous popularity in Italy, and evident resilience, can be seen as an inspiring sign of changing times in one of Europe's more culturally conservative countries.