In the movie version of Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” the American protagonist, Frances, is given a free trip to Tuscany by her lesbian friends who can no longer use the tickets they had purchased. She winds up the only straight person on a “Gay and Away” tour, bumping her way through the rolling hills of Tuscany on a tour designed with gay in mind. She finds in her travelling companions a supportive group of easygoing, wine-drinking friends who help her get through her first days in Tuscany as a newly divorced woman. Everyone lives happily ever after.
Fast forward 8 years. Pause the movie. Open up the copy of “La Repubblica” newspaper that you just happen to have on hand, or take a look at the following link (in Italian): http://firenze.repubblica.it/cronaca/2011/09/09/news/gruppo_canadese_a_siena_vogliamo_una_guida_gay-21449922/
The association for tour guides in the province of Siena is outraged by the request it received from a Canadian tour operator catering exclusively to homosexual clients, hoping to book a guided tour of Siena: the guide should be openly gay, just like their clients. Translated from the Italian article cited above:
“We are outraged by this request,” says Rita Ceccarelli, president of the association of tour guides in the province of Siena. “We will not accept bullying and we proudly defend our professionalism, which goes beyond our sexual preferences. We lead groups of people of every nationality, culture, religion, and there is always mutual respect…” Ceccarelli goes on to explain how, more and more often a request is made for a female, hopefully good-looking guide. “We also refuse to give in to these types of requests,” she adds.
How did I find out about this little piece of news, you ask? I happen to work for a tour operator here in Siena. Affectionately calling me “Maple”, one of our best guides came in this morning and dropped the article on my desk before he went off to do his tour. Between phone calls and emails, I read the brief article and reacted with mixed feelings.
First of all, I dislike anything that sheds a bad light on Canada. Yes, I’m that patriotic. I also dislike anything that is harmful to Siena, because I love this city. I work in the tourism industry here, and interact on a daily basis with una marea (literally, “a tide” meaning “a bunch”) of great guides. How would it feel for one of our best guides to miss out on a days’ work because he’s not gay? Or, if the request was reversed, not straight? Is it politically correct to make such requests? If so, where do we draw the line? Is it ok for a group to request that a guide be young, female and cute? Or male and flamboyantly gay? Or male and decidedly straight? Maybe the request could be that the guide should be ethnically Italian? Not an immigrant? Under 6 feet tall? Weighing less than 80 kilos? Under 25? Not Muslim? A redhead? Slim? Catholic?
The list could go on, and let’s just think about how many people would be rightly outraged by those types of specifications…
I mean, I understand wanting to have a guide that relates well to your clients. But what the heck does a person’s sexual orientation have to do with the history and culture of a Medieval Tuscan city? What does being straight or gay have to do with explanations of the Palio, of the contrada system, of the grape harvest, the making of pici pasta or Siena’s award-winning basketball team? Come on! What would have happened if a group had asked explicitly that their guide not be gay? Then what?