Temple prof breaks the ‘Code of Omerta’

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Who or what is Omerta? Specifically, what is the code of Omerta? And why is a Temple University professor trying to break it?

According to Carmelo A. Galati, assistant professor of Italian studies at Temple University, the “Code of Omerta” refers to an old Italian-American tradition of maintaining a strict silence in the face of anything that may threaten or embarrass the family (real family, not Mafia “family”). Additionally, Galati relates that there is another possible layer of meaning to “the code” from an earlier Spanish derivation, referring to a tradition of what is appropriate masculine behavior.

And what has this got to do with anything?

Galati will be giving a presentation called “Breaking the Code of Omerta” Oct. 20 at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In it, he plans to explore the evolution of sexual identity among Italian-Americans, and how those changes are impacting that particular culture’s traditions and families. In other words, how is the progress of gay openness and acceptance changing things for a culture that used to be dominated by a lot of oppressive Old World immigrant traditions?

Quite a lot, according to Galati.

Drawing from media, cultural and literary sources, Galati explains that people who used to identify with and define themselves primarily by the old Italian-American traditions no longer do so. Now people, particularly gay people who have gone through the coming-out process, tend to define themselves more as individuals than as part of an ethnic-immigrant tradition.

Of course, Galati admits that this evolution towards an individual identity and away from an immigrant tradition is not exclusive to Italian-Americans, but is a process common to all immigrant cultures, as each succeeding generation becomes more assimilated.

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CARMELO A. GALATI

One example from media that Galati uses to illustrate his point is, of all things, the reality show “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” Two episodes, several seasons apart, show how things are changing. In the earlier episode, one of the wives makes disparaging mockery of gays, to no consequence. In the later episode, another of the wives has a relative who comes out as a lesbian. She is completely accepted and supported by the family (while the homophobic wife remains unrepentant — grist for reality show drama, one supposes).

If nothing else, this helps to illustrate how in some cultures the bonds of family outweigh the shackles of tradition — and how families and cultures can adapt to changing times.

“Breaking the Code of Omerta” is part of a month-long series of programs sponsored by the Historical Society, in partnership with the Library Company of Philadelphia and the John J. Wilcox Archives of the William Way Community Center. In what they hope will be an annual thing, the organizations are celebrating LGBT History Month with a series of programs exploring the LGBT history of Philadelphia. (Galati points out that October is also Italian-American History Month.)

Professor Carmelo Galati’s program “Breaking the Code of Omerta” will be presented at 8 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust St. Admission is free, but you must pre-register for tickets at hsp.org/calendar.