Why Barilla Pasta CEO Is So Clueless About Gays

A lot of people are scratching their heads, wondering how the CEO of Barilla Group could be so profoundly stupid as to slam gays by saying they should go eat someone else's pasta. "For us, the 'sacral family' remains one of the company's core values," Guido Barilla, CEO of the Parma, Italy-based company, said in an interview. "Our family is a traditional family. If gays like our pasta and our advertisings, they will eat our pasta; if they don't like that, they will eat someone else's pasta." Barilla also said that he wouldn't depict a gay family in an ad, responding to a question about a female Italian politician's criticisms of the stereotyping of women in ads in Italy, saying of his advertising, "the women are crucial in this."

What many people don't understand is that in Italy what Barilla said is, sadly, too often perfectly acceptable. He was speaking on an Italian radio program. He was likely oblivious to how it would play globally, and probably not very conscious of how the rights and conditions of LGBT people, and the role of women, have changed dramatically in the rest of the industrialized West. His pasta may be the No. 1 pasta in the world, but it appears he leads the insular life that many Italian straight men lead -- yes, including educated, wealthy men -- keeping women in their place and dismissing gays.

Italy embarrassingly lags behind the rest of Europe and the West when it comes to LGBT rights. Spain, France and the UK have marriage equality. Even Albania, stereotyped as part of a backward Eastern bloc, passed a law in 2010 that protects against discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity, more far-reaching than any law Italy has.

I say all this as a great lover of Italy with a deep connection. Both my mother's and father's sides hail from the very same town just outside Bari. I was in Rome again last year and, much as I adore it, I experienced the stifling, constricted and ultimately dismissive atmosphere I've come to expect when it comes to homosexuality, hearing boys in the piazzas making mocking remarks about gays, perceiving a virtual invisibility in the popular culture.

Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world but it's not because women are so liberated. Everyone in Italy wants to live well and women are expected to work hard and then go home and take care of their husbands, doing all the cooking and cleaning and basically treating the husband as if he were a child. (And that has only escalated in the tanking economy of recent years.) Men are used to their mothers pampering them as boys and then marrying a woman who pampers them. Any deviation -- moving out of mom's house but not getting married -- might be a tip-off that you're not quite right. I've worked on many stories about gay life in Italy, including a series in Out magazine back in the '90s focused on a slew of anti-gay murders. Things have changed a great deal, but certainly not at the pace they have in the rest of Europe.

Of course, it's not that the U.S. is so far ahead, with only 13 states with marriage equality and bans on gay marriage in over 35 states. I'd say Italy is probably where much of the South is in this country. But the issue Barilla faces, unlike Chick-fil-A, which is content to stay in the South and cater to its conservative Christian customers, is that it sells its pasta to urban and diverse markets throughout the wealthy, industrialized world, where LGBT consumers and their supporters are not going to take this kind of gay-bashing, and where there is a plethora of other pasta to choose from.

This is a moment, perhaps, to help pull Italy into the 21st century on LGBT rights. Barilla's response to the global uproar and calls for a boycott has been baffling, and it might be too late to make amends. Nonetheless, Barilla needs to put out a real apology -- instead of the three unpologies we've seen -- taking back fully what he said. He needs to drop this claim about what the "traditional" family is. And he needs to say, "Sure, I'll do an ad with a gay family." And then, just do it. How is it going to hurt? It could only help him turn this moment into a positive. Otherwise, we're all going to be saying, "Basta Barilla pasta."