They, They, & It – Exploring the deep connection between Italian and transgender identity

For Italian-Canadian and non-binary artist Shel Stefan, the connection between their cultural heritage and gender identity is more than surface level. In line with the Italian values of passion, emotion and pleasure, Stefan feels that putting forth a passionate affirmation of their right to love and live as they are, experiencing the world and being loved without stigma, is a firmly Italian thing for them to do.

| Photo by Andres Zapata photography.

That maxim will be explored in They, They, & It, an exhibit at the Italian Cultural Centre that runs until July 5. Stefan’s work is featured alongside fellow non-binary Italian-Canadian artist Mickey Vescera, and is curated by ICC director and curator Angela Clarke.

Embracing passion and identity

The collaboration between Stefan, Clarke and the centre comes after a previously successful and well-received exhibit highlighting queer identity and sexuality in 2016. For all parties, a revisiting of this theme, touching even more on the link between Italian and transgender identities, seemed only natural.

“It was so wonderful because there were so many Italian grandmothers that came in and said, ‘Oh, my, my son or my grandson or my grandchild has come out as gay or trans, and I’m trying to understand it,’” says Clarke. “I thought, okay, let’s explore all of these things, and let’s say this is Italian identity now.”

One of Shel Stefan’s self-portraits at They, They, & It. Artist: Shel Stefan; Title: Artist with Axe (Detail); Year: 2024; Medium: Acrylic, Chalk and Latex on Pine Panel; Size: 28 x 60 in. | Photo by Andres Zapata photography.

For Clarke, the link between Italian identity and gender diversity goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire. She cites a poem by ancient poet Catullus, which tells the story of a follower of a deity who changes gender in order to continue their worship. For Clarke, the poem represents just one piece in a long line of overlap between Italian identity and transgender identity, as it reflects the depths of following ‘the call’ to one’s true identity and meaning.

For Stefan, that overlap of identities is deeply personal. They describe how Italian culture is deeply rooted in pleasure and passion, two traits which are often denied or discouraged among queer and gender-diverse people like Stefan.

“People’s Italian culture is rooted in pleasure. Pleasure of color, the pleasure of eating, the pleasure of bodies. You go to Italy, you’re on the streets… and people are arguing, people are making out, people are feeding each other the most glorious things. It is a sensuous culture,” says Stefan.

As such, they describe how affirming it is to be able to freely love who they love and be who they are, feeling that being able to embrace queerness is, in a very real way, a deeply Italian thing to do

“This is how I want to have sex. This is how I want to feel in my body. This is how pleasure looks like this to me,” says Stefan. “Being a person who has come back into my body in a way that feels healthier, who has had to create paths to be able to love who I want to love, even against all odds, and to be able to celebrate sexuality and gender, it actually feels very Italian.”

Claiming the narrative in art

That identitary overlap extends to the art itself in this exhibit. In their self-portraits, Stefan uses chiaroscuro, a painting technique popularly employed by Italian and Spanish Renaissance-era and Baroque-era artists which uses a distinctive contrast between bright light and heavy, dark shadows.

In Stefan’s work, the emergence into light looks to represent an emergence of identity, while the heavy shadowing represents the ongoing challenge of fully ‘emerging’ in the face of transphobia and bigotry.

“It’s wanting so badly to just unfold… can I just stand here and come out of the light as I know myself to be?,” they ask. “I’m 50, so I’ve had a long life of coming up against that, [developing] the responses to then strategize, [finding] a place or a space where there could be a moment to feel safe to unfold.”

As such, they note that there’s something of an ‘edge’ to their work, in the boldness of light and subject presentation. But Stefan notes a wrinkle in that edge, and the notion that their work borders on ‘confrontational,’ even for being so bold.

Rather, they hope their work can shine a light on the notion of ‘confrontation,’ and what that word means when transgender people have to push back against a society in order to proudly demand love and acceptance.

“That ‘confrontation’ is based on probably centuries – but also just in this particular life – the cumulative experience of feeling like you need to kind of fight for your right to breathe,” says Stefan.

For more information on the exhibit, visit:

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