The Life-or-Death Struggle for Trans Visibility

holding hands

The author, who recently spoke at the Women’s March on Washington, is an activist, filmmaker and executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. 

Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to recognize the diversity and accomplishments of the trans community around the world. But a terrible juxtaposition is at play. This year is on track to be another record-breakingly violent year for transgender individuals. 

In just the first three months of 2017, at least eight trans women have been murdered in the United States. This figure is unacceptable. And we know that is only the number of documented murders. Meanwhile, neither the administration nor the mainstream media has addressed this figure — making the problem and its potential solutions largely absent from our national conversation. Does nobody care these women are being killed? Why do we seem so comfortable with the violent erasure of their lives?

Invisibility has life-and-death consequences. For trans people, being invisible, or having to hide their identity, fosters negative perceptions of “otherness” predicated on stereotypes and fear-based bias. A Day of Visibility centers on actual trans lives so that we may, among other reasons, begin the critical discussion of the dangers trans people face. Everywhere.

All eight of the transgender individuals killed in 2017 were women of color, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Why does this particular overlay of race and gender identity spark such unprecedented levels of violence? To even begin to answer such a question, we first need to be aware of the statistics. 

In fact, while the homicide rate in the U.S. is about one out of every 19,000 individuals, for Black transgender women this rate is much higher: an estimated one out of every 2,600. The combined forces of racism, transphobia and sexism — all of which are perpetuated by the policy recommendations of our current administration — have resulted in a reality where transgender women of color are exponentially more likely to experience hate crimes and commit suicide. Research compiled by Mic uncovered 111 murders of transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans between 2010 and 2016. Of these cases, 72 percent were Black trans women or gender-nonconforming femmes. Despite this, there remain no federal laws that explicitly outlaw discrimination based on gender identity. The Census Bureau just this week announced that the next census will not include questions related to sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Visibility is not just about making sure people are seen, but that they are represented on their own terms.

When government undermines the assertion that all people be afforded equal rights before the law, never mind dignity and respect, the floodgates open for hatred and bigotry. We cannot rest comfortably as long as this is so. We must pressure on as advocates, agitators and activists to ensure civil rights for all people — regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, class or ethnicity.  Our most basic freedoms must include the right to live free of violence and discrimination.

Unfortunately, much of this discrimination is fostered by media that misgenders or uses coded language to report the violence trans people incur. Visibility is not just about making sure people are seen, but that they are represented on their own terms through accurate portrayal. Too often, the few conversations on violence perpetrated against the LGBTQI community are sullied by this violent form of erasure. Reporting homicides with inappropriate pronoun usage signals the victim’s agency is unimportant and their story and reality are somehow untrue. In the face of this administration’s anti-LGBTQI agenda, we need to reaffirm to women like Alphonza Watson, Ciara McElveen, Chyna Doll Dupree, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, JoJo Striker, Jaquarrius Holland, Keke Collier and Mesha Caldwell that we see them and their lives matter to us. We must love these women.

We must love trans women of color enough to know their truths, believe in their rights, honor their choices, advocate for their survival and insist on circumstances that will allow us all to thrive. In fact, it is the act of radically loving that will undermine the bigotry that could have any one of us believe a world where trans women of color are able to live freely and fully would be anything other than a world where every one of us was free to do so. We must resist any divisiveness, whether from our own communities or from the administration, so we may recognize our shared humanity, stand together in our differences, learn from each other and build the world in which we intend to live.

To get involved in the International Day of Trans Visibility, consider supporting organizations that have been at the frontlines of transgender advocacy. And hopefully, next year, I won’t have to ask why no one cares that so many women are being killed.

A No-Bullsh*t Guide to Boosting Your Libido

Dead flower

You have sexy questions? Eugene has sexy answers. Write. Now:  

Sex Magic + Anal: Alone Again. Naturally.

EUGENE, SIR: What are some ways to raise the sex drive in women as we get older? What are some ways to be physically intimate without intercourse? Does anal sex have negative side effects? — Mary

Dear Ms. Poppins: Raise the sex drive? You know, some days I wake up and wish I could once again run a six-minute mile. And if there were some magical performance-enhancing drug I could take, I might be interested. Or if there were a hooked fish that would grant me three wishes for rescuing it. Or shoes sprinkled with fairy dust. I’d be open to all of these things since all of these things would allow me to avoid what seems, on the face of it, so obviously unavoidable: I, at present, can no longer run a six-minute mile.

Likewise, “raising” your sex drive is a desire to have it be higher than it presently is. Or was. Raising it to some special place where you’ve been convinced it should be. Now, if this is a genuine desire of yours, the answer is: not really. Hormones control libido, or sex drive, and these change at the behest of a variety of factors biological, psychological, social and so on. While ensuring you’re maximally fit ensures that you’ll have less far to go to get horny again at night, horniness is no guarantee if you’ve been fighting with your partner all day. 

But if this is not a genuine desire of yours, I suggest canceling your subscription to Cosmo. You’re just fine, and you’re probably having sex just about as often as you want to. The second part of your query is a tricky trick, since being physically intimate without intercourse is like enjoying Nobu without actually eating at Nobu. It can be done, but why would you? If not for the first part of your question?

Now, some will suggest holding hands, hugging, spooning, cuddling and such all work to a certain degree, and if you feel most certainly that this is a path to increasing desire for sex, give it a try. But I suspect it’s more like a past questioner once questioned: How often would you get dressed up for a party if you knew you were never going to get to go to the party? By which I mean, are people turning their backs on earth-shattering orgasms? I’d wager not. But a partner switch? Well, I’m guessing yes/maybe.

Finally, anal sex practiced relentlessly and without cessation most certainly seems to have negative side effects (most specifically, prolapse), but there are great books out there on ANAL HEALTH (which you should always ALL CAP because why not?). How do I know? Because such books make wonderful stocking stuffers, and if you don’t get one, you should at least be giving one. But a gander at one of these great tomes should set your, um, heart at ease — mixed in with a steady diet of other sexual activity, anal seems to be A-OK.

Now, get out there and get in there!

Great(er) Vibrations?

EUGENE, SIR: If you have been using a vibrator all your life for clitoral stimulation, how do you come from intercourse? I have never orgasmed from intercourse, only from clitoral stimulation. I’m beginning to think I don’t have a G-spot! — TL

Dear Tender Loving: The G-spot, ye olde sexual snipe hunt, outside of generating some porn titles back in the ’80s, was found to be bunk by at least 2009. But you know what’s not bunk? The Indiana University, Chapman University and Claremont Graduate University study recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior — by talking to 52,600 people, researchers discovered that if couples want to increase orgasm frequency, they need to mix oral sex with manual stimulation.

Which flies in the face of what Carmine told me when he was dispensing life advice back in Brooklyn: “If it can’t get done with the dick, it ain’t getting done.” Bad advice from a bad guy, since, given the orgasm gap, it seems hetero women need to be a little more frank about the fact that insofar as orgasms are concerned, intercourse is the appetizer and oral/manual is the main course. 

So, how do you orgasm from intercourse? Give yourself a hand, with or without a vibrator in it, or let your partner know that there’s lots of room for advancement around your house for young men who know how to use their heads, if you know what I mean. Which you should say as well: “If you know what I mean.” He doesn’t get that? Then he shouldn’t get anything. Good luck.

Meat Loafing

EUGENE, SIR: Is it true that if a man doesn’t have regular sex he can have issues getting an erection and keeping it? My husband and I have been married for 25 years and I have no interest in sex at all and I feel guilty. — Name withheld by request

Dear Oh Get OFF Me: He could have issues, but I’d guess that issues involving getting and keeping an erection would be the least of it. On the one hand, physical intimacy is a language all of its own, and choosing to not speak it speaks volumes about the speakers. On the other hand, 25 years is a long time, and since surprise is sometimes a sexy part of sexuality, you’re not likely going to be party to any kind of surprises — the good kind at least — after that long.

But this bed death? It could also be the sign of underlying health issues, which should be looked into. Barring that? If you are both happy with things as they are, why change? You writing me, though, seems to indicate that your lack of interest was deepened by a possible recent attempt that had him having a hard time getting and keeping an erection, a disincentive for you to try again even if that was on the menu for you. 

So, in that case, yes. Having infrequent sex with a single partner single-handedly guarantees that the sex you have will not be better than if you had it more often, in the same way that you’re not going to get better playing sax if you’re playing sax only once a year. But what’s to be done about it? Well, that’s the wonderfully cyclical nature of Sex With Eugene. See the first question in this installment. That should help! 

The Curious Case of White Boy Rick

Cocaine cutting

Busted at 17 in Detroit with 8 kilos of cocaine, Richard Wershe Jr. — or White Boy Rick — is in the 29th year of a life sentence. The teenager, who caused a media frenzy on account of his skin color, age and immersion into the Black criminal underworld of Motown in the ’90s, was sentenced under Michigan’s 650 Lifer Law. That law was later condemned as unjust and eventually repealed, yet Rick, an almost 50-year-old grandfather who’s never held his grandkids, remains in prison.

Rick was recruited by a narcotics task force at the height of the crack era and sent out to infiltrate Detroit’s inner-city drug crews. He was 14 at the time, and bodies were dropping left and right and the city’s streets were stained by the blood of rival crack dealers gunned down in the name of the almighty dollar. Rick worked for the task force for close to two years before they cut him loose. Well trained by the feds, Rick sold drugs on his own for about a year before he was arrested and sent to prison.

The case has attracted a lot of attention over the years, and a movie starring Matthew McConaughey is in the works. A documentary by Shawn Rech, White Boy, premieres at the Freep Film Festival on March 31 in Rick’s hometown of Detroit. So talking with Rech right about now seemed to make a lot of sense. 

Viewers will be shocked when they see what happened to this kid. 

There are lots of guys in jail who got raw deals. Why a movie about Rick? 

Shawn Rech: I wanted to dissect an over-sentencing. So many people say, “Screw them, they’re criminals, they shouldn’t have done it in the first place.” But in doing so they are failing to examine inequity in the justice system. Unfair sentences harm the justice system. The inmate isn’t the only one that suffers. Courts everywhere lose credibility with these crazy, disproportionate sentences.


The director and his Emmys.

Source Photo courtesy of Transitions Studio

With that being said, once we dug in, it became obvious that Rick wasn’t just the victim of a crazy sentence, and this wasn’t random at all. This was a demonstrable case of outright revenge. Viewers will be shocked when they see what happened to this kid. What I think they’ll find especially unnerving is that it could have happened to many of us if we were put in the wrong circumstances. 


So “revenge” is why he’s still in prison? 

SR: Rick is still in prison because he helped the federal government try to take down corrupt politicians and police commanders. When Rick sold dope on his own for a short period of time, he gave the city an opportunity to gain control of his life before the feds could protect him. It was a tragic aligning of the stars. His mistake — a mistake that many young people make — should have cost him a few years of freedom. Instead it’s destroyed him and taken away the prime of his life.

He was portrayed as Al Capone, and they got away with it. I hope people feel angry enough to demand action. I hope they Google Rick’s name and read about him being freed. But if they don’t, I would hope our viewers cause a groundswell of support for Rick. And I hope that causes some changes, not just in Rick’s case, but in the justice system.

You know, it seems to me they never get the real bad guys. They get whoever they can get, then they tell everyone they’re the real bad guys. Meanwhile the real kingpins are sitting at home laughing and counting their money. And oftentimes in this drug war, the authorities’ behavior is as bizarre as the criminals’. I’m fascinated by entrapment. The notion of arresting someone for a crime that wouldn’t exist if the government hadn’t created the opportunity blows my mind. And when you think about it, if the federal government hadn’t encouraged Rick to learn and get involved in the drug trade, would he ever have touched a drug? And now he’s sitting in prison for life? 

Without spoiling the film, any other shocks?

SR: What surprised me most, and it was a pleasant surprise, was the willingness of retired FBI agents to get in front of a camera and tell the truth. This is bad stuff, and they are probably taking big risks confirming how a child was used illegally to infiltrate a dangerous drug gang.

The other part that surprised me was gaining access to a hit man who admitted to killing 30 people, as well as a drug lord who made hundreds of millions selling drugs in the ’80s. They sat for the camera and told all. There’s one point in the movie where we hear from both a hit man and his target, telling the same story of an attempted hit. And their stories matched perfectly. I never imagined ever editing something like that into a scene of a documentary.

Can He Make Chicago’s Streets Safe Again?

Police Chief Eddie Johnson

This is shaping up to be a rare day for Eddie Johnson, which is to say, a good one. Such is the grim reality of being Chicago’s top cop, a title the 28-year veteran never asked for. He is a year into running the Chicago Police Department, and already has a dim set of numbers to his name. His city, the one the new president painted as plagued with “carnage” in his inauguration address, saw 762 homicides last year — more than New York and Los Angeles combined, and a 57 percent increase from 2015.

Yet today, Johnson’s spirits are up. He’s here to laud progress, a week after graduating the largest class in recent Chicago police academy history and unveiling a series of reforms aimed at reducing the violence. (Broadly: community policing, better training, additional supervisors and more body cameras.) The department’s database-driven ShotSpotter software, implemented in January, has seen promising success in Englewood and Harrison. The city’s two most violent neighborhoods accounted for a third of last year’s killings, yet have reported a significant decrease in shootings with the calendar flip – in Englewood, a 24 percent drop, in Harrison, 45 percent, compared to the same time in 2016. Police partly credited it to the 100 new sensors tracking where shots are fired, alerting authorities at breakneck speed.

Police Chief Eddie Johnson

Police Chief Eddie Johnson.

Source Diana Mulvihill for OZY

Wearing a windbreaker and suit pants that hang loosely, Johnson announces all of this to the reporters (and cameras) gathered, as though reading a police report. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he says, looking up from his script. “We’ve never seen reductions in districts like that.” For a moment, optimism cracks through as he brags to reporters about losing 25 — no, 27 — pounds this year.

But then he steps through the doors to the outside world. A family approaches him with flyers and lifted smartphones. Their 15-year-old daughter went missing over the weekend, and, as they show him, a Facebook Live video was posted of five to six men sexually assaulting her. “They putting this on Facebook?” Johnson, the father of two girls, asks, shaking his head. He turns around and re-enters the police station. Later, the police will report the teenager has been found, and the Facebook video taken down. At least 40 people watched the stream live. No one called the police, a spokesman said. 

Police Chief Eddie Johnson

Johnson speaking to family members of a missing young woman.

Source Diana Mulvihill for OZY


On his first full day, Johnson told reporters that he had “never encountered police misconduct” in his nearly three decades on the job. Naturally, the remark drew eye-rolls from critics. His is not a radical, chuck-it-all approach. Moderate, deliberate and therefore controversial, Johnson speaks of discovering pieces of solutions, not solutions wholesale, to the police department’s woes. He sees violence as a complex puzzle requiring patience.

Johnson is not the reformer the city asked for. The Chicago Police Board vetted 39 contenders and selected three finalists for Rahm Emanuel to choose from, but last March the brash Chicago mayor chose none of them, instead selecting Johnson, who hadn’t applied for the position. (Emanuel’s staff did not respond to a recent request for comment.) The city’s Latino and Black caucuses cheered Johnson’s selection as a victory: Johnson is the first African-American head of the department since 2003. Others wondered how reform could come from inside a system that repeatedly violated citizens’ civil rights through excessive force, poor oversight and inadequate training, according to federal investigation findings revealed in January.

Reform, when measured in changes to the CPD policy menu, has begun. In October, Johnson proposed changes to the CPD’s use-of-force policy, compelling officers to use the least force possible, limit Taser use and refrain from shooting fleeing people unless they were “an immediate threat.” The policy changes were seen as correct steps, if small ones, with one criminal justice expert proclaiming, “Welcome to the 21st century” in the pages of the Chicago Tribune

Evan Moore

Community journalist Evan Moore at the MLK memorial in Marquette Park..

Source Diana Mulvihill for OZY

But no conversation about Chicago policing can be understood at the level of mayors or even the incremental changes Johnson advocates for. The challenge and irony of policing in America today is the balance between national attention, melodrama, fatigue and pressure and a reality that community journalist Evan Moore describes as ailing: “There are more than enough churches and barbershops — but not anything of substance. For most people, it’s either you work for the city, you hustle or you work on your jump shot.”

And of course, in the Trump era, Chicago has taken on a significance larger than itself, as a symbol of bureaucratic ineptitude and the damage anti-authority liberals can wreak on the streets. And so the self-portrayed tough-on-crime Trump and his appointee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are loosening the federal grip and gaze on local departments. Sessions has signaled a shift away from the probes that reveal police errors, and Trump decried “a war on police” during his campaign. Likely to be abolished are “consent decrees,” which the feds used to force change at police departments in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland and Baltimore, among other cities. Agencies will no longer operate with Uncle Sam looking over their shoulder, which Trump and others contend will allow them to finally rein in violence free of red tape.

Englewood, Chicago

Broken windows in Englewood, Chicago

Source Diana Mulvihill for OZY

Already the CPD’s October use-of-force policies, written in part thanks to pressure from the Loretta Lynch-led Justice Department, have been watered down. The most recent proposal lets officers make judgment calls about use of force. One provision required that cops stop their partners from abusing citizens; now officers should “intervene verbally on the victim’s behalf.” While the changing of the guard in Washington is just one factor, it comes at a time when activists are increasingly skeptical of the CPD’s willingness to police themselves without oversight. 

The presidential attention has been a “double-edged sword,” Johnson says. “It does highlight the fact that we could use some assistance, but at some point we have to get the assistance.” (A recent meeting with Sessions, in which Johnson says he asked for more federal prosecutors, funding for mentoring programs and a federal ballistics lab in Chicago, has not yet borne fruit.) There are factors outside his control, he often notes, from the insufficient gun laws to meager economic investment. 

If there’s one thing people thought could change the South Side over the past eight years, it was the 44th president, still a hometown hero. No, locals say. The spirit Obama epitomized as a community organizer failed to manifest when he sat in the White House, says Reverend Marc A. Robertson, between puffs at Smokey Bear, a cigar shop near Ashburn. “We did not benefit from him being president.”


Johnson says that regardless of Washington, his daily work will continue on. His focus is on local eyes and ears. “Bad guys will not continue to be bad guys if we had the community’s help in telling us who they were and what they saw.”

Here in the Washington Heights neighborhood where Johnson has lived since adolescence — far from the Hill, from the room in which Sen. Cory Booker objected to Sessions’ appointment, from the cherry blossoms — one encounters conversations that need not stray far from the block. At Father & Sons Barbershop in Englewood, talk is of the toddler a few blocks down who was recently shot in the head with a parent’s weapon, an accident during a game of cops and robbers.

Englewood, Chicago

Smokey Bear cigar bar in Evergreen Park near Ashburn, Chicago

Source Diana Mulvihill for OZY

Would more cops help? “Until the good ones start speaking out on the bad ones, they’re all bad,” says the barber, Jason Williams. “It’s like dogs are barking around the neighborhood, running around and biting people. And then they say, ‘We’re going to bring more dogs — the good dogs, though.’” The local eyes and ears Johnson speaks of sound, to Williams, like snitching — bad news for your safety and your family’s.

When Johnson comes up, many African-Americans in Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods praise his character, but nurse mixed feelings about his time as police chief. It’s too early to feel the weight of promised reforms, most of which remain discussed but not enacted. 

Englewood, Chicago

Barbers at Father and Sons barber shop in Englewood

Source Diana Mulvihill for OZY

But Johnson would point to the 7500 block of South Harvard Ave. for a local good-news story. Here, a band of mothers started a daily patrol. The Englewood corner hasn’t seen a murder in months. “They are an incredible model,” says Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University law professor, although the frequent police critic adds the Mothers Against Senseless Killings “haven’t gotten the support they deserve” to expand. Other community projects include Parents for Peace, which seeks justice in unsolved murder cases, and the Dovetail Project, which trains young African-American fathers. Uber has been a boon, Williams says, pumping new money into struggling communities. 

It’s hard, though, to walk from block to block here in the South Side and mark the successes. It’s far easier to track the human ledger of violence at street junctures. They are cited as colloquial epitaphs: South Aberdeen and West 62nd (the toddler), South Throop and West 86th (three men shot dead; found in car), Merrill Avenue and 74th (police shooting; car-jacking teenager). These turn from vigil sites to the staging grounds for protests. “People are used to it,” says Moore, the journalist. The slang nickname for Chicago, “Chi-Raq” — long used locally, and recently entered into the cultural lexicon by Spike Lee’s eponymous 2015 film — isn’t absurd, Moore says. “You see kids wearing RIP T-shirts over RIP T-shirts.” 

Reading, Writing, Taking Cover: Teaching in Ukraine

avdiivka 11

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?

Maryna Marchenko
Avdiivka, Ukraine

I’m Maryna. I’m 73 years old, and for most of my life I’ve been a Ukrainian grammar and literature teacher. The life here in Avdiivka is harsh. The war has knocked on our doors once again, hitting our city, our homes, our lives. It escalated, forcing people to flee. We’ll see what will happen. We’re pretty used to it. Maybe it will go back to normal, as it used to be at the beginning of 2017. Families walked on the streets, youth hung out in the cafés and socialized, shoppers commented on the outcome of the last battles. The war never stopped, but it seemed to be far.

It has been raging since spring 2014. On one side, the Ukrainian troops. On the other, the separatists, the ones who want to claim independence from the rest of the country. At that time, we saw our cities being destroyed and shelled, as it became the bone of contention between the two sides. I’ve lived enough to know that that was the most awful time in Ukrainian history. The war was far more ferocious. Not only has it influenced me, but also my pupils and all the citizens of Ukraine.

I work in Avdiivka Middle School. My pupils are around 12 years old. Some students are more active and prepared than others. Some just work harder. I usually read abstracts from a book, asking about the topics and its peculiarities. On our school entrance it says, “Welcome to the world of knowledge.”

During the 2014 battles, we saw many people leave the city. The city was left in tatters and abandoned. Many came back because of the lack of money. The life was too pricey elsewhere and also, the situation improved in Avdiivka. When we started the school year, there were eight to nine pupils in the class, but now we have classes with 30 and 32 students, children of those people who came back because there is no place like home. We can observe this in our pupils also.

As life has returned to normal, I’ve tried to help the students rediscover values — among them, patriotism. The children now seem to value their native land so much. In any case, they’re much more patriotic. I couldn’t see all this before. Yes, they used to love it, but not in this way.

Who could imagine I’d become one of the symbols of this war? That wasn’t my desire at all.

The conflict also changed my life. My husband was killed in 2014. Probably, it’s also the cause behind my heart disease. We lived together for 50 years.

But my story impressed Guido van Helten so much that he decided to paint me. He comes from Australia. His intention was to represent the essence of this city so badly disrupted and touched by the conflict. He managed to get pictures of the people of Avdiivka. This artist started looking through all those photos. My picture was among those too. He pointed at it with his finger: “I am going to paint this woman. She is so full of grief.”

Guido arrived at the school and he took a picture of me. In two days, he completed the work. I live nearby, so I decided to go and see how it was. I look much older there. However, I think that this mural depicted a general image of a suffering woman who survived war, like other mothers and sisters. A woman like this needs to have wrinkles, I believe.

My face now stands on the wall of a nine-story building, oriented toward the enemy lines. Nobody lives there because it was so badly damaged. Who could imagine I’d become one of the symbols of this war? That wasn’t my desire at all.

I think that in these hard times, art can play a very important role, though. For example, artists coming, showing us a performance, inviting pupils? This is like a breath of fresh air. We feel that we are not alone, that people are with us, they understand us, support us. All this gives us real joy.

avdiivka 11

On the shoulders of sorrow, this country might be rebuilt, one classroom at a time.

Source Photo Courtesy of Giuseppe Maritati

Art drew a lot of attention to the city. We were really full of love and compassion because of our sorrow, and I felt exceptionally positive about this. We always welcome and meet the artists with karavai [traditional bread and salt: a sign of hospitality —Eds.], because we are told when they arrive.

This war brought so much pain in my life. However, when I come to work, I am distracted from my own grief. It happens also when I see a concert or I see children’s smiles. I do live during these moments. They give me the courage to carry on.

Italy Cashes in on its Subterranean Wonders

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As I gulp down my last morsel of T-bone steak, I can’t help looking at the mammoth femur and other fossils sticking out of the damp walls, or peering down the maze of tunnels lined with the ruins of Etruscan tombs. Osteria dell’Elefante is no ordinary tavern: I’m lunching underground in the bowels of Lazio near the town of Cerveteri, about 35 miles northwest of Rome. I have mixed feelings about dining by candlelight in the company of skeleton dust, but others are not so ambivalent. The osteria is strictly reservations only.

Hundreds of similar subterranean sites all across Italy are becoming quite crowded, and not just with the souls of the dead. A new, bizarre trend is taking hold on the boot: so-called “death retreats,” where cocktail parties, wine tastings, exclusive dinners and overnight sojourns are held in ancient aqueducts, catacombs, grottoes and prehistoric caves. It sounds macabre to Italians, too — they’ve long associated the subterranean with death — but the strategy is bringing in revenue. 

All that is underground is unknown, obscure and scary, but at the same time fascinating and irresistible.

Roberto Nini, speleologist

Italy’s economy already depends heavily on the revenue generated by its incredible trove of historic sites. The sector contributes $69 billion euros annually ($74 billion), or 4.3 percent of the gross domestic product — way more than any other European country. And now, in hard economic times, Italy is turning to its lesser-known underground treasures to generate additional business. According to national statistics, subterranean tourism lured some 2 million visitors in 2016, generating roughly 25 million euros ($26 million) in revenues. That’s a gain of 20 percent in the past two years.

The trend flies in the face of a strong Italian superstition. As a popular saying goes, “I’ll descend underground only once dead.” So most Italians tend to stay away from what’s below their feet. In Italy, as elsewhere, the subterranean has always been a synonym of death and evil — Satan’s realm — but now this new necrophilia is turning out to be a sexy asset to boost tourism.

Grave lust affects other European countries, too. Airbnb has offered a one-night Halloween overnight visit to Paris’ catacombs, where guests can snooze with the bones of 6,000 souls. In Croatia and Slovenia, home to 12,000 caves and underground sites, wine and food fairs are held in palace dungeons and old burial grounds covered in the graffiti of early humans.

A recently published book by Italy’s Touring Club lists some 200 underground sites open to the public, including bed-and-breakfasts in ancient icehouses where conspirators and criminals hid, and boutique resorts featuring salt pools and rock spas in former monastery crypts where monks were buried seated. At the Tenuta di Pietra Porzia resort, southwest of Rome, guests sip white wine while perched on the stumps of columns from sacked Roman temples and sleep surrounded by sarcophagi. The vineyard grows atop a necropolis where hundreds of Roman soldiers were buried after a bloodbath. “Guests are spellbound,” says manager Michele Russo. “We take them on a tour of the estate and then inside a grotto for wine aperitifs and Pecorino cheese tastings.”

And more freaky locations are opening fast as local authorities rush to sign deals with tour operators to clean city undergrounds for public pleasure. Most ancient towns in central Italy are layered with history, especially pre-Roman Etruscan and Falisci settlements along the Tiber River. Orvieto, Orte, Tarquinia, Pitignano and Cerveteri — just to name a few — rise on heaps of tombs and stratified burial sites where locals organize private dinners and evening drinks at the end of guided tours. In Orvieto’s labyrinth-like bowels, you can even get married. 

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Fine dining amid Etruscan tombs at Osteria dell’Elefante, near Rome.

Source Courtesy of Osteria dell’Elefante/Facebook

Why the sudden warm embrace of the wormy, cold underworld? “It talks to man’s deeper, most intimate impulses and horrors, seducing and drawing him in,” theorizes speleologist Roberto Nini. “The underground has a special vibe, a primitive magnetism.” Nini capitalizes on it by taking guests on tours of haunted underground Renaissance prisons and torture chambers where heretics were burned at the stake. “All that is underground is unknown, obscure and scary, but at the same time fascinating and irresistible,” he adds.

In Das Unheimliche, Freud’s controversial book about the uncanny, history’s greatest shrink suggests that we are subconsciously attracted to the underworld because it’s familiar. Turin-based psychiatrist Angelo Rossi explains: It’s the perverse fascination of being buried alive back inside the womb. “Death, the eternal footman waiting for us,” Rossi says, “can be more attractive than a shining guardian angel come to save us.”

Maybe that’s why most people — from pensioners to hyperactive kids who hate sightseeing — would rather choose the thrill of damp, skull-decorated rooms over the sunny piazzas and frescoed churches in the myriads of towns that dot Italy. 

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Osteria dell’Elefante is in a vast necropolis containing thousands of tombs organized with subterranean streets and small squares.

Source Courtesy of Osteria dell’Elefante/Facebook

Open-air monuments, out in the sunshine and fresh air, can get boring after a while. But a secret tunnel with an unsettling past will always hold mystery, explains architect-historian Gregory Paolucci, who leads tourists through the bunker that Mussolini had built inside Mount Soratte, a hill north of Rome that was sacred to the ancient Romans. Hundreds of German soldiers found death in this labyrinth of galleries after it was bombed by the Allies. Their desperate drawings can be seen on walls. These days the bunker frequently is booked for corporate cocktails and new car launches. 

Communing with the dead in disquieting locations clearly is not for those who aspire to spiritual elevation. But the silence, even though it echoes that of death, gives many holidayers a sense of isolation and a break from daily stress. And probably a momentary hiatus from life itself. 

And the 2017 OZY Genius Award Winners Are …

2016 OZY genius award winner Kalina Silverman

We’re awarding 10 brilliant undergraduate students up to $10,000 to make their passion project a reality. Stay tuned on Friday for the OZY Genius Awards ceremony, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Spring has only just sprung, but for 10 lucky college students summer’s warm glow is coming early. The sunbeams? Up to $10,000 and a mentor to help each of them grow their promising ideas into reality. 

For the second year, we are announcing the winners of the OZY Genius Awards (OGA), who will be featured at a star-studded event in New York City on Friday. Our initiative is inspired by the story of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose friends pooled their resources to enable the young writer to take a year off from work, giving her the time she needed to write her masterpiece. Like Lee’s friends, OZY looks to sponsor projects that require time, thoughtfulness and a bit of support.

These aren’t students looking for seed money to become rich; they’re looking to solve problems. 

Kristin Lemkau, chief marketing officer, JPMorgan Chase & Co.

From hundreds of applications featuring pitches about novels, documentaries, apps, prosthetics and more, a team of judges — including Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of Emerson Collective; Katie Couric, Yahoo global news anchor; David Drummond, Google executive; and Jarl Mohn, NPR president and CEO — has chosen 10 bright stars. “We were blown away by the entries,” says Kristin Lemkau, an OGA judge and chief marketing officer at JPMorgan Chase & Co. “What’s most amazing are the stories. These aren’t students looking for seed money to become rich; they’re looking to solve problems.” What most impressed Carlos Watson, OZY’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, was the fact that so many applicants pointed to a strong team as a key determinant of their success. “That tells me not only that these geniuses are humble,” says Watson, “but also that they are open to ideas, and those are key qualities in a leader.”

And the 2017 OZY Genius Award Winners Are …

Javier Valverde (University of Notre Dame)

Claudine Humure (Wheaton College)

Amanda Gorman (Harvard University)

Steve Rathje (Stanford University)

Gevick Safarians (University of California, Los Angeles)

Elise Shea (Vassar College)

Dante Alvarado-Leon (University of California, Berkeley)

Trang Duong (Brown University)

Aidan McCarty (Stanford University)

Maria Mckiever (University of Illinois at Chicago)

Here at OZY, part of our mission is to identify future talent through our Rising Stars section. Take Kalina Silverman. This California-born-and-bred Northwestern grad wanted to introduce the world to “Big Talk.” Before OGA, her project was a group of video interviews with passers-by in which she asked such thought-provoking and bucket-list questions as “What do you want to do before you die?” (as opposed to “small talk” banter about the weather). Deeper interactions, she believes, lead to more meaningful human interaction. Winning the award enabled Silverman to launch a website, make multiple videos and integrate across various social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram while also building an email newsletter list that now reaches thousands. She has gone into schools and businesses to discuss her conversation-prompting program, developed a flash-card game to get the chats rolling, advised people on how to have “Big Talk” around the globe and even launched an educational program for prisoners. Silverman is now working on a storytelling summer program for Chinese and American students.

Anybody, in any craft, with enough attention, grit and perseverance can show signs of genius and maybe even perfect it at some point.

Jarl Mohn, president and CEO, NPR

For many, the word “genius” can be intimidating. But big dreamers should think of it as 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, says Mohn, referencing Thomas Edison. “Anybody, in any craft, with enough attention, grit and perseverance can show signs of genius and maybe even perfect it at some point,” he says. 

Be sure to also check out last year’s lucky 10, and watch OZY in the coming weeks for features on the 2017 OGA winners, their brilliant project plans and more words of wisdom from our judges.

Talk Back to OZY!

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OZY has come together with JPMorgan Chase to bring you a special series, giving you an inside look at how the world’s workplace is changing. Whether it’s in business, law or science, an emerging group of men and women worldwide are redefining what it means to be a powerhouse in today’s workforce.

What do you think: Is our education system moving quickly enough to prepare our next generation of workers?

Quiz Yourself on the Key to Silicon Valley Success: Adaptability

Silicon Valley

If you’re aiming to succeed in Silicon Valley — or in one of its many variations around the globe — without really trying, you may enjoy the musical but not reap many rewards. The notion of valley success is aligned with dreaming big, startup culture and going viral. Many firms fail to shift as needed to suit demand. But in The Global Silicon Valley Handbook by Michael Moe, co-founder of GSV Asset Management and an investor in OZY, we find an intriguing list of brands that shot to fame … only after giving up on their original plan.

We challenge you to figure out where these brands began: