05.15.14 9:45 AM ET
A True Tough Guy: The Mafia, Gays, and Michael Sam’s Boyfriend
If the late mob boss William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano was like other Mafiosi—and by all accounts he most emphatically was—he would have been apoplectic had he been told his grandson was dating an African American.
But a Mafioso such as Willie the Rat would have taken that as the good news by comparison when he heard the rest.
For his grandson’s African-American lover also happens to be a man, as the whole world came to learn when Vito Cammisano kissed football draft pick Michael Sam in front of the ESPN cameras.
In doing so, Vito must have known that the press would quickly reveal him to be the grandson of a notorious Mafia boss whose nickname was once explained by a witness before a U.S. Senate Committee.
“Because he killed people and stuck them in the sewers so the rats could eat them,” said the witness, Fred Bonadonna.
The spontaneity and genuine affection of the kiss on ESPN made clear that Vito was not at all afraid of what others might say about him or his family. And however much some part of Willie the Rat might have wanted to stick his own grandson in a sewer, the lifelong gangster also might have felt a grudging respect for Vito.
With a loving embrace rather than a vicious beating, the Cammisanos had a true tough guy. And rather than be shamed by his family, he had brought honor to it.
Here were the virtues of the grandson being visited upon the grandfather, along with the father and the uncle.
Vito’s uncle William Cammisano Jr. is said to have taken over as the Mafia boss of Kansas City when Willie the Rat died of lung cancer in 1995. The uncle did time after a 2011 conviction for overseeing a multimillion-dollar Internet gambling ring that used a server in Costa Rica. He had previously been convicted in 1978 of obstruction of justice after a wiretap caught him counseling his 17-year-old girlfriend to lie about money being passed under a table to pay off a bet on a Las Vegas golf tournament.
Vito’s father, Gerlarmo (Jerry) Cammisano, proved to be a standup guy in the traditional sense back in 1992, when he spent eight months behind bars for refusing to testify in a money-laundering case.
“I’d do it all again,” Gerlarmo was quoted saying upon his release. “The punishment that I’ve been through was useless, because I would not in any way, shape, or form change my beliefs.”
He sounded altogether old school and added, “I’ve seen them do it to nine other people of our neighborhood. In my opinion, if they want to indict or investigate, I think they should use their own resources and not use friends or family to testify against other family.”
Gerlarmo also was convicted in the Internet gambling case. But he was out of jail in time to attend Vito’s graduation from the University of Missouri in 2013. A Facebook photo from the event shows the manifestly proud papa beaming beside his son. The son looks equally proud to be with his dad.
The happiest conclusion you could draw from this image is that Gerlarmo knew his son’s sexual orientation and accepted it as an integral part of a magnificent young man.
But even if Gerlarmo was not yet aware that his son was gay, he is now. And there have been no rumblings that Vito is anything but completely comfortable with himself and with his lover.
Whatever the personal repercussions for Vito, the revelation that he is Willie the Rat’s grandson is not without historical significance. Willie the Rat operated out of a bar he named the El Reno Tavern after his favorite prison, but the Kansas City mob also ran most of the city’s gay bars back in the benighted time when being gay was considered a crime.
The same was true of the mob in New York and Chicago and a dozen other cities. The mob was able to pay off the cops to keep gay bars from being raided. The patrons repaid the mob by buying cheap liquor at premium prices, along with bootleg cigarettes and sometimes drugs.
In the 1970s, Willie the Rat sought to establish some new gay bars, along with strip clubs and peep shows, in an area called River Quay that a rival mob associate hoped to develop into a place of legitimate restaurants and shops.
The dispute was settled with so many bombs and bullets that both plans were scuttled. The dead included David Bonadonna, whose son had declined to help Willie the Rat secure liquor licenses for his new gay bars and strip joints.
“[Willie the Rat] told my father that he would kill me. My father said he’d have to kill him first,” Fred Bonadonna told the U.S. Senate the same day he explained the derivation of the elder Cammisano’s nickname.
By then, a revolution had begun with the 1969 riot at the mob-owned Stonewall Inn in New York. The place was owned by the Genovese crime family. And in staging the raid, the cops seem to have been at least as intent on punishing the mob as they were on hassling the gay patrons.
The mob itself remained resolutely resistant to the gay rights movement. John D’Amato, one-time boss of the DeCavalcante crime family, was murdered in 1992 after his girlfriend told other gangsters that he also had sex with men.
“Nobody’s going to respect us if we have a gay homosexual boss sitting down discussing La Cosa Nostra business,” the triggerman, Anthony Capo, later testified.
In 2009, former Gambino family hitman Robert Mormando came out to a Brooklyn federal judge through his lawyer, making clear the danger of being gay in the Mafia.
“He was living in hiding, not from law enforcement, but from La Cosa Nostra,” the lawyer told the court. “He has been openly gay since he left the mob.”
Mormando agreed to cooperate with the government but declined to go into the witness protection program, reportedly because his lover declined to sign on.
The crime family that once ran the Stonewall Inn felt the forces of change in 2012, when the daughter of the late Genovese boss Vincent Gigante came out in a book. Rita Gigante said she had never explicitly discussed her sexuality with her father before his death in 2006 but that he had known she was a lesbian. She felt sure his sprit approved when she married her lover last year. She continued to bristle at being associated with the Mafia because of her father.
“I’m not a princess! I work for a living; my father’s dead, and we’re not in the mob anymore,” she said.
Now we have Vito Cammisano and that perfect kiss with which he braved being similarly branded with the sins of the grandfather and father.
A true tough guy showed the whole world the virtues of the grandson.