LGBT Rights in Italy at a Political Crossroads

“You could say I was lucky. Coming out to my parents wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but they accepted me for who I am and their relationship with me hasn’t changed,” said Matteo Perozzi, 22-year-old native and resident of Rome, and head of volunteers at Arcigay Roma, a federation organization that advocates for LGBT rights in Italy and around the world.

For many LGBT youth in the country, reality is much harsher. For a 16-year-old gay high school student in Turin, a gay medicine student in Rome, and many others, the feeling loomed that suicide was the only escape.

As the last EU country to legalize gay civil unions, with the bill passing this past February, Italy is still lagging behind many Western European countries in terms of rights for and tolerance of the LGBT community. The Catholic Church’s influence is apparent in the Vatican’s interfering in Italian policymaking, as much on LGBT issues as on issues concerning the family in general, such as divorce and abortion.

Nonetheless, the issue is a bit more complicated than a classic church vs. state scenario. True, the Catholic Church’s opinion that gay marriage is not one willed by God hasn’t changed, but the more “liberal” wing of the Vatican, mostly expressed and viewed by Pope Francis in the media, is becoming more tolerant and accepting of homosexual people. On the other hand, a more traditionalist and less accepting branch in the Vatican is also present, thus making the lines between and within church and state quite blurry.


On the Way- But Not There Yet

The past three months have been a game-changer in the fight for gay rights in Italy. A protest war broke out between rival groups, each advocating either for or against gay civil unions. Protests featuring colorful flags and fluorescent hair were faced with opposing rallies featuring conga-dancing priests and signs reading “it is wrong even if it becomes law.”

The gay civil union law was officially passed and recognized on February 25, although some think it was not completely out of conviction or goodwill.

“Mr. Renzi imposed the civil union bill to the senate under the blackmail of confidence vote. This is a demonstration of weakness. In fact a lot of senators – if left free – would have voted against this bill,” wrote Simone Pillon, a lawyer at the National Council of the Forum of the Family in Perugia, in an e-mail to Euroviews.

Still, the LGBT community is not completely satisfied. “We think this law is a good first step, but we are rallying for the eventual adoption of full and equal rights between homosexual and heterosexual people,” said Perozzi.

The most contentious clause about the bill is the adoption clause, which would allow a person in a homosexual union to adopt his/her partner’s children, effectively becoming a legally-recognized parent himself/herself. This particular clause was dropped from the bill, due to intense backlash from some priests and right-wing groups. One reason it was so contentious is that it was seen to allow for surrogacy (artificial insemination), which is illegal in Italy for unmarried couples.


Political Blurred Lines

Italy can be a difficult country to understand and gauge, politically speaking. By law, it is a secular country, and follows principles such as the non-discrimination between religions and the separation of church and state. However, with the Vatican in the heart of Rome, the dichotomy between personal beliefs on one hand and rights and duties on the other can be blurry, spilling over into multiple aspects of policymaking.

“The political landscape in Italy is really quite confusing,” said Perozzi. “We don’t really have a left-wing or a right-wing. They’re all pretty center, in my opinion. Politicians shift views and opinions often, and party-switching is a common occurrence.”

As for the adoption clause, Perozzi expressed optimism in that he thinks it will pass as law, sometime in the future. There is a big left-wing majority in the chamber of deputies (commonly known as the lower house of parliament), which means that if the deputies accept it, it could be likely that it will pass in the senate (the upper house of parliament), seeing as Matteo Renzi himself, Italy’s prime minister, has agreed to the clause.

One crucial factor in the equation is Renzi’s proposal to re-structure the senate, thereby greatly affecting the policymaking process.

Since taking office as Prime Minister in 2014, Renzi has tried to reform the senate, by decreasing the number of senators by two-thirds (from 315 senators to 100), and changing it from an elected body to an appointed one (by regional governments or other bodies), effectively cutting its powers to block legislation and bring down a government. As head of government, this would also reinforce the Prime Minister’s stature and position.

Many citizens are unhappy with Renzi, since the reform would also lessen voter power, who would no longer be able to vote for their representatives. Renzi justified his proposal by arguing that this would streamline the policymaking process, which is considered quite tedious, making it easier for laws to be passed. The gay adoption clause could thus be at a big advantage if the reform goes through, which will be determined by a national referendum to be held in October.


A Divided Vatican

Pope Francis, described as the most liberal pope yet, has given mixed statements on the issue. At first, he seemed like he didn’t really want to address the topic, as seen by his canceling of a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and an outspoken backer of the traditional family structure.

He later addressed the Vatican court, saying that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” thus affirming his stance on the distinction between religious marriage (in a church) and civil union (a state recognition of the partnership between two people). He also made clear his rejection of the adoption clause.

“I think Francis has a difficult role to play, and he definitely won’t allow for a radical change as regards gay rights,” said Perozzi. “He has enough on his plate, especially with the Vatileaks scandal coming out recently.”

In 2014, he demoted then Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an American bishop from Wisconsin, from his post as cardinal to patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a position described as principally ceremonial, after Burke described the Catholic Church under the direction of Francis like a ship without a rudder. Burke is described as a hard-liner on family matters, and was a staunch contender of homosexual unions, abortion, or communion after divorce.


Societal contradictions

The Roman gay life scene could probably best be seen on Via San Giovanni in Laterano, right across from the Colosseum, the city’s first and only gay street. Euroviews spoke with Lorenzo Mauro, an outspoken frequenter of the bars at Via San Giovanni. “Can I be honest with you? Italian society is totally hypocritical. People are willing to try all kinds of sexual (and other) things, but when it comes to two gay people who simply love each other, they immediately play the religion/nature card.”

san laterano edited

Via San Giovanni in Laterano- Rome’s only designated gay street- during the day. Writer’s own image.

The most telling characterization of this is exemplified in ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, in November 2010 stated, “it’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay,” after the media had learned about his dealings with younger girls and prostitutes.

Contrary to popular belief, it seems that the Italian people’s (not politicians’) tolerance towards homosexuality is on the rise. Although homosexual and heterosexual people are still not equal in terms of law and rights, the general societal perception of LGBT people is becoming more relaxed. A 2013 survey showed that 74% of Italians answered that society should accept homosexuals, whereas 18% said it shouldn’t. It would seem a great feat for a country like Italy, who, among EU countries, has an LGBT rights record only slightly better than that of Cyprus.

“When I first got into high school, I knew only one other gay person. When I got out, around 15-20 guys had come out,” said Perozzi.

Euroviews chatted with Evi Desideri, a party member of Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (directly translated as Left Ecology Freedom), one of the understandably small radical left-wing parties in the Italian parliament. She described the situation as there being an increasing number of young people who are being driven away from traditional political parties, even with issues that they feel deeply for, such as LGBT rights. Instead, they are going towards civic activism and non-governmental organizations.

“Our party members and voters are within a 30-80 age group. Maybe our youth are right; maybe traditional politics should be out, and humanity brought in again.”


True Liberation?

April 25th 1945 marks Italy’s liberation from the iron grip of Nazism-Fascism, as it got its independence from Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic and the end of the Nazi occupation in Italy in 1945, towards the end of the Second World War.

Only 24 days earlier, on April 1st, a group of neo-fascist thugs, who go by the name of “Militia,” vandalized a memorial site dedicated to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian film director, poet, writer, and intellectual.

pasolini memorial

Pasolini’s memorial site in Ostia, near Rome. Wikimedia Commons image.

Pasolini was one of Italy’s great leftist artists and cultural figures. He also happened to be gay. His murder in 1975 is still partially unknown, but details of the crime showed that it couldn’t have been the action of one person only, but was most likely carried out by a group of people. A well-known fascist group back then is suspected to have done the deed.

71 years after the fall of Nazism-Facism, the situation is surely very different, but certain attitudes carry on. Arcigay, the biggest LGBT organization in Italy, visited the site to pay tribute to their cultural icon.

“At Arcigay, we have a 24/7 hotline where LGBT people can report abuse, whether physical or emotional, discrimination, rejection by their communities…” said Perozzi. We also have a group for people under the age of 27 who meet and discuss issues facing them, and a group for people 30 and over.

“One issue we are currently facing is helping LGBT migrants and refugees who flee persecution in their home countries, where it is simply illegal to be homosexual, and where hate crimes against LGBT people can be quite common.” The most pertinent barrier is the language barrier, since they usually certainly don’t speak Italian, and often very basic English. The situation for them can be quite tough because they are doubly persecuted, for being migrants and for being gay.

That is why Arcigay created an association called Migrabo, which helps LGBT migrants integrate into Italian society and offers them moral and psychological support, as well as legal assistance, so that they can know they rights.


Where do we go from here?

Since the first adoption clause was scrapped, the Senate is now working on another adoption clause that could be seen as less contentious, although the details have not been sorted out yet.

Many opponents of the gay civil union bill, even without the adoption clause, maintained that this was harmful because it could lead to being a slippery slope situation, whereby one instance of adoption by a gay couple could lead to many others, notwithstanding what the law says. “Civil unions are in any case very dangerous, because Italian and European courts will interpret this law not from a nominal but from a substantial point of view, and they will extend parental rights to same sex couples,” said Pillon.

In fact, this has already happened. One March 1st, less than a week after the adoption clause was rejected, an Italian court approved a case to allow a lesbian couple to adopt each other’s biological children. The couple had to get artificial insemination in Denmark, since it is illegal in Italy for unmarried couples.

“I think the world is moving in one direction, and that is towards more acceptance of the LGBT community and recognition of our rights. Italy might be moving slowly, but surely, and no one can really do anything to change that,” said Perozzi.