Colosseum in Rome, Credit: Diliff / Wikimedia
There’s something of an anomaly in Western Europe. Often regarded as a bastion of LGBT rights — indeed, they’re enshrined in the European Union’s governing principles — every Western European nation, from Britain to Portugal to Germany, recognizes same-sex relationships. Except for one: Italy.
Yes, the land of the Romans, wine, good coffee and meticulously dressed men is the last holdout in offering legal recognition to cohabiting same-sex couples. While thirteen of the world’s nineteen countries to offer same-sex marriage are in Europe, Italy remains steadfastly opposed to even basic recognition. The reason? Pretty simple — the Catholic Church retains a tight grip on Italian society and politics, affecting the debate at every level.
Now, though, that could all change.
A piece of legislation currently rests in Italy’s senate that would legalize same-sex civil unions in the country. Senators will start debating the legislation today, January 28, with Italy’s left of center government pushing for the change. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has endorsed the legislation, but its fate remains uncertain, as a similar measure introduced in 2007 failed without ever reaching a vote and successive governments have thus far refrained from tackling the issue.
However, this time popular opinion is very much on the side of same-sex Italians. Last weekend, thousands gathered in cities across the country to protest the lack of legal recognition. AFP reported 7,000 in Turin, 5,000 in Milan and thousands more in Rome and Bologna. Carrying signs that read “Wake up Italy. It’s time to be civilized,” the protesters demanded that Italy’s politicians pass the legislation.
“We hope it will pass, but we don’t know,” Fabrizio Marrazzo, a top gay rights activist with Arcigay told The Guardian. “We hope the politicians see that this is not a law just for LGBT people, but for all Italians, for civil rights in Italy.”
The legislation would not only grant couples the right to enter into civil unions, it would also grant the ability to take a partner’s name, extend parental rights, and allow adoption by a same-sex person of their partner’s child. It’s that latter factor that has drawn most ire from the Catholic Church, who oppose same-sex adoption. That opposition, as well as opposition to the use of surrogates to start families, will carry through to counter protests on January 30, when “family day” will be staged by a number of Catholic groups. Opposing the leader of his party, Italy’s interior minister Angelino Alfano told reporters earlier this month that same-sex couples who use surrogates should be treated like sex offenders.
“We want ‘wombs for rent’ to become a universal crime. And that it is punished with prison. Just as happens for sexual crimes,” he said.
It’s a debate exemplified by a proposed amendment to the civil union bill by senators, which would force same-sex couples to prove that they had not used overseas couples to have their children. Punishment would include up to two years in prison and a fine of up to €1 million ($1.1 million).
However, despite concerns that there aren’t enough moderate or liberal senators to pass the legislation, Italy may have no choice after it received a dressing down from the European Court of Human Rights. That court ruled last summer that Italy was violating human rights laws by failing to offer adequate legal protections to same-sex couples. The court argued that Italy had failed to “provide for the core needs relevant to a couple in a stable committed relationship” and that existing protections were “not sufficiently reliable.”
This week, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe — a body separate from the European Union — also urged Italy to pass the legislation. Thorbjorn Jagland tweeted that Italy must pass the legislation to bring it in line with other member states. “I encourage Italy to ensure legal recognition for same sex couples as per [European Court of Human Rights] as in majority of [Council of Europe] states,” he wrote.
While Catholic groups have sponsored protests against the legislation, Pope Francis has yet to directly comment on it. Instead, he stated his support for traditional marriages last week, telling members of the Vatican court that “there can be no confusion between the family God wants and any other type of union.”
“The family, founded on indissoluble matrimony that unites and allows procreation, is part of God’s dream and that of his Church for the salvation of humanity,” he said.
The Vatican will play a key role in the debate, something the author of the proposed legislation is keenly aware of. Senator Monica Cirinna told The Guardian that the Democratic Party was currently in a state of “high fever” as they prepare for the vote, as a number of the party’s senators maintain strong bonds with the church.
“There has always been a clash between the non-religious and the Catholic members of the party,” Cirinna said. “The great dome [of St. Peter’s Basilica] sometimes casts a shadow.”
The divide between party members played out in last weekend’s protests, with ministers joining those in the streets to call for the legislation to be passed. Italy’s agriculture minister, Maurizio, was among those demonstrating and spoke with Reuters.
“This law on civil unions needs approving now,” he told Reuters. “We are the only European country not to have one, and there is no more time to be lost.”
“We don’t have more time,” Marrazzo agreed. “In other parts of Europe they did this 10 years ago.”