LGBT Activism in Italy Has Reached a Tipping Point

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino with a gay couple whose marriage he registered on Oct. 18, 2014.


With nation-wide gay marriage seeming all but inevitable in the United States in light of recent judicial trends, it can be easy to forget that progress does not necessarily look the same—neither in speed nor form—in other countries. A year ago, during the Barilla fiasco, I described Italy as one of the most backward countries for LGBT rights in the Western world, and that is still largely true. But change is brewing. The Barilla incident bore a movement that has endured: “Remember Barilla” is still very active in social media and continues to react to the daily episodes of institutionalised homophobia that persist in Italian media. While marriage equality remains a far-off hope and while Italy lacks the well-tested lobbying strategies pioneered by American LGBT activists, the Italian public is finally paying attention to LGBT issues—we’ve reached a point of no return.

This fall, LGBT-related news made headlines in a way that was unprecedented. A year after the Barilla dust-up, the discussion about having a full anti-homophobia law which truly protects LGBT rights against widespread “hate crimes” continues, and a proposal will soon be discussed by the Parliament. At the same time, the Italian media has been heavily covering a group of protesters called the “Standing Guards,” whose main purpose is to oppose any law which limits their right to publicly offend gays. The Standing Guards have organized public silent protests wherein they stand up in public spaces, pretending to read books in the name of “free speech” and to defend “the natural family formed by a man and a woman.”

Do not be fooled by their peaceful appearance, however: The Standing Guards are supported by extreme right-wing movements, and their views on LGBT issues enjoy a disturbing amount of respect in mainstream discourse. Their existence proves that promoters of the “traditional family” now feel the need to actively oppose the threat of legislation, when just a year ago their views went almost unquestioned in the national conversation. Interestingly, the Standing Guard protests have also offered a chance for counter-protests by LGBT groups to gain visibility in ways that were not possible in the past. You can see an example from this “kiss in” staged during a Standing Guard demonstration.

Gay couple kisses during a “Standing Guard” demonstration.

Il Tirreno’s Facebook page. 

On the marriage front, the current action surrounds a proposed Italian civil partnership law, the discussion of which has largely excluded same-sex adoption from the picture. This omission reveals an established idea in Italy, expressed by the Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin, that gay couples are “unfit to raise children.” Ironically, the minister claimed that this view is backed by the international psychological community; she does not seem to realize that the real science has been used in U.S. courts to support marriage equality.

In any case, the real tipping point was reached a few days ago, when Angelino Alfano, the Minister of the Interior, demanded that Italian mayors stop recognizing foreign gay marriages; this action came in response to the fact that some mayors, in particular the mayor of Rome, had begun honoring gay marriages performed in other countries. This request reflects the messiness of the Italian system of civil rights: If you get married in any international country which recognizes gay marriage, the Italian state would not recognise your marriage; but local authorities imbued with certain autonomous powers may choose to record your marriage for local purposes. This process of “transcription” provides a limited sets of rights in private law—for example, when a married individual passes away, their surviving partner might use this evidence in court to defend their rights as husbands or wives vis-à-vis landlords and public authorities.

Clearly, transcribing marriages in local authorities is a strategy adopted by LGBT advocates in order to defend individual LGBT rights until the highest court of appeal (The Supreme Court of Cassation) establishes new general principles regarding the protection LGBT rights. And like the American Supreme Court, the Italian court has issued a number of pro-LGBT judgments in the last few years, and LGBT activists in Italy are pursuing a legal route similar to what has happened to promote LGBT rights in the U.S. Additionally, Italy’s membership in the E.U. is important. Many Italians are not aware that a limited set of civil rights are still guaranteed to gay couples by virtue of the membership: For example, my Italian friend got married in Denmark with his American partner so that, although Italy would not recognize his marriage, his migrant husband could have the legal right to stay in Italy as the “husband of an E.U. citizen.”

Legal rights aside, the most encouraging sign of change is an emerging shift in Italian public opinion. A survey published a few weeks ago suggested that for the first time in history more Italian people are in favour of civil partnerships than against them, even people on the centre-right side of the political spectrum. How to explain this sudden shift? Apart from increasingly visible gay activism, many political factors seem to align over the idea of civil partnerships, in particular on the Italian right: Silvio Berlusconi, still leader of the largest party of the centre-right, has publicly expressed his approval of the civil partnership. What’s more, the Catholic Church under Pope Francis has expressed more tolerant attitudes on gay rights, hinting at the possibility of gay civil unions, while categorically excluding gay marriages. Considering the influential political role of the Catholic Church in Italy, and the (still) very important influence of Berlusconi in the media, it is not hard to understand why the idea of civil partnerships in Italy has gained some momentum.

Of course, if the U.S. is our model, full gay marriage should be pursued over civil partnerships. But this seems unlikely in Italy, where the LGBT movement has limited advocacy strategies in place and too many hostile forces to fight against. If the people in control of LGBT rights remain middle-class, white, heterosexual, and religious-oriented men, it is clear that the idea of a civil partnership is “as good as it gets” for Italy for now—though activists could capitalize on the new momentum to expand the conversation to include better rights in the future. In any case, it seems clear that Italy has reached a tipping point where living in an ideological bell jar and ignoring the growing equality of LGBT people in other Western countries is no longer possible.