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16th Jan 2019

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Limited breakthrough for Italian gay rights

  • Gay pride in Rome. The law "is a hugely important and symbolic moment," said ILGA association. (Photo: Massimo Valicchia)

Italy has made a decisive step towards joining the ranks of a majority of European Union members in recognising same-sex partnerships, after its Senate approved late Thursday (25 February) a bitterly-contested bill hailed as historic by prime minister Matteo Renzi but dismissed as a sell-out by gay rights associations.

Catholic-majority Italy currently does not grant any rights to gay couples, a unique situation in Western Europe that has suited the Vatican but has been repeatedly criticised by the Constitutional Court in Rome and by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

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In a 173-71 vote, Italian Senators agreed that same-sex couples could enter into civil unions, granting them the chance to adopt the same surname and other prerogatives normally associated with marriage, including pension, tax and inheritance entitlements, and visiting rights in hospital or prison.

"Today will remain in the chronicles of this legislature. And in the history of our country," Renzi wrote on Facebook. "Hope has won over fear. Courage has won over discrimination. Love has won," he added.

But some 30 associations representing Italian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersex (LGBTI) people were in no mood to cheer, and announced a protest rally in Rome for 5 March.

They were outraged by the decision to sacrifice limited adoption rights for gay couples, which were under discussion until last week. They were scrapped on the insistence of morally conservative centrists in Renzi's coalition government, led by interior minister Angelino Alfano.

"Preventing two same-sex people from having a child, which is not allowed by nature, was a great gift to Italy. We stopped an anthropological revolution against nature," Alfano said before meeting EU counterparts in Brussels, hours before lawmakers voted.

His New Centre Right party also fought to scrap fidelity requirements for same-sex unions, as a way of further differentiating their legal standing compared to heterosexual marriages. The move, which was seen as dismissive of the value of homosexual bonds, attracted some ridicule and discrimination complaints.

'Symbolic moment'

“Voting in favour of legal recognition for same-sex couples is a hugely important and symbolic moment for LGBTI people in Italy," said Brian Sheenan, co-leader of the pan-European LGBTI group ILGA-Europe.

"But this is not the law that they supported – the LGBTI community had been calling for protection for couples and their children. The two amendments do not respect the dignity of existing LGBTI families,” he added.

The reform was meant to be more far-reaching, with cross-party backing from opposition Five Star Movement (M5S), as well as from the ruling Democratic Party (PD).

But last week the M5S unexpectedly blocked an attempt by the PD to circumvent hundreds of obstructionist amendments from far-right groups, on the grounds that the movement could not go along with parliamentary shortcuts to help the law's passage, even if it backed its objectives.

The situation led Renzi and his peers to conclude that the M5S was not a reliable parliamentary partner, and to ask for Alfano's help to bring home the reform, even if that meant watering it down. The deal was sealed with a decision to submit the bill to a vote of confidence, which would have forced the government's resignation in the case of a rejection.

Cynics have suggested that the final compromise suits Renzi - a left-leaning Catholic who opposed a previous effort to legalise gay unions in 2007 - more than he likes to admit, as he can blame the M5S for scuppering bolder changes and live with a compromise that keeps his junior partner in government happy and limits the fallout with the Vatican.

No Pope meddling

The reform was approved 20 months after it was first tabled in the Senate, after heated debates that polarised Italian public opinion.

Before entering into statute books, the law still needs to win clearance from the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, but discussions are expected to be wrapped up within weeks.

The breakthrough has come after Pope Francis, who famously said he was in no position to judge homosexuals, refused to endorse the anti-reform camp, even after Italian Catholic conservatives rallied several hundred thousand people in Rome last month to protest against it.

"The Pope does not meddle with Italian politics," Francis said on 18 February when asked for an opinion. "Because the Pope belongs to everybody, he cannot enter the concrete, domestic politics of a country. This is not the Pope's role," he added.

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