Same-sex marriage has become a political football in Italy’s elections


by Claudia Torrisi

Ahead of Italy’s national elections on 4 March, towns and cities across the country were plastered with posters to “defend the traditional family” – an electoral slogan of the the anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQI equality right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia (FDI; Italian for “Brothers of Italy”).

Direct descendants of the ‘post-fascist’ Movimento Sociale Italiano, FDI is expected to make its mark on this year’s election, its second since forming in 2012. They are part of a so-called centre-right coalition that includes Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia and the Lega, a former northern separatist party that has recently been climbing the polls with a hard anti-immigration stance that is touching a nerve nationwide.

This coalition – which insists on calling itself ‘centre-right,’ while many of their policies are in reality on the far right of the political spectrum – is expecting success, and a significant number of seats in the next parliament.

FDI is led by Giorgia Meloni, who is herself an unmarried mother despite her party’s very conservative position on the “family.” When asked to explain this position, she said that FDI aims to “defend natural families, those who make children. These are the families who deserve contributions from the government, not refugees’ [families].”

Lega leader Matteo Salvini has added: “Children have the right to have a father and a mother. Every landing [of migrants] in Italy is an empty crib.”

Immigration, in Salvini’s propaganda, is a threat to women’s safety, and the two parties – Lega and Fratelli d’Italia – have found common ground on this issue and others, including the 2016 law granting the right to form civil partnerships to same-sex couples, which they have turned into a political football in their election campaigns.

Both parties opposed this law, which was narrowly passed after a bitter parliamentary battle that ended with the deletion of part of the bill covering so-called “stepchild adoption,” which would have enabled a member of a same-sex couple to adopt the child of his or her partner, in the same way that heterosexual couples can.

Extending these adoption rights to same-sex couples would have given legal status to families and parental relationships that exist in society but are invisible in law. The deletion of this part of the bill was a bitter blow to the LGBTQI community.

As part of a vicious campaign against the rights of same-sex couples, ahead of the 2016 parliamentary debate, a group of Catholic activists led by the Orwellian-sounding Difendiamo i nostri figli (Defend our children) committee, organised a ‘Family Day’ protest against the civil partnership bill, to again “defend the family”.

A former ‘Family Day’ organiser Eugenia Roccella is also an election candidate with the so-called centre-right coalition. She’s recently threatened to “fight… to abolish or deeply change all the laws approved by the left that have injured the family,” referring to marriage equality for same-sex couples as “the end of humanity.”

Speaking at the same January 2018 event where Roccella made these comments, FDI leader Meloni announced her plans to abolish civil partnerships for same-sex couples and to amend Italy’s constitution to specify that only heterosexual couples can adopt.

Meanwhile, everyone’s favourite family man Silvio Berlusconi said that he would also revise the civil partnerships law if elected. It might be hard for international observers to believe that the king of ‘bunga-bunga’ has any political capital left, but in Italy he still owns most of the media channels and he is still the leader of the Forza Italia party.

Berlusconi can’t run for the presidency himself as he was ousted from parliament and has been banned from public offices until 2019, after being convicted of tax fraud five years ago.

But many Italians appear convinced that he is the only one with the power to hold the centre-right coalition together. He is on TV on a daily basis promoting its positions.

It seems that Forza Italia, the largest party in this coalition, has not decided yet whether to maintain its image as comparatively ‘moderate’ or to surrender this in favour of the more radical positions of its political bedfellows, in an all-out assault on same-sex unions.

“We don’t want to remove rights from anyone but we are convinced that the family is something different, a stable union of a man and a woman oriented towards procreation”, Berlusconi said in February. “We don’t give moral judgements…The state should never enter into the choices of personal life, but we defend the uniqueness of the family.”

As well as galling and hypocritical, Berlusconi’s statement was confusing and suggested his capitulation to the ‘pro-family’ lobby as part of a campaign to get back into office.

In 2016, his party allowed its members to vote freely on the civil partnerships law, and in the previous year a Forza Italia MP presented her own bill on same-sex unions, saying “it’s time to abandon the ideological clash” around the issue.

Flip-flopping, Berlusconi seemed to remember this and rescinded his recent statements around ‘the family,’ blaming journalists for misunderstanding him (even though the comments had been broadcast on live TV).

This is all about posturing and propaganda, according to Angelo Schillaci, a researcher on public law at the Sapienza University in Rome, who’s said that banning civil partnerships would be impossible in practice.

“If they had the numbers in parliament, in theory they could do it… but then in practice it is a whole other story,” Schillaci said, because you cannot grant people civil unions and then shortly after say they don’t exist. Possible modifications to the law, he added, would “surely end up in front of the constitutional court.”

While the centre-right coalition has made outrageous and illogical threats on same-sex partnerships, it’s also notable that many other parties have mostly chosen a path of silence on this issue – including the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement), which appears to be leading in the national polls.

Marriage equality for all is one of the recommendations of the ILGA-Europe organisation for Italy “to improve the legal and policy situation of LGBTI people.”

The Partito Democratico (PD; Democratic Party), which is the main party in a centre-left coalition, said in its manifesto that there should be a law against homophobia. It also pledged to reform adoption laws to guarantee the rights of all children “regardless of the family in which they were born” – though any explicit mention of same-sex marriage equality was removed.

Fabrizio Marrazzo, spokesperson for the Gay Center association in Rome, noted that there was also no mention in the PD manifesto of transgender people, support for survivors of violence, funds for refugees, or surrogacy.

Sebastiano Secci, president of the Circolo di Cultura Omosessuale Mario Mieli, said: “after only the first step (civil unions), the PD has stumbled on the path of rights by falling on the ground.” He added: “Frankly… we expected much more from the programme of the ‘main Italian progressive party.’”

More worrying still are the positions taken by PD allies; the Catholic Civica Popolare are strongly against same-sex marriage. It’s not clear whether this flirtation with uber-Catholics and ultra-conservative voters will be a winning strategy, though.

A Gay Center survey suggests that 65% of Italians are in favour of a law against homophobia, including 75% of PD voters and (perhaps surprisingly) 60% of supporters of the centre-right coalition. “It is not true that the centre-right electorate is hostile towards gay people,” it concluded.

“There is still this perception that talking about LGBTQI rights during an electoral campaign can lead parties to lose votes. There is a general silence on this theme: even those parties who put something about rights in their programmes… [lack] specific initiatives about this,” Marrazzo told me.

“LGBTQI rights are not a priority in this electoral campaign, they are practically absent,” he continued, suggesting that politicians think that “just because the LGBTQI community obtained civil unions after 30 years, we can now wait another 30 years for something else. But the LGBTQI community is strong, and Italian society is ready.”

Piece originally published at Open DemocracyCreative Commons License
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About the Author:

Claudia Torrisi is an Italian freelance journalist focused on social issues such as migration and civil rights.