The controversial giveaway, entitled ‘The best gay jokes’, was attached to the latest edition of the weekly Italian gossip magazine Visto, La Stampa reported.
Published in 2012 and ordinarily priced at €4.99, the book is part of a joke book series which also includes sexist jokes and jokes about Jews by Jews, among other taboo subjects.
The front cover of the joke book depicts a cartoon of two men, one of whom says: “Do you want to play hide and seek?” to which the other replies: “Ok, if you find me you can rape me. If you don’t find me…I’ll be in the closet.”
Since the magazine appeared in newsagents over the weekend, two petitions have been launched on the campaign website Change.org to get the magazine to remove the offending copies from newsagents and apologize.
Roberto Alessi, the editor of the magazine, meanwhile, has distanced himself from the scandal claiming he knew nothing about the book.
“It’s disgusting, it has nothing to do with editorial staff,” he said, according to La Stampa.
But in a statement issued on Monday, Andrea Maccarrone, president of the gay cultural association Mario Mieli said: “We welcome the apologies made yesterday by the editor Roberto Alessi but we find it rather strange that the person in charge of a weekly publication can claim to be completely unaware of what was attached to a publication that he edits.”
Maccarrone described the decision to attach the free book as “terrible taste and offensive to all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who suffer harassment, violence and discrimination.”
Alessi added that, far from being considered as satire or comedy, “the book perpetuates prejudices and stereotypes that take Italy back to a time when gays and lesbians were forced to hide or were subjected to violence and mockery, casting dangerous messages, especially for young people in a country that is still struggling to develop a national strategy for the fight against homophobia and transphobia.”
Meanwhile, Italians have taken to Twitter to express their outrage.
"The magazine Visto has attached 'The best gay jokes'. We are a hopeless country," tweeted @fra_fuma.
— Francesco Fumarola (@fra_fuma) August 17, 2014
However Federico Silvestri, the general manager of PRS, the company that publishes the magazine, defended its decision to attach the joke book: “I defend and lay claim to the decision to attach joke books on various subjects in Visto, which include those on gay people, which is no longer a taboo subject.”
“It’s rather those who think the opposite who are discriminating. I am following the rise of this completely bogus and misplaced controversy with great surprise."
The joke book, he said, was just one of ten from the series which would be released with the magazine.
“So I’m wondering why are people indignant about gay people and not police and cheated wives?” he added.
This is only the latest homophobia scandal to rock Italy in recent months.
Earlier this month, a former MP for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was fined €10,000 for saying he would never hire a gay person, a sentence welcomed by rights groups as a legal first.
And in July Italy’s Ministry of Education has launched an investigation after a teacher at a Catholic school in Trento was allegedly sacked because of her sexuality.