Gay unions: will Italy blow this chance to boost its image?

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Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
10:57 CET+01:00
The timing couldn't be better for Italy, especially as it flirts with economic collapse, to finally come good on giving gay people their rights.

Last summer, I was asked by a gay friend to be his witness at his wedding in France.

I didn’t hesitate to accept the honour, as aside from him being a dear friend, it was also a good excuse for me to spend a few days along the country’s sun-kissed southern shores.

Having lived in France in the late 1990s, and been in Paris during the protests ahead of the same sex marriage vote in 2013, it struck me just how much the secular country, and much of the world, had advanced, and within a relatively short space of time.

While even just the words “gay marriage” can evoke an array of different emotions in people, from happiness and joy to fear and disgust, it was a marriage just like any other.

And why wouldn't it be? The only difference was that it was between two attractive men. Both in professional jobs, they had enough money to spend on making their day special and memorable, thus contributing to the small town's economy.

It’s been nine years since Italy tried and failed to pass a bill that would legalize same sex unions.

During that time, a slew of European countries other than France have marched ahead, fending off their own naysayers to succeed in extending some sort of rights to gay people.

Probably the most salient example, at least when compared to Italy, is the traditionally staunchly Catholic Ireland.

Irish people humbled the world last May when, just 22 years after homosexuality was decriminalized, they voted overwhelmingly to allow gay marriage.

Not only that, Ireland became the first country in the world to pass the law through a public vote. Sure, the debate met with opposition, but it was mostly civilised, eventually moving the country forward without too much of a song and dance. 

Even Greece, still entrenched in its financial quagmire and with bigger fish to fry, managed to pass a civil unions bill in December – after a debate that lasted less than a month.

Now here we are again in Italy, facing another vote on a gay unions bill, amid a fierce debate which has again managed to polarize the nation even though the bill stops short of allowing gay marriage.

Italians at a pro-gay unions bill rally in Rome in January. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

As with everything in this conservative country, nothing is clear-cut, especially when it comes to a topic that never fails to prompt meddling from the Church.

For a while, it was looking as though religious influence over public opinion had waned.

But the polls tell a different story. While most Italians are in favour of gay civil unions, at least in principle, many can’t seem to grasp the idea of a gay person adopting their partner's biological child, even though there are plenty of children living with gay couples in Italy right now.

They would sooner see a child adopted by strangers than have it being raised by a gay parent and their partner. So long as those strangers are straight. 

This is what is endangering the bill, so much so a raucous debate was suspended on Wednesday after the populist Five Star Movement back-tracked on a promise to support the bill.

The party, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, refused to vote on a motion to speed up the draft law's adoption, paving the way for a series of amendments by opponents, who are out to strip the law of allowing gays to adopt their partner's children.

But it’s not just a simple case of Italians thinking it’s wrong for two people of the same sex to raise a child. Opposition politicians have muddied opinion with the issue of surrogacy. 

They claim that allowing adoption would pave the way to surrogacy, which is illegal in Italy. So much so, Angelino Alfano, the leader of the New Centre Right, wants to make it a sex crime.

“There is so much misinformation going on in Italy right now,” Angelo Caltagirone, the president of Edge, a network of LGBT entrepreneurs and professionals, told The Local.

“People are confusing stepchild adoption with surrogacy, and without realizing that 80 percent of those who go to the US or Canada in search of a surrogate mum are straight.

“The propaganda from the opposition is to build on the theory that you can ‘buy children’ - put this way, most people will say ‘no’.”

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With local elections looming, it is clear that the Five Star's maneouvre was made not only to please its own supporters but also to snatch votes from the right.  

"It's about political gains," Caltagirone said.

“The party has changed its position completely – they’re not doing what they said they would do. Because of this, everything is now in the balance.”

The debate is not only frustrating gay Italians, but also those who simply see giving gay people the same rights as straight ones as completely normal in what is supposed to be a civilized society.

It is also starkly obvious to those who back the bill that the move would have a positive impact, not only on Italy’s listless economy, but on the country's reputation abroad.

As political commentator Andrea Scanzi wrote in Il Fattio Quotidiano on Thursday, if the Five Star Movement doesn't vote for the bill, then they "make Italy miss a great chance to be less bigoted".

"These rights are more or less in place across all of western Europe. It’s crucial now that they pass it – it’s good for Italy to show other that it’s a civilised country," said Caltagirone, adding that passing the law would also have a massive impact on the well-being of millions of Italians.

"Some Italian companies already have rights in place for gay staff, and it has such a positive impact on employees' happiness and production overall."

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