A gay rights group won permission this month to turn a lakeside villa in the town of Castel Volturno, north of Naples, into a regional refuge for people suffering discrimination for their sexuality or identity, both Italian nationals and migrants arriving on Italy's southern shores.
"It was very emotional," said Bernardo Diana, head of the Rain Arcigay Caserta group that has spent nearly three years seeking authorization to use the premises and is seeking crowdfunding to complete the project.
The three-storey building, unused since police seized it from the commander of a local Camorra clan in the 1990s, will be renovated to include housing, a public kitchen and dining room, co-working area, events space and roof terrace.
Photo: Rain Arcigay Caserta
Once it's completed, the Mediterranean LGBT Centre will be the second of its kind in the entire country, and the first in Italy's deep south where thousands of migrants live and work (currently the only other is in Rome).
While LGBT Italians continue to face discrimination despite greater legal protection, for migrants – many of them from countries where homosexuality is unaccepted, even illegal – the stigma is double, Arcigay says.
"All LGBT people will be welcome, whatever their age or nationality," Diana told The Local. "If they need a hand, they'll be offered one."
Arcigay plans to offer shelter to up to eight people at a time who for whatever reason cannot rely on friends and family, nor yet support themselves. They also plan to offer job counselling and other services.
Italy provides LGBT people with fewer rights and protections than most of its Western European neighbours, activists say. Same-sex marriage is not legal – couples can only enter civil unions, which provide fewer guarantees on parental rights – and cases of blatant discrimination, hate speech and violence continue.
- Italy 'one of the worst countries in Western Europe' for gay rights
- Same-sex marriages performed abroad won't be recognized in Italy
- Italy's new conservative Families Minister had his site hacked with ads for sex drugs
The situation seems unlikely to improve under Italy's new government, in which the right-wing populist League party is a junior coalition partner. Within hours of his appointment, Minister for Families and Disabilities Lorenzo Fontana – a conservative Catholic – caused outcry by saying that same-sex parents "don't exist at the moment, as far as the law is concerned".
"The timing of this project is important," commented Diana, saying that was encouraging to see it approved when politicians are also taking a hardline on immigration, and that hostile rhetoric would only make activists fight harder.
"We mustn't lose heart," he said.
It's believed to be the first time a former mafia asset has been assigned to an LGBT group. The Italian government manages a vast portfolio of seized assets, including an estimated 12,000 properties, thousands of companies and €2 billion in stocks and bank deposits, as well as flashy cars and jewellery purchased with ill-gotten gains.
The state typically sells confiscated properties or donates the lease to local authorities or associations for non-profitable use. In Castel Volturno, the council has pledged to turn the development that includes Arcigay's villa – once an exclusive gated community, where more than 30 properties were seized from mafiosi owners – into a hub for social, cultural and artistic projects.