Zan bill: What is Italy’s proposed anti-homophobia law and why is it controversial?

Zan bill: What is Italy's proposed anti-homophobia law and why is it controversial?
At the 2015 Pride Parade in Milan. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP
As Italy debates a draft law that would punish discrimination and incitement to violence against gay, lesbian and transgender people, here's a primer on what the bill says – and why it has caused a row with the Vatican.

What is the Zan bill?

The ddl Zan, as it’s referred to in Italian headlines, is a disegno di legge (‘draft law’ or ‘bill’) proposed by Alessandro Zan, a member of parliament from the centre-left Democratic Party.

Representing his hometown of Padua in Veneto, Zan has campaigned on LGBTQ+ issues since his student days.

In May 2018 he proposed a new law that would make discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a crime in Italy, in response to what he called an “exponential rise in the number and seriousness of acts of violence towards gay and transgender people”.

With the backing of other left-wing MPs a number of additional proposals were wrapped into the same package, including the creation of a national day against homophobia and the collection of statistics measuring discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people in Italy.

The terms were also expanded to target discrimination against women and people with disabilities.

They remain proposals for now: the bill was approved by the lower house of Italy’s parliament in late 2020, but still has to pass a vote in the Senate.

Why is it in the news?

The Zan bill has been the subject of polemic ever since it was first proposed, with social conservatives variously claiming that it was unnecessary or would restrict free speech.

As the draft legislation makes its slow journey through the various stages of parliamentary approval, the Vatican recently joined the opposition to the bill, lodging a formal diplomatic protest on the grounds that the proposals would curtail Catholics’ freedom of expression.  

That in turn prompted rebuttals from the bill’s supporters and others in parliament who accused the Church of seeking to interfere in affairs of the State.

What does the Zan bill actually say?

In its current form, the bill sets out “measures to prevent and combat discrimination and violence based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability”. 

It begins by defining the terms “sex” (a person’s biological or legally registered sex), “gender” (they way they present themselves, which may or may not match social expectations of their sex), “sexual orientation” (sexual or emotional attraction to people of a different sex, the same sex or both sexes) and “gender identity” (the way an individual identifies and manifests their own gender, which may be different from their assigned sex) – which are all definitions already in use in Italian or European law.

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Then comes the key proposal: expanding Italy’s legal definition of hate crimes to cover violence against LGBTQ+ people, as well as women and people with disabilities. Specifically the bill seeks to add discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to the section of Italy’s penal code that already outlaws racial hatred and religious persecution.

The changes would make acts of discrimination on these grounds punishable by up to 18 months in prison or a fine of €6,000, and acts of violence punishable up by to four years’ prison time. The same penalties would apply to those who incite others to commit “crimes against equality”. 

However, the bill specifies that “the free expression of beliefs or opinions, as well as legitimate conduct attributable to the pluralism of ideas or freedom of choice” should not be criminalised.

Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP

The bill also proposes measures to prevent discrimination, including a “National Day Against Homophobia, Lesbophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia” in order to promote inclusion and fight prejudice. The day would be marked on May 17th – to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia – and would not be a public holiday but an occasion to organize anti-discrimination events and initiatives, including in schools.

Finally, it calls for consultations on a national anti-discrimination strategy and for Italy’s national statistics office to survey public opinion and collect data on discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people in Italy.

Who’s for it and who’s against?

As you’d expect, Zan’s colleagues in the Democratic Party and its allies on the left are broadly in favour of the bill, while their opponents on the right and far-right are trying to block it.

In November 2020 it passed the lower house of parliament by 265 votes to 193, despite efforts by the hard-right League and Brothers of Italy parties to hold it up with hundreds of proposed amendments. They claim the bill would restrict freedom of expression, donning gags in parliament in protest.

The centre-right Forza Italia party is also opposed to the law, though not unanimously, while the populist Five Star Movement, centre-left Italia Viva party and other small parties on the left support it.

READ ALSO: Who is in Italy’s coalition government?

More broadly, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), which represents Roman Catholic bishops, has complained that the bill would prevent clergy from voicing their beliefs or leave them liable to prosecution for hate speech.

Some opponents have argued that Italy’s criminal code already adequately punishes violence without specific measures to address homophobia, transphobia, sexism or ableism, or misrepresented the bill to claim it mandates the teaching of gender theory in schools (it doesn’t).

Meanwhile some women’s groups who object to giving trans women equal status as those who were female by biological sex at birth have also decried the Zan bill for its recognition of “gender identity”, which they claim could undermine cisgender women’s rights.

‘The only thing that’s unnatural is pineapple on pizza’: LGBTQ activists in Milan. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

But LGBTQ+ activists say the bill is a necessary protection against homophobic and transphobic violence in Italy, especially after shocking recent attacks.

Only 8 percent of Italian respondents in the EU’s latest LGBTI Survey said their government effectively combats prejudice and intolerance against LGBTI people, compared to the EU average of 33 percent.

Several other EU countries already have legislation in place to criminalise homophobic hate crimes, but previous attempts to introduce such laws in Italy have failed.

READ ALSO: Italy ranked ‘one of the worst countries in Western Europe for gay rights’

Passing the Zan bill would “remedy decades of delay in our country in terms of protection of human rights and discrimination, and send a clear message to the whole of Italian society: full citizenship for everyone before the law,” says human rights group Amnesty

Italy’s current government, a broad coalition of left and right led by practicing Catholic Mario Draghi, does not have an official position on the Zan bill.

However, the Vatican’s intervention this week prompted the prime minister to reassert the separation of church and state in Italy.

“Ours is a secular state, not a religious state,” Draghi told the Senate in response to the Holy See’s protest. “So parliament is free to debate… and to legislate.”

Why is the Vatican involved?

Indeed. But according to a letter of protest from the Vatican’s foreign minister, the Zan bill would violate an agreement between Italy and the Holy See that is supposed to guarantee the Catholic Church total religious freedom.

Submitted to the Italian government on June 17th, the note points out that in the Concordat of 1984 – a pact between Italy and the Holy See that regulates their relations – Italy agreed to recognise the Church’s “full liberty to develop its pastoral, educational and charitable mission”, including what it teaches and publishes, as well as Catholics’ freedom “to express their thoughts orally and in writing”.

The Vatican claims that the Zan bill in its current form “would have the effect of negatively impacting” these rights, and calls for it to be modified.

The Church has not suggested revoking the bill altogether, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin later clarified, stating that its objection was to the current text in which “the concept of discrimination remains too vague”.

“We are against any attitude or gesture of intolerance or hatred towards people because of their sexual orientation, as well as their ethnicity or their beliefs”, he insisted.

Gay rights protesters in front of the Vatican in 2012. Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP

In response to the Vatican’s objections, the bill’s defenders have pointed out that the text specifically protects the free expression of beliefs or opinions, targeting only statements that incite concrete acts of violence or discrimination. 

To use an illustration from online magazine Il Post: campaigning against gay marriage would still be legal, but identifying a gay couple and encouraging people to harass them would not.

Meanwhile the same Concordat also binds the Vatican to recognise that the Italian state is “independent and sovereign” from the Catholic Church. 

What will happen to the Zan bill now?

While some of the bill’s opponents welcomed the Vatican’s intervention, several lawmakers denounced it as “interference” – including Zan himself.

“All concerns must be heard and all doubts dispelled, but there can be no foreign interference in the prerogatives of a sovereign parliament,” he said on Twitter.

The Vatican’s letter was also met with criticism by Italian celebrities who have been vocal in their support for the bill, as well as calls for renewed street protests.

Some have suggested that the move may even prove an own goal, galvanising the bill’s supporters and bringing it back onto the agenda.

Its backers are reportedly pushing to bring the bill before the Senate as soon as July, something that has so far proved difficult. But even once it gets there, final approval is likely to be slow – if it comes at all.


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