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

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.

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

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.

EXPLAINED: What is Italy’s public TV ‘censorship’ row all about?

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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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Italian elections LIVE BLOG: First exit polls expected after 11pm

Italy is voting now in crucial polls expected to result in the first far-right government in the country’s postwar history. Follow The Local's latest updates as results come in on election night.

Italian elections LIVE BLOG: First exit polls expected after 11pm

MAIN POINTS:

  • Polls closed at 11pm
  • Exit polls due before 11:30pm
  • Turnout appears to be lower than 2018 election
  • Right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party expected to win by a landslide

23.00 Polls closed

That’s all, folks. Voting is now over, polling stations are closing their doors, and the first exit polls with predicted results will come out within the next half an hour.

There are several different companies publishing polls, the first seems to be Youtrend with its ‘instant poll’.

22.55 – Campaign blackout?

Election campaigning was supposed to end officially on Friday night, when a blackout begins before the vote to give voters a “period of contemplation”. 

Of course campaign blackouts aren’t that realistic in the time of social media though and it just means candidates get creative with their messaging.

Take for example this TikTok video posted by FdI leader Giorgia Meloni today:

She’s saying “September 25th – I’ve said it all” – a reference to the fact that she’s not meant to be saying anything much. And yes, her surname means ‘melons’.

22:40 – What’s a super-majority in Italy?

Italy’s election on Sunday is expected to produce a far-right government, but how big a majority will it have and what difference does this make?

In Italy there is a difference between a majority and a so-called super-majority. Here’s a quick guide to how the system works, what the difference is, and why it matters so much.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between a majority and ‘super majority’?

22.30 What are the expected results?

This definitely hasn’t been an election campaign that has kept us on the edge of our seats.

The prediction from the start of the election campaign has been that the right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party will win by a landslide, allowing it to form a government with a large majority.

The most recent opinion polls, published two weeks ago before the pre-election polling embargo began, showed this was by far the most likely outcome.

Italian elections: What’s the difference between a majority and ‘super majority’?

But after what’s been called “one of the worst election campaigns of the post-war period”, with the result looking sure from the start and a severe shortage of any policy to discuss, is there any chance of a surprise result livening things up?

Probably not, the experts say – although voter sentiment has apparently shifted somewhat since the last polls two weeks ago.

Support for the left-leaning Five Star Movement appears to have surged while the hard-right League is flagging, according to pollsters interviewed by Reuters this week.

Still, most said the prediction that the right will take a majority in both houses of parliament and form the next government remains by far the most likely outcome, even if it has been thrown into doubt somewhat by Five Star’s rise.

The polls close in half an hour, and we won’t have much longer to wait after that for the exit polls, which give us an initial, if imperfect, idea of whether the long-predicted result is likely to become reality.

21.50 Long queues, but lower turnout

Long queues were reported at some polling stations around the country today, in some cases with voters queuing before they opened at 7am – leading to speculation that there would be higher turnout than in the 2018 election

But it looks like turnout is in fact lower, according to interior ministry figures, which put it at 51 percent at 7pm – four hours before polls closed – down from 58 percent.

EXPLAINED: Who’s who in Italy’s general election?

The lowest turnout was in the south and islands, according to analysis of the official data by Youtrend, at 40 percent – 12.1 percent lower than in 2018. Political commentators are saying this is likely bad news for the Five Star Movement, which won most of its support from southern regions in 2018.

This highest turnout at 56 percent was in the north-west, which also happens to be where the far-right Brothers of Italy party and the League (formerly the Northern League) have their biggest support base.

Another interesting bit of analysis from Youtrend: turnout is down much more in municipalities with fewer foreign residents (-10.6%) and is down much less in areas where more foreigners live (-5.4 %). “The more foreigners there are, the less the turnout falls”, Youtrend notes.

Lower turnout overall this time isn’t a surprise. Abstentionism was expected to increase, with opinion polls during the election campaign predicting as many as 16 million voters would refrain from voting – Italy has a voting population of just over 46.5 million.

Italian affluenza or voter turnout is generally fairly high by international standards: 73 percent of eligible voters voted in the last parliamentary election in 2018 – though this was the country’s worst-ever rate of participation, and the number has been steadily dropping for years.

Italy’s political leaders were pictured turning out for the vote. Here’s outgoing prime minister, Mario Draghi, who’s not campaigning for re-election and has made it clear he’s not interested in another term.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and his wife Maria Serenella Cappello arrive to cast their vote at the Liceo Mameli polling station in Rome. Photo by RICCARDO ANTIMIANI / ANSA / AFP

21.30 When do we get the first results?

Polls close at 11pm and counting starts immediately after. 

The first exit polls from the country’s leading news media should be out by 11.30. Though they are usually fairly close to the mark, exit polls can’t be relied upon entirely, as the 2013 exit poll debacle showed.

The time needed to announce the first official results depends on how many ballots there are to count. Turnout is expected to be similar to that at the last election in 2018 – maybe slightly lower – so Italian media are predicting 2am for the first official projections based on data from polling stations. Or maybe 3am. We could be in for a long night.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Ballot papers for the election of the Senate are counted first. When that’s complete, volunteers will turn their attention to counting ballots for the lower house of parliament. 

21.00 Italy’s election night begins

Buonasera a tutti and welcome to The Local’s 2022 Italian election blog. There’s a lot at stake in these crucial elections as far right parties Brothers of Italy and the League are expected to win by a landslide.

Voting will close in two hours and we expect the first exit polls shortly after (you can read more here to get a sense of when things will happen tonight), but before then we’ll keep you posted with the latest news, predictions, expert insights and more.

READ ALSO: Far-right Brothers of Italy eyes historic victory as Italy votes

I’m The Local Italy’s editor Clare Speak and I’ll be updating you tonight as the exit polls and first results start to come in.

If you have questions, comments or feedback, please feel free to email or tweet me and I’ll do my best to answer (depending on how busy things get here tonight).

No matter how you feel about the election, I hope you’ll at least enjoy our coverage.

Not sure what to make of it all? Here’s our complete guide to the elections and what’s at stake.

Are you a member of The Local? If not, please consider joining us. If yes, thank you – your support helps us dedicate time and resources to this.

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