Time to wake up: Italy to vote on recognition of same-sex civil unions

Stefano and Antonio have been living together for more than ten years. They go shopping together, they travel together, they eat together, and they sleep together. They love each other and they are a family.

In September 2014, the two men got married in London and decided to move home to Italy shortly after. In Italy, however, Stefano and Antonio are not considered a family: they are two people living under the same roof.

Update: on 11 May 2016, the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian parliament voted to approve same-sex civil unions, after a confidence vote passed by 369–193. Before this bill was approved, Italy was the only country in Western Europe that did not recognise same-sex marriage or civil-partnerships.

“Though the legislation brings some rights to same-sex couples, the watered down version has attracted negative responses from LGBT groups for ditching same-sex adoption. Rainbow Families says the decision to remove the adoption rights amounted to the “emptying out” of a bill that was already a “modest compromise”, as it doesn’t recognise same-sex marriages,” writes Nick Duffy in Pink News.

Under pressure from the Catholic church and far-right groups, the rights of the LGBTI community are largely crushed in Italy. Same-sex couples cannot legally adopt a child. They cannot share properties and bank accounts. If one of them becomes severely ill, the other will not be able to visit the partner in the hospital during “family only” hours.

In January 2016, the Italian parliament began debating a much-awaited proposal to legally recognise same-sex unions, giving new hopes to those who have been working hard for their right to love equally and openly.

“The Italian government knew that this debate could not been postponed any longer. It’s not the law we wanted, because it does not recognise same-sex marriage and it does not allow same-sex couples to adopt a child, but at least it will solve most of the practical problems that same-sex couples are facing in their everyday life,” says Stefano.

In addition to being Antonio’s husband, Stefano Bucaioni is also an Italian human rights defender. He is a member of the LGBTI organisation Omphalos in Perugia and in November 2015 he became vice-president of Arcigay, the foremost Italian LGBTI non-profit organisation.

Stefano told Front Line Defenders:

“After approving this law the Parliament might think their work is done, but we will keep pushing for more changes”

“In many European countries the civil partnership law was the first stage before recognising same-sex marriage, so this is the first very important step forward for us,” says Stefano.

The fight for LGBTI rights in Italy

On January 24, around one million people joined demonstrations in 100 cities to demand the Italian government to legalise same-sex unions, showing support for the LGBTI community. Demonstrators were holding alarm clocks, asking Italy to “wake up”.

“LGBTI people are not seen as badly as they were 30 or 40 years ago,” says Stefano. “People see their LGBTI sons, friends and colleagues and so they are more open to accept it. The problem is that politics is still deeply influenced by the Church and far-right groups, and these are the groups that are blocking changes.”

In three cities — Turin, Milan and Siena — a group known as “sentinelle in piedi” (the standing sentinels) hold a counter-demonstration on the same day. The sentinelle in piedi are a group that opposes same-sex marriages. In their website, they claim not to be an homophobic group, but to be fighting “for the freedom to say that we are born either men or women, and that the only possible relationship is that between a man and a woman”.

In March 2014, Stefano Bucaioni and other LGBTI activists went to the square in Perugia where the sentinels were holding one of their vigils, standing silent and praying together.

Stefano kisses his husband during one of the “standing sentinels” protest (Perugia, March 2014)

“We went to the square and we started kissing each other. Five months later, I was notified that the police had formally charged me with a public order offence for breaching the peace. The police report claimed our long and passionate kiss had disgusted passers-by and disturbed the anti-LGBT protest”, says Stefano.

“Those charges would be laughable if they didn’t reflect exactly the anti-gay sentiment that we are fighting”

On January 30, anti-LGBTI groups organised a protest in Rome known as Family Day, in defense — as they say — of the “traditional family”. Many of the politicians attending the demonstrations had cheated on their partner, they had divorced, they had children born from extra-marital relationships — all things strongly prohibited by the Catholic church — but nevertheless they were calling for the “tradition” to be respected, because they see same-sex unions as “against nature and against the law”.

Demonstrators join the Family Day to protest against the proposal of a same-sex civil unions bill (Rome, 30 January 2016)

Ironically, same-sex relationships were allowed in the ancient Roman empire and several Roman emperors were either bisexual or homesexual.

In 342 AD, however, Christian emperor Constantinus approved a law to prohibit same-sex marriage and ordered to execute those who were in a homosexual union.

Same-sex couples are not executed with the guillotine any more, but Giovanni de Paoli — a Northern League politician — has recently said in public that he would set his son on fire if he found out he was gay.

Stefano told Front Line Defenders:

“Violence against LGBT organisations and community sites seem to be rising in the recent years.”

“Italian anti-LGBT organisations and hate groups are importing methods and models to fight the request of equal rights from all over Europe, and there is a rise in openly homophobic campaigns and public demonstrations led by religious fanatics and far-right groups,” says Stefano.

To fight back, Stefano and his organisation have been advocating to introduce an anti-discrimination law: “It is unbelievable that Italy does not yet have a law against homophobic hate speech and discrimination. In the struggle for LGBTI rights, Italy has still a long way to go”.

What would the new law mean for LGBTI couples in Italy?

Since 1988, 46 different proposals on a civil partnership law have been presented to the Parliament, but this is the first time that a concrete vote on same-sex civil partnerships was finally cast.

If approved, the law would allow homosexual and heterosexual couples to officially register their union and to have the same rights as the married ones: inheriting a partner’s pension, sharing a mortgage to buy a house together, and adopting a partner’s children in certain circumstances.

With this law Italy is not creating new rights, but it is simply eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, has said in an interview with the Italian news agency Ansa.

The most controversial article of the law is the step-child provision, which allows same-sex couples to adopt one another’s children. It has been opposed by some members of the Democratic Party, the centre-left party currently in power. According to its critics, this aspect of the law might encourage same-sex couples to resort to surrogacy maternity, a practice that is illegal in Italy.

The interior minister Angelino Alfano, member of the new centre-right party, has said that people who use the so-called “wombs for rent” should be arrested and treated as if they were sex offenders. Other politicians have also said that children born in this way should be taken away from their legal guardian — if the guardian was in a same-sex relationship — to be adopted by an heterosexual couple.

On February 18, the Italian Senate was expected to vote on the new law, but the vote was postponed to February 24 because senators failed to find an agreement regarding the 6,000 amendments presented by the opposition. LGBTI organisations across the country have strongly criticised the decision to postpone the debate and the vote, as they fear the text of the law might be drastically changed and the step-child provision article might be dropped.

Wake up Italy: the rest of Europe woke up long time ago

In 2015, LGBTI communities around the world celebrated a series of victories: in May, Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by referendum; in June, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage nationwide; and in December, also Greece passed a bill to recognise same-sex civil partnerships.

Ireland celebrates the result of the referendum (Dublin, May 2015)

These victories were a great achievement not only for people in Ireland, the US and Greece, but for many LGBTI communities worldwide. They showed that the struggle of LGBTI human rights defenders and their fierce advocacy work can bring tangible results and much-needed changes at the political and cultural level.

Yet, while these human rights successes were sweeping some parts of the west, in July 2015 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy was violating human rights by failing to offer sufficient legal protection to same-sex couples.

Being one of the founding members of the European Union does not automatically ensure human rights for everyone. Italy is a perfect and unfortunate example of that, especially when it comes to LGBT rights,”. says Stefano.

“It’s time to follow the example of the other European countries”

In 1989 Denmark was the first country in the world to legally recognise same-sex unions. In the following years, all the other Western European countries — apart from Italy — introduced new pieces of legislation to give LGBTI people the right that every human being should be entitled to: the right to have an happy life, without suffering discriminations because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

In November 2015, Stefano Bucaioni attended the 8th Front Line Defenders Dublin Platform. In this interview with Front Line Defenders, Stefano speaks about the struggle for LGBTI rights in Italy

Lorena Cotza is Campaigns Fellow at Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the protection of human rights defenders.