A setback for gay rights in Italy

Political manoeuvring in Italy's parliament threatens gay rights.

It should have been a big day for gay rights in Italy with the approval by the senate at first reading of key parts of a bill introducing civil unions for same-sex couples and protection for their offspring.

As it turned out, the proposal backed by the Partito Democratico (PD) of prime minister Matteo Renzi was postponed as a result of obstructionist opposition from politicians who had previously pledged their support.

Debate on the bill was suspended until Wednesday 24 February for a ‘pause for reflection’ and to allow mediators to try to re-build broken political ties.

However, there is a chance that when discussion does resume it will be on a bill that is significantly watered down with respect to the one that has come a cropper.

The main sticking point in debate so far has been the so-called ‘stepchild adoption’ clause allowing one partner in a same-sex union to adopt the other partner’s biological child.

On 16 February a group of over 700 family lawyers, judges and constitutional experts said this was “the minimum guarantee for children living with same-sex parents today” to ensure continuity of care and affection in the event that their biological parent dies or becomes incapacitated.

Under current rules in Italy such children risk ending up in foster care as their non-biological ‘parent’ has no legal custody rights.

However, conservative Catholics within the PD (or Cattodems as they are called), the minor government partner Nuovo Centrodestra (NCD), a handful of members of the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and the centre-right opposition see stepchild adoption as a gateway to surrogate motherhood, even though the practice is explicitly forbidden in Italy under a separate law.

Opponents to the bill have also taken issue with other provisions extending some of the same rights granted to married heterosexual couples to same-sex couples in a civil union.

They fear these measures, which are needed to bring Italy into line with the rest of western Europe, will lead to the assimilation of civil unions to marriage, with the result that same-sex couples will eventually be granted full adoption rights (in Italy this is currently almost exclusively the prerogative of married couples).

The upshot of all this opposition was a barrage of amendments which one PD senator tried to sidestep by filing a so-called ‘kangaroo amendment’ to strike them down.

This was blocked by M5S on Tuesday on grounds the bill and all its proposed amendments should be properly debated and voted in parliament.

Their argument rested on the premise that the proposal had not been formulated and approved by the senate justice commission prior to hitting the assembly floor.

This is true.

But it is also true that it was presented to the assembly last October after three previous attempts to formulate a civil unions bill in the commission failed due to obstructionism and opposition. And that the proposal as it stands attempts to mediate between many of the cultural and ideological positions expressed at that stage.

The impression now is that it has fallen foul of those positions and, perhaps to an even greater extent, of the political manoeuvring ahead of municipal elections in June at the very moment when the finish line is in sight.

PD senator Monica Cirinnà, the rapporteur of the provisions from the outset, is rightly frustrated and disappointed.

So is Italy’s gay and lesbian community, which has been waiting decades (the first proposals to regulate same-sex unions in Italy date to the 1980s) to see its rights acknowledged.

To paraphrase the legal experts in their petition on stepchild adoption, same-sex couples exist.

This reality may not sit comfortably with the Catholic Church, conservative laypeople or centre-right politicians, but it is a matter of fact.

And in a secular democracy parliament has the responsibility to treat it as exactly that – a matter of fact. Putting personal convictions and ideologies to one side in order to legislate on behalf of a minority group and in the best interests of their children.

Laura Clarke

For more views on Italy see Laura Clake's blog