I recently had the privilege to talk to Francesco Bilotta, member of “Avvocatura per i diritti LGBTI”, a group of Italian lawyers and professionals committed to defending LGBTI rights in the Bel Paese. (Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that the traditional acronym LGBT has been enriched with a new letter for “Intersexed”.) The association also goes by the name of “Lenford Network”, in remembrance of Jamaican AIDS activist Harvey Lenford, brutally killed in 2005.
The association was the idea of Saveria Ricci, a Florence-based lawyer who decided to involve Francesco and other lawyers in getting the project off the ground. “Our objective”, Francesco told me, “is to create a space where professionals can exchange information, monitor developments in different parts of the country, raise awareness among lawyers and magistrates about LGBTI issues and provide legal assistance to LGBTI people.”
“We all agreed”, Francesco continued, “that an association of this sort was badly needed in Italy. However, we were quite scared by the amount of work we might have to handle”. And rightly so.
Quite expectedly, requests for help have been coming thick and fast. “Since we set up our email address email@example.com”, Francesco said, “we’ve received requests pretty much on a daily basis.”
“The chief problem is always the same: there is a legal vacuum in Italian law when it comes to LGBTI rights, no rules providing guidance. “Therefore,” Francesco continued, “the only resource we have to meet this demand for justice is creativity”. A skill that, for better or worse, Italians have always excelled at.
“I was recently struck by the case of a man whose partner – with whom he has lived for years – needs to start chemotherapy. He is the only person his partner can rely on for assistance but, because he is not legally recognized as a family member, he might not get authorization to assist him.”
Fortunately, there is room for hope too. Thinking about how things have changed over the years, Francesco pointed enthusiastically to the extraordinary progress that has been made, which he described as knocking down the wall of silence that trapped too many for too long.
“Two things have recently strengthened my belief that speaking out is the only way to do away with prejudice and stereotypes”, he added. “Firstly, I am holding a series of lectures on Sexual Orientation and the Law at Roma3 University.
This is the first course in Italy to link sexual orientation to the notion of rights. Students are probably thinking for the first time about the close relation between the rights claimed by LGBTI people and the notion of citizenship.”
The second thing he was happy about is a website set up by Italian daily Corriere della sera, where people can post videos about their difficulties coming out. “Many have written to me saying how important it is for them to feel free to tell their story”, he explained.
“Le cose cambiano” (things get better), the website says, bringing a much-needed breath of fresh air in a country where politics has been getting staler and freedom of expression increasingly thin on the ground.
Globally, things are getting better indeed. The past ten years have been a political and judicial roller-coaster for the LGBTI community around the world and, although many battles remain to be won, there is much to be merry about: in the USA alone the number of states that have legalised same-sex marriage has risen from one to 12 between 2003 and 2013, with Rhode Island and Minnesota being the latest to join the club.
Outside the States, the “rainbow wave” has pushed legal boundaries in Europe and elsewhere, making same-sex marriage a reality in 12 countries: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden. So the question is: what is stopping the rainbow wave from reaching Italy’s shores?
Politics: therein lies the rub
Judging by the 2012 report on homosexuality by the Italian Interior Ministry, prejudice seems deeply entrenched in people’s minds: 40.3% of Italian gays/bisexuals say they have been discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation; 41.4% of Italians think it is “unacceptable” for a gay person to be a primary school teacher; 28.1% believe that gay people should not be doctors and 24.1% say they would not want to be represented by a gay politician.
Discrimination, inequality and abuse take on countless forms: they seep through seemingly innocuous language (“I can’t stand the phrase ‘gay marriage’, Francesco said, ‘why don’t we start talking about ‘equal marriage’ instead?”), are magnified by stereotypical representation by the media or even made worse by a lack of media coverage (suffice to think of the many transsexuals relegated to the margin of society who only hit the headlines when it is too late to do anything).
What needs to change is the way LGBT issues are seen, thought of and talked about and, while some argue that changing the legislation is only the tip of the iceberg, it is undeniable that politics could do an awful lot to shake that big block of ice that is discrimination, from allowing same-sex marriage to sanctioning homophobia and transphobia.
Franco Gallo, the president of Italy’s Constitutional Court, has repeatedly called for such laws, but his statements have always fallen on stony ground.
“Italy’s not living in Europe. It’s just surviving in it”, Francesco said. “There are no signs of progressive reforms in any domain, no vision for society.”
LGBTI rights have been an elephant in the chambers of Parliament for a long time. Even mentioning the issue was for many years taboo in a country where politics is more concerned with preserving the status quo than representing, let alone educating, society.
During Italy’s latest election campaign, it looked like things were finally starting to change, with parties of all hues including gay rights in their manifestos in an undignified scramble for votes.
However, the hopes of those who had believed that the wind of change was finally about to blow were soon blown to smithereens. As soon as the ‘grand coalition’ government was sworn in, politicians let gay issues fall off the radar pleading that mending the economy was at the top of the agenda.
“The reason why introducing same-sex marriage in Italy has not been possible so far is that the lack of such a law is not perceived to be a form of discrimination”, Francesco added.
“Conservatism is the watchword of Italian politics”, he explained. “The use of phrases such as ‘civil rights’ to talk about same-sex families is indicative of politicians’ reluctance to address the issue openly. Even the mention of same-sex marriage is enough to be branded an extremist by all parties.”
“Compromise is their mantra”, he added, “but as a citizen I won’t accept any compromise on basic human rights. Doing so means undermining the principle of equality and the very notion of the rule of law.”
“In the course of history”, he argued, “the law has been an extraordinary instrument of power and social conservatism. Certain battles”, he concluded, “call us all into question. It’s not about sexual orientation but, rather, about the level of democracy in our countries”.