Human Rights in Italy

It's about so much more than the "Zan Law"
© Sharon McCutcheon @ Pixabay

Homo- and transphobia sometimes seems almost normal and common in Italy. Many people avoid coming out publicly for fear of being attacked. Recently, there have been several cases of massive violence against queer people in Italy. The country lags behind in LGBTI rights: according to Eurobarometer, 70 percent of Italians state extensive discrimination based on sexual orientation. Italy is one of the few European countries that has not passed a law punishing homophobic discrimination.

The so-called "Legge Zan," named after LGBTQ activist and Social Democratic member of parliament Alessandro Zan, aims to change that. The law, which aims to bring legal protection and criminalize hatred against gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people, among others, has been hotly debated for months. The polarized public debate has long since escalated into an ideological dispute over censorship, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The division cuts right across Italian society. Time and again, there are nationwide demonstrations, and many artists, musicians and writers publicly support the initiative. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, fears the spread of "gender ideologies."

The Chamber of Deputies has already passed the law on November 4th 2020. Now it is stuck in the Senate. If the law fails to clear the final parliamentary hurdle, a new proposal would have to be voted on again in the Chamber of Deputies. This is due in part to the blockade by Matteo Salvini's right-wing populist Lega, which has rejoined Prime Minister Mario Draghi's broad governing coalition. The chairman of the Justice Commission, Andrea Ostellari of Lega, said there were more important things such as combating the pandemic. The right-wing Forza Italia party and the far-right Fratelli d'Italia party also do not want to approve the law. Matteo Salvini does not think the new law is necessary - on the contrary, he even sees it as an attack on freedom of expression. For Mario Draghi, who has no party affiliation, the conflict threatens to further potentially divide and politically paralyze the government of "national unity" with which he actually wants to lead the country unitedly out of the pandemic.

The Zan Law, around which the political dispute manifests itself, is intended to help make it easier to report attacks. If certain crimes are not mentioned by name, they do not exist in that sense. Therefore, the approach was to expand an existing law against hate crimes (which already includes racist motives) to include the offenses of "omotransfobia" and "misoginia." The draft also criminalizes misogyny and hatred against people with disabilities and can be punished with, among other things, prison sentences of up to four years for any form of violence and discrimination. Accompanying measures to promote a "culture of respect" include teaching sessions on the problem in schools and a national day of action on May 17 against homophobia, bi-, inter- and transphobia. The budget of the equality commissioners for the establishment of legal and medical-psychological counseling centers will also be increased by four million euros annually. Regular surveys by the statistics office are to verify the hoped-for change in awareness among the population.

Pride Flag
© Anete Lusina / Pexels

So far, improvements in the situation of LGBTI rights in Italy have mostly occurred as a result of court rulings. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, pointed out that Italy was violating human rights by denying recognition and adequate legal protection to same-sex couples. Only then was a law on civil partnerships passed.

Recognizing that violent political, social, and cultural relations cannot be changed by law, consistent human rights review tools are essential, for example, on LGBTI, religion, education, Roma-rights, immigration, freedom of expression, disability, and prisoners. Public debate is overdue and provides an opportunity to increase the visibility of the LGBTI community in Italy. It is about much more than the Zan Law bone of contention - it is about an opportunity for a change in mentality for a freer and more tolerant society.

“Italy is at a crossroad and we have a huge opportunity thanks to the EU Recovery Plan. We should take this opportunity to catch up on the human rights of LGBTI people, too.”

Yuri Guaiana, +Europa and Secretary of LGBTI Liberals of Europe
Yuri Guaiana, freedom fighter and human rights activist from Italy

Interview with Yuri Guaiana, +Europa and Secretary of LGBTI Liberals of Europe

How do you view the LGBTI human rights situation in Italy?

Italy scores 35th in the ILGA-Europe’s ranking of 49 European countries. Since 2016, when the Parliament approved the civil union law failing to protect children of rainbow families, Italy has not made any progress whatsoever in recognizing the human rights of LGBTI people. Particularly telling in this regard is that, since 2015, Italy has not even been able to renew the LGBTI strategy that sets the goals the Republic should commit to achieve in terms of LGBTI rights.

A quick glance at the ILGA-Europe Map 2021 (https://ilga-europe.org/sites/default/files/Attachments/Rainbow%20Europe%20Map%202021.pdf) will show how Italy sticks out in Western Europe with that pinkish color more prominent in Eastern Europe. And that despite a relative welcoming social context.

It therefore is not a surprise that according to the FRA survey «A long way to go for LGBTI equality» (https://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2020/eu-lgbti-survey-results), only 8% of LGBTI Italians think the government in 2019 did enough to tackle bases and intolerance. 

What should be done or has been done already on the political level to improve the situation? 

What Italy should do is pretty clear and it’s been told to the Parliament and the Government by the Italian Constitutional Court and the UN.

In early 2021, the Italian Constitutional Court recognised the need to protect the rights of children born to same-sex couples and called on the Parliament to take action. Needless to say that the Parliament has ignored this clear and decisive warning from the Constitutional Court so far.

In late 2019, within the UPR process, Italy got 17 recommendations on LGBTI rights calling for a law against homophobia and transphobia, the renewal of a national strategy against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the recognition of both same-sex parents, the right to adopt for same sex couples and the prohibition of cosmetic surgery on intersex children.  Italy accepted all but one recommendation, but nothing happened yet.

How do you see the future in that regard in 20 years?

I think Italy has no choice, either it catches up with other Western European countries on many thing, including LGBTI rights or it is destined to go down the path Poland and Hungary are following. We have seen the forces operating for the latter scenario when Italy hosted the World Congress of Families in Verona in 2019. Italy is at a crossroad and we have a huge opportunity thanks to the EU Recovery Plan. We should take this opportunity to catch up on the human rights of LGBTI people too. I am hopeful and I am determined to do all I can to achieve that.

For further reading:

In the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map 2020 https://www.ilga-europe.org/rainboweurope/2021  Italy ranks 35th out of 49 countries. Italy is far behind many other EU countries in the recognition of LGBTI rights. The index ranks countries considering equality and non-discrimination, legislation recognizing families, the prevalence of hate crimes and hate speech, or legal recognition of gender and bodily integrity. According to these criteria, Malta, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and Spain are the best-ranked EU countries, while Italy, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia and Poland score lowest.