Thursday, 18 February 2016 16:12

Italy's troubled path towards civil unions

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pic EM Italy
Photo:  SignorDeFazio (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0  

 As the Cirinnà Bill is currently debated in Italy, Nicoletta Enria spells out what this legislative text is about and explains why civil union  is such a contentious topic for Italy

 I distinctly recall observing the beautiful scenes of jubilation when the US Supreme Court ruled gay marriage as legal nation-wide; I couldn’t help but wonder if this could ever occur in Italy. Italy remains the only country in Western Europe that does not recognize civil unions or gay marriage. Italy fosters a deeply catholic society, probably due to the Vatican and the Pope residing in the heart of Rome and a long Catholic history that came along with this. Despite Prime Minister Matteo Renzi having promised to pass a law on civil unions, this never seemed to be a priority. With the European Court of Human rights (ECHR) condemning Italy for failing to provide enough legal protection for same-sex unions, sentiments yearning for change were in the air. The controversial Cirinnà Bill seems to finally be paving the way for Italy to legalise civil unions. 

What actually is the Cirinnà Bill?

The Cirinnà Bill proposes, for the first time in Italy, to recognize homosexual and heterosexual civil unions with similar protections given to married couples such as tax breaks, pension rights, hospital proxy and inheritance rights. The first petitioner is the senator of the Democratic Party, Monica Cirinnà, in doing so lending her name to the Bill.  Whilst this is not the legalisation of gay marriage, which a number of European countries have legalised such as Finland, the UK, Spain and more, but it is nonetheless a huge and crucial step for Italy. Whenever discussions regarding legal protection of same-sex couples arose it never seemed to gain enough momentum, and finally we begin to see the crucial importance of the passing of this bill and recognising LGBT rights. An amendment by Democratic Party senator Marcucci, has cut all other proposed amendments and opening the votes for the Cirinnà Bill again on the 16th of February. This significant move also rejected amendments against the highly disputed 5th article of the bill regarding stepchild adoption. Unfortunately, the rejection of this bill by the Movimento Cinque Stelle Party on the 16th of February due to this clause has however postponed discussions to the 24th of February making it subject to further amendments. 

The stepchild adoption conundrum

Perhaps the most controversial clause of the bill is that of stepchild adoption which has sparked the most debate and criticism within the Senate and the public. The law would legalise stepchild adoption, but only if one of the partners of the gay couple is the biological parent. Now, under the 1983 legislation of stepchild adoption same-sex couples could already adopt, albeit the process was far longer and complex than that proposed by the Cirinnà Bill. This however, raises an interesting point as to why the 5th article on stepchild adoption has caused such furor, when it was already possible before? A variety of politicians from right to left wing expressed their fears over stepchild adoption and an eventual legalization of surrogacy. Why is it that debates on surrogacy only arise when talking about same-sex couples, when in fact heterosexual couples, maybe even at a majority, are going abroad to have children through surrogate methods? Here we see that the problem isn’t that of a fear of surrogacy and opposition to this but a well-disguised homophobia. 

Polarised Public Reaction 

Whilst other catholic countries such as Ireland and Malta have opened up to gay rights, Italy is lagging behind and it is undeniable that the Vatican has had a huge influence in shaping this public opinion. Pope Francis, known for his progressive tendencies, has expressed no support for Family Day, the protest organised on the 30th of January, second of its kind, opposing the legislation. Whilst this was seen as a distancing of the Catholic Church from such beliefs, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco signalled his support for the Family Day and the director of Catholic radio station Radio Maria went as far as to wish death upon senator Cirinnà. So saying that this bill has aroused controversy is an understatement. Footage from the Family Day in Rome shows a fairly wide participation to the event, although well below the figures of attendees claimed by the organizers (1 million). Although various respectable scientific studies show that same sex families have no negative effects on the children – if anything, the opposite seems to be true –, most participants in the event argued that they were there as they strongly believe children need a mother and a father. On the opposite side, various marches took place at the end of January in the streets of several Italian cities supporting the Cirinnà Bill: people were showing alarm clocks telling Italy that it is time to "wake up".

italy gay pride 2015
Photo:  Dauno Settantatre (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0  


Is Italy the European exception?

Within the EU laws differ significantly. As top gay rights activist Fabrizio Marrazzo mentioned “We hope the politicians see that this is not a law just for LGBT people, but for all Italians, for civil rights in Italy… we don’t have more time. In other parts of Europe they did this 10 years ago”. Denmark was the first country to recognise civil union in 1989, and many countries rapidly followed suit, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, France and Iceland. In Germany civil partnerships have been legal since 2001, but marriage is not yet legal. The Netherlands was the first country to legalise same-sex marriage, followed by Belgium, Spain, Norway and Sweden. Few countries, such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania, are left with no legal protection for same-sex couples. In the UK it was in fact the Conservative government that proposed and then approved gay marriage. Having said this, there is still a lot of work left to do to achieve a truly egalitarian approach, ceasing to categorise individuals on the basis of sexuality. If civil unions are going to be recognised in Italy, adhering to fundamental rights established by the European Union this would be great step in the right direction. 

Last modified on Saturday, 20 February 2016 11:11
Nicoletta Enria

Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, grew up in Rome, London and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London, studying Language and Cullture and now works as Project Assistant and Social Media Assistant at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Follow her on twitter: @NicolettaEnria or her blog.

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