ROME — Civil unions could soon become a reality in Italy, where the Senate will begin debating a bill Thursday to give same-sex couples similar rights as people in heterosexual marriages, delivering on a long-standing promise by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.“When it comes to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, Italy is far behind other EU member states. It is the only country in Western Europe that does not recognize same-sex relationships,” said Judith Sunderland, Europe and Central Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch.
Since the end of the 1980s, a series of grassroots initiatives, petitions, demonstrations and left-wing attempts to bring a bill on LGBT rights before parliament have failed despite popular support — dying at the committee stage without even making it to the floor. Continued opposition from conservative Catholic groups means the latest bill is not guaranteed success either.
At present, decisions about civil unions are left to local Italian courthouses, making the country an outlier among major EU states, which largely recognize the rights of same-sex couples.
“If a lesbian manager from the U.K. wants to move to Italy with her wife, her marriage is simply not recognized,” said Marco Gattuso, a magistrate of the Bologna courthouse and director of a law review on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In an attempt to deal with the situation, a number of Italian cities have institutedso-called “registers” — rosters where unmarried couples can get some degree of official recognition for their family status, as well as access to a very limited number of municipal benefits such as social housing that would otherwise only be available to heterosexual married couples.
When Rome’s city hall attempted in 2014 to recognize the union of 11 same-sex couples, to a media fanfare, conservative forces blocked the initiative. The Italian interior ministry, headed by Angelino Alfano who is an ally of the center-left Renzi but comes from the small conservative party New Center-Right, issued a circular invalidating the ceremony.
There is no guarantee all the Democratic Party senators, especially the Roman Catholic minority, will vote as a united bloc.
Last year the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), ruling in the case of three couples who had their requests to be married rejected despite years of cohabitation, found that Italy was violating the rights of LGBT people by failing to “provide for the core needs relevant to a couple in a stable committed relationship.” The court in Strasbourg also ordered the Italian government to pay the six men €5,000 each.
The fine itself was symbolic, said Sunderland at Human Rights Watch, adding: “The main thing is that the ruling means Italy must adapt its legislation to recognize same-sex couples in order to be in line with its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Daniele Viotti, an MEP from Renzi’s Democratic Party and president of the European Parliament intergroup on LGBT, said Thursday’s vote in the Senate would be a red-letter day.
“I can’t be certain the bill will pass and I’m not going to say anything because I’m a bit superstitious, but I sure hope so because there are a lot of colleagues here in Brussels who are following what’s going on in Italy with great interest,” said Viotti.
Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, tweeted:“I encourage #Italy to ensure legal recognition for same sex couples as per @ECHR & as in majority of @CoE states.”
Renzi, who has been promising to deliver on civil unions since 2013, has political capital invested in the bill and its failure would be a blow to him. To get it through the Senate, he needs 161 votes, but the numbers are still uncertain. There is no guarantee all the Democratic Party senators, especially the Roman Catholic minority, will vote as a united bloc and support from the left-leaning, anti-establishment 5 Star Movement is no longer a certainty.
The Senate is scheduled to have its final vote on the bill by February 11. If the bill passes, it will be sent back to the lower house — where Renzi has stronger numbers — for final approval.
“Renzi wants the law to come into effect before summer, about a year after the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights,” said Viotti.
The most heated debate is likely to involve Article 5, concerning rights of gay couples to adopt a child as long as one is the biological parent. Catholics in the Democratic Party oppose this and want to water it down, or eliminate it completely from the draft legislation.
The wider Catholic establishment is up in arms, with so-called “Family Day” rallies due to take place across Italy on Saturday. Expecting hundreds of thousands of people at the main rally in Rome, the organizers moved it from the Piazza San Giovanni to the larger Circo Massimo.
Pope Francis made his stance clear Friday, telling Vatican judges “there cannot be confusion between the family wanted by God and every other type of union.” Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of Italy’s Bishops’ Conference, said the so-called traditional family was a “treasure chest of relationships, generations and genres, of humanism and of grace.”
On Saturday, rallies in support of the bill took place in 98 cities across Italy. The LGBT rights group Coordinamento Arcobaleno said a million people had taken part, though that may have been overstated. As some 8,000 people began gathering in venues like Milan’s Piazza della Scala, alarm clocks went off at 4 p.m. sharp as a call to Italy to “wake up.”