By Claudia M. Zedda
While the US issues its first gender neutral passport, Italy’s Senate blocks a proposed anti-homophobia law. On Wednesday last week, the Italian Senate voted down a proposed law against homophobia, sexism and hate against disabled members of society. I never felt so embarrassed of being Italian before this happened.
The law, known as “DDL Zan”, sought to punish discrimination acts and incitement to violence against the LGBT+ community, women and disabled people. The bill would have extended passages of the penal code that already punishes discrimination and violence based on racial, ethnic and religious beliefs to also include sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as disability. It was proposed back in 2018 by Alessandro Zan, a member of Parliament from the centre-left democratic party, in response to an increasing number of acts of violence towards gay and transgender people. So why has the majority voted down this law?
Critics of the law said it would have endangered “freedom of expression” (or freedom to hate and discriminate is the word you are looking for?) and would have paved the way for “homosexual propaganda” in schools (because of course, having a law that makes discrimination a hate crime means that all the children in Italy will automatically decide to be gay?).
The bill has been at the centre of public discussion over the past year, as its passage by the Senate has been repeatedly delayed for months. The 315-member senate voted by 154 to 131 on Wednesday to block the debate on the law, which was previously approved by the lower house of parliament. It was particularly interesting how the Italian premier and politician Matteo Renzi chose to fly to Saudi Arabia exactly on the day of the vote.
In June, the Vatican took the unprecedented step of lodging a formal complaint against the law, saying it breached the treaty between Italy and the Holy See. The Vatican was concerned that under the Zan law, Catholics risked prosecution for expressing opinions in favour of traditional family structures. But “Italy is a secular state, not a confessional state” as affirmed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
Over the past couple of decades, attempts by various governments to enact a similar law have been sabotaged, with any progress blocked by a macho culture, the church and support for far-right parties.
The most disgusting part of all this is how a room of mostly straight white men, of which the youngest is probably 50 years old, loudly cheer and applaud after the result of the vote was announced. Senators also asked for the vote to be secret, meaning that they did not have to declare their position publicly. Are these people supposed to represent a country of 60+ million people? Are these cowards supposed to represent me?
The videos of the moment rapidly spread on social media, sparking strong reactions and mobilisation in less than 24 hours. Thousands of people gathered in public spaces around Italy shining torches on their phones “against the darkness of intolerance”, as a result of the bill’s defeat. Other protests were held in Brescia, Mantua, Palermo and Rome, where people gathered in the shadow of the Colosseum to express their disappointment at the Senate vote. A poll in July suggested that the law had popular support, with 62% of Italians in favour of the reform. The Italian fashion world also showed their disappointment, including Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Gucci and Versace, using their Instagram account to get vocal about what’s happening in the country. One speaker at the Milan rally affirmed how he had suffered homophobic abuse and was hospitalised for months after being beaten up on the street, all because he had silver hair.
That Wednesday Italy lost a chance to be more inclusive, but particularly more civilised. Whoever applauded that day, applauded a failure of the morality of my country. Applauded hate, discrimination, and injustice. I do not want to tell my children that I was part of these years of Italian history, because there is nothing more humiliating than using your privilege to crush someone else’s basic human rights.
But sadly, I must admit, I was not surprised when the Zan law was turned down. According to an article by the Guardian of 2019, more than half of Italians surveyed in a poll have said that racist acts are either sometimes or always “justifiable”. This poll was carried out just after a series of high-profile racist and antisemitic incidents across the country. The polling firm conducts the same survey once a year and for the first time in a decade, the majority did not condemn racism.
Although Italy approved same-sex civil unions in 2016 (which is not even close to same-sex marriage) the country lags behind other European countries and is on a similar footing with countries like Poland, Bulgaria and Lithuania in terms of anti-homophobia measures.
I will never forget the case of Malika Chalhy, a 22-year-old girl from Tuscany, who was thrown out of her own house and sent death threats by her family when she came out as gay.
I will never forget the death of 22-year-old Maria Paola Gaglione, who died in a motorbike accident chased by their brother, who couldn’t accept her relationship with a trans man. The young woman and her boyfriend were riding a scooter together trying to get home when they were chased by her brother on a motorbike, who was kicking and ramming the vehicle until the couple lost control. The two of them had repeatedly had death threats before the accident.
In 2019, over 100 hates crimes were reported to the Italian police, concerning bias against a particular sexual orientation or gender identity. It was also reported that 40% of hate crimes were physical assaults, while 30% were an incitement to violence. A homophobia and transphobia helpline run by the Gay Centre association in Italy receives about 20.000 help requests a year from those who experience violence or threats. How can these people be denied protection in one of the most “developed” countries in the world?
Italy is homophobic. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Italians are denied acceptance and are not seen by society. They are denied fundamental human rights and protection. The fact that Italian law does not recognise hate crime or hate speech when it is levelled against queer people is insane. Since 2020, at least 138 additional hate crimes against LGBT Italians have been recorded, and several trans women were murdered, according to a research paper by Callahan.
I was born and raised in a country where you would never see two people of the same sex holding hands. However, over the years the situation got better as new generations shared ideas across the internet. What has not changed is the type of people who are in charge of this country. I consider myself to be privileged, as I am a white heterosexual woman who has social and economic opportunities to travel and live the life I want to live without constraints. But there is another part of society, in every country, that suffers from legislations and laws that were made by straight white men.
I believe the problem here is not that the law was not passed, but who decided to turn it down. The problem is why they thought it was right to do so. Believing that discrimination is considered as ‘freedom of thought’ is just ridiculous. This is not my country.
Italy is the people who protested in the streets after the bill was not passed. People with LGBT+ flags want to make everyone feel accepted. I don’t want to be waiting another fifty years before the situation changes again. Italy needs to listen to young voices, different ethnicities, abled and disabled people, gender-fluid individuals whose voices have been ignored for too long.
I don’t want to be ashamed of where I come from, because these decisions do not reflect me. And whoever sits in Parliament, making decisions about whether is right or wrong to discriminate, don’t know what they are talking about. They sit on top of their beautiful throne because they have been so lucky to be born in the most privileged situation. I would love for my country to accept diversity and realise its potential, rather than trying to hide it under the carpet.
Situations like these should not be made possible under EU and international laws. Basic human rights are endangered, and hate is perpetuated. The European Union needs to recognise the gravity of the situation, making its member states accountable for their decisions. In 2021, civil rights cannot be considered an option.