Italy's conservatives soften line on gay unions
Italian conservatives are used to being led by Silvio Berlusconi, a septuagenarian on trial for soliciting sex from a teenager who in the past has boasted about his playboy skills and made derogatory comments about homosexuals.
Three years ago, he came under fire for saying in an attempted joke that "it is better to have passion for beautiful girls than to be gay."
But now a debate has opened in his People of Freedom (PDL) party about the rights of same sex-couples, which in Italy are not legally protected, since the country is one of the last in the European Union not to recognize civil partnerships or gay marriages.
"I do not understand, I really don‘t, why (fellow) Catholics should fight battles against those who call for the recognition of same-sex couples," PDL coordinator Sandro Bondi said at the weekend.
His remarks came amid bitter controversy in France about the legalization of gay marriage and in the wake of a report by ILGA-Europe, a pan-European association, classifying Italy and Bulgaria as bottom of the EU class on homosexual rights.
Bondi was reacting to a letter published Saturday by centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, where a gay 17-year-old said he was writing as his "last alternative to suicide" and lamenting that "not everybody has the luck to be born a heterosexual."
Laura Boldrini, speaker of the lower house of parliament, also replied to the teen, offering to meet with him and saying that she "really hoped" that lawmakers would soon adopt a law making homophobia a criminal offence.
Other members of the PDL - such as former ministers Giancarlo Galan and Stefania Prestigiacomo - backed Bondi‘s position. "It is time for homosexuals to also be given the (full) rights of Italian citizenship," Galan said.
Currently, a gay person in Italy does not enjoy the same rights as a heterosexual wife or husband in terms of inheritance, or may be denied visiting rights reserved to family members if their partner is critically ill in hospital.
Last month Constitutional Court President Franco Gallo said banning gay marriage was legitimate, but warned that same sex couples "still have the fundamental right to obtain legal recognition of their stable union, with attached rights and obligations."
The Italian public seems to be ready to embrace changes in family law, confounding stereotypes about a male-dominated society subject to overbearing influence from the Catholic Church.
Two southern regions, Apulia and Sicily, have elected openly gay governors, both hailing from the left, while in January a survey from the Eurispes institute showed that 77 per cent of Italians were in favour of legalizing civil partnerships.
Data from Istat, the national statistics institute, also pointed to a crisis of traditional family institutions. Divorce rates have more than doubled from 80 per 1,000 marriages in 1995 to 182 in 2011, the Rome-based agency said Monday.
However, it is unclear whether Bondi‘s suggestion will be taken up. He was rebuffed by the pro-Catholic wing of his party, while Berlusconi has kept quiet on the issue, indicating that it was not a priority for him.
While he was in office in 2008, two of his then-ministers, Gianfranco Rotondi and Renato Brunetta, drafted a bill giving same-sex couples limited legal rights, but nothing came of the initiative.
Fabrizio Cicchitto, another leading PDL figure, said Sunday that reforming family law was not part of the agenda for the grand coalition government led by Prime Minister Enrico Letta, focused on tackling a jobs and growth crisis.
But Bondi was unrepentant.
"The PDL should not leave it to the left to uphold rights that are backed by a majority of the public opinion," he said in an interview to La Repubblica.
Noting that, as a Christian, US President Barack Obama has come out in favour of legalizing gay marriages, Bondi said he felt it "right and courageous" to work for the same "final objective" in Italy. dpa alv sdl