Italy’s gay couples in bittersweet wait for civil rights breakthrough

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Same-sex couples are set to win rights also in Italy, despite protestations from hardcore Catholic groups and conservative politicians. Homosexuals say the reform cannot come a day too soon, and should ultimately lead to a gay marriage bill.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised it: by the end of the year, Italy will give legal recognition to same-sex partnerships, joining the ranks of many other nations in the Western world.

“We will introduce civil unions. Full stop,” the centre-left leader told the Corriere della Sera newspaper last month.

But scepticism is of the order among the gay community, as previous such pledges have been unmet, and amid suspicions that a draft gay rights bill, under discussion since March 2013, may end up being watered down beyond recognition.

“What makes us Italian homosexuals very bitter is that today we are discussing whether to be happy or not about a law that is de facto 15-20 years behind other Western nations,” Barbara Vecchietti, 46, says.

Vecchietti and her partner Daniela Belisario, 50, are among the hundreds of gay couples who – for the lack of better alternatives – have signed up to civil partnership registers introduced at municipal level in cities such as Rome, Naples and Milan.

“Rather than matrimony, we have entered into a ‘registrimony’,” Belisario says of the largely symbolic act. “We’ll do a civil partnership when a national law is passed, but what we really want is equal marriage,” she adds.

The world’s first nation to regulate same-sex unions, in 1989, was Denmark. Gay marriage was spearheaded by the Netherlands, in 2001, and has since been approved in 11 other European Union members. Six more recognize civil partnerships.

Whilst stopping short of introducing gay marriage, the Italian reform would allow same-sex couples to acquire similar rights to married couples, such as visiting rights in hospital or prison, or inheritance and widower pension rights in case of death.

In one of the reform’s most contentious aspects, it would also introduce the so-called stepchild adoption – allowing for children of a gay person to be legally adopted by that person’ partner.

“Too many people in Italy today, including children, are in a legal black hole. We must put an end to it,” Monica Cirinna, a senator from Renzi’s Democratic Party who is sponsoring the legislation through the upper chamber, says in an interview.

Andrea Rubera, a 50-year-old man who has had three children via surrogate mother with his partner Dario – a procedure that is not legal in Italy and was performed abroad – says his family is living a “paradoxical” situation.

“In Italy, we are two single dads who accidentally live in the same address with their own offspring,” he says, adding that Dario, whom he married in Canada, is not legally entitled to pick up from school Rubera’s biological daughter, Artemisia.

Angelo Albanesi, 63, and Piergiorgio De Simone, 57, have been together since the 1980s. They say they had to spend thousands of euros in notary fees to register wills identifying each other as heirs – something that would be automatic for a married couple.

Opponents of the reform – including a junior partner of Renzi’s ruling coalition trying to obstruct parliamentary discussions – are vocal. In June, a Family Day rally in Rome organized by grassroots Catholic organizations attracted an estimated 250,000 people.

Notizie ProVita, an anti-reform website, says the reform is unnecessary, as gay people have already the means to defend their individual rights, and argues that it would be inherently wrong to treat homosexual unions like heterosexual marriages.

“It would be damaging to society, because due to the educational power of laws, problematic and unnatural situations would end up being perceived as ‘normal’ and good by the public, and equivalent to natural families,” it says in a recent statement.

Public opinion seems to have already shifted. In June, in the wake of the successful gay marriage referendum in Ireland, a poll published by the La Stampa newspaper said 67 per cent of Italians backed a law like the one senator Cirinna is sponsoring.

She is confident of securing Senate approval by October 15, allowing the bill to be sent to the lower chamber for further ratification. If not, discussions would slide into 2016, as parliamentary work in the last months of the year is monopolized by budget law discussions.

Italy is under pressure to clear the hurdle as soon as possible, as both its constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights have criticized the status quo, the latter most recently in a July ruling.

Even the Vatican may no longer be the formidable opponent it once was. Pope Francis, who on Thursday saw no problems in granting an audience to Luxembourg Premier Xavier Bettel, Europe’s first married gay leader, famously said he is in no position to judge homosexuals.

“Pope Francis’ church will not insist. It will set out its position, say what it has to say, but I am sure it won’t put up barricades,” Albanesi, a practicing Catholic, says. “Maybe that will give politicians who have always bowed to the Vatican a bit more courage.”

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