Italy on track to end status as Western Europe’s odd-man out

The Italian parliament is scheduled to vote late this month week on the country’s first comprehensive bill to legitimize civil unions for co-habitating couples and will be the first law here to allow same-sex couples to enjoy full civil rights, although no provision is made for same-sex marriage per say.

Proposed and written by Monica Cirinnà, a senator from the Partito Democratico, Italy’s largest single political party, it is being pushed forward energetically by premier Matteo Renzi and, as can be imagined, is being vigorously backed by Italy’s gay organizations, who  turned out supporters in droves yesterday in peaceful demonstrations in Rome and 10 Italian cities.

If the law passes, and it seems likely that it will although more changes may be made to counter criticism by some constitutionalists and the opposition of several conservative parties, including the NCD which is part of the ruling coalition, it will end this  country’s embarrassing status as Western Europe’s one hold out against legislation of this type. The Greek government passed a civil union bill in December,  and last spring a popular referendum in Ireland ignored church opposition to legalize same-sex marriage.

The Cirinnà law is divided into two parts. In its current version, the first concerns gay couples alone and basically applies to same-sex civil unions most of the regulations in Italy’s civil code that apply to marriage itself, although it should be noted that this would contravene a ruling by the country’s supreme court in 2010. For many, however,  the most controversial clause is that concerning  “stepchild adoption” (apparently there is no cogent way to  say this in Italian) and inheritance of a deceased partner’s pension. On the first issue, some critics are calling for greater authority by family law courts.

The second part gives almost full rights to all registered cohabitating couples (no pensions, or stepchild adoption, however), including the right of the couple to apply for and be considered for public housing, if they meet the other requirements,  the right to act as a representative for a partner who is sick or dying, the right to visit him or her in hospital or in prison, the right to take over a rental contract in case of a partner’s death, and even the right to get alimony in the event of a break-up.

The law, as written, is so comprehensive that many same-sex couples may never feel the need for marriage, except as a question of principle. For the law also does not allow for the adoption of children, except for the already-existing children of the partner (stepchild adoption) and surrogate pregnancies are also banned here.

Everyone assumes the problem of this long delay in Italy has been caused by the Vatican but I am not so sure. It seems more likely to me that it is mix of two things. One, a swathe of the Italian population, Roman Catholic and not, that is so conservative at its gut that they still think it is fine that single people – gay or hetero – are not allowed to adopt. Two, a pro-Catholic automatic reflex by conservatives, politicians who seem to have forgotten that the Vatican no longer has any direct impact on political life here. And even when it did, because of its close links with the now obsolete Christian Democratic party (defunct since 1992) in major tournaments the score has always been Italian voters, 1, Roman Catholic Church, 0. Has everyone forgotten the Seventies when in two popular referenda, Italians voted first in favour of divorce and later in favour of abortion? I think the identical thing would happen today if the question of same-sex civil unions were to go to a popular vote. Times change, and whether conservatives like it or not, Italy, too, will be a different place tomorrow than it was in the past.

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