Wanna See the Anti-LGBT Narratives in Action? Look at Italy

How the Senate killed a hate crime bill that protected vulnerable groups and laughed heartily about it

Last week, the right-wing coalition in the Italian Senate used a procedural trick to successfully kill a hate crime bill that would have protected LGBT people, women and people with disabilities from violence and discrimination (see The Guardian and The Independent). Immediately after the outcome of the vote had been announced, the whole Senate’s right wing ridiculously burst into loud laughters, applauses and victory celebration praises for having stopped a law that would have made the targets of systemic attacks and discriminatory treatments in the country less vulnerable. This bill’s fate represents an excellent case study to assess how poisonous anti-gay narratives can bring promising protective laws to a miserable end—and endure a climate of homo- and transphobic fear in the country.

The majority of European countries have ad hoc laws protecting LGBT people from hate speech, physical and verbal aggressions and discrimination. Norway, for example, introduced a hate crime law in 1981 and amended it in 2020 to include trans victims. Similarly, a French law of 2004 punishes anyone who “provoke[s] hate or violence against a person or a group of people on grounds of their sex, sexual orientation or disability.” Of the 49 European countries reported in ILGA’s 2021 Rainbow Index, only twelve are currently missing a sexual orientation and gender identity-specific hate crime law, one of those being Italy, scoring far below in ILGA’s ranking.

Italy has always struggled to reach the same standards of her civilised peers. In fact, until 2016 the country had only one, EU-imposed, statute protecting LGBT people from discrimination in the workplace. In 2016, right after a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights had reproached Italy for the absence of a law protecting same-sex couples, the Parliament eventually passed an articulated law on civil partnerships and cohabiting couples. Without external pressures, the country’s legislators have zero incentives to protect their gay and lesbian citizens from violence.

In 2018, a bunch of MPs from Partito Democratico and other left-wing parties introduced a bill on homo and transphobic hate crimes which would expand a law of 1993 that punishes racial, ethnic, national and religious hatred and discrimination to protect sexual orientation and gender identity. During the discussions in the Camera dei Deputati (Italy’s lower chamber), the bill was merged with other texts to comprise women and people with disabilities. In addition to considering the motive of a crime as determinant for criminal sanctions, the bill provided for complementary measures such as further financial support to violence shelters, the possibility for all schools to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on the 17th of May every year. This text passed at the Camera dei Deputati on 20 November 2020 with 265 yeas and 193 nays.

Fake allegations against the bill were spread well before the lower chamber’s approval, mainly from right-wing parties and movements that had made of anti-gay rhetoric a relevant component of their political discourses. However, they increased in the last months, openly supported a set of ill-grounded doubts raised by Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva, whose votes would have been resolutive in the Senate. Here I consider three examples of these allegations and criticise them for what they are—fake.

Alessandro Zan (1973), elected at the Italian Camera dei Deputati in 2013 and relected in 2018, is the sponsor of an articulated bill that would have protected vulnerable groups from hate crimes, a bill that was killed at the Senate.

Opponents first and foremost raised a question about the compatibility of the hate crime bill with free speech. After the bill will be passed into law, they wonder, Will I still be able to say overtly that gays are sick? That every child has the right to a mother and a father? That same-sex couples are against nature? That marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that same-sex marriage is intrinsically wrong? That a global gay lobby is taking over to destroy our families and traditions? That gay associations organise trainings in public schools just to recruit children and make them gay?

I don’t know where to begin—I swear these questions have been raised for real in social media and interviews with the bill’s opponents. Well, an important distinction to be made is that hate crime laws don’t punish opinions but words that are used as weapons to harm a vulnerable segments of the population. An opinion becomes relevant in the eyes of the law, at least in democratic countries, only if it’s aired out and it’s harmful. A second important point is that the bill already contained a provision safeguarding “the free expression of beliefs or opinions and legitimate conducts relating to the pluralism of ideas or freedom of choice, as long as they do not create a concrete danger of violent or discriminatory acts.” I admit that the language is extremely convoluted, but if this provision meant something, it’s that utterances like those above, no matter how bigot and absurd they may sound, should remain possible. After all, this is not a hate speech but a hate crime law, which punishes discrimination and violence.

So you don’t have to worry: you will still be utter your hate around loud, but remember that you have no right to play dumb if your words are subsequently stigmatised as stupid and ridiculous bigotry or as morally outrageous. It’s called responsibility, and it comes with the free speech package. Also, be ready to be contradicted with strong evidence from medicine and court reports finding that homosexuality is not an illness (and indeed trying to convert someone to heterosexuality is unethical and harmful), that children of same-sex couples enjoy the same level of well-being as their peers, that associating homosexuality with pedophilia is an aberration, that marriage must be equal as it’s not a privilege and, finally, that there is no such a thing as an almighty gay lobby.

You may also face the fact that some of your statements—especially those that bring about an obsession for plots, machismo, an appeal against difference and the contempt for the weak—fit into Umberto Eco’s list of the typical features that characterize fascism, fanaticism and despotism. So don’t be surprised if someone calls you a fascist or an extremist, but take your chance to explain—because this is the whole point—how the fact that gays, lesbians, trans, women and disabled people remain deprived of the protection of the law makes you and society feel better.

If words are stones, then opinions are weapons in the hands of the unwary and a law disarming them is not an act of war against freedom but a warrant to a peaceful and equal society.

The bill contains legal definitions of sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity which have been considered necessary when it comes to identify crimes. Opponents maintain that by defining gender identity as “the perceived and manifested perception of oneself in relation to gender, although not corresponding to sex, regardless of having concluded a transition process” (my translation), the bill harmfully disrupts gender binarism and creates confusion in a distinction (male/female) that is crucial for society to function orderly. Opponents claim that according to this definition, a person could freely decide to identify as a man today and a woman tomorrow.

The strongest supporter of this claim happens to be the Catholic Church. Last June, in a diplomatic note sent to Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Holy See’s Secretary of State affirmed that, if passed, the bill would breach the existing agreements between the Holy See and Italy, endangering the Catholic’s freedom to profess their faith openly. Here is what this note said:

Some contents of the legislative initiative — particularly in the part in which the criminalization of discriminatory conduct is established for reasons ‘based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity’ — would have the effect of negatively affecting the freedoms guaranteed to the Catholic Church and its faithful by the current concordat regime. There exist ecclesiastical traditions of the authentic magisterium of the Pope and of the bishops, which consider sexual difference, according to an anthropological perspective that the Catholic Church does not consider available because it derives from divine revelation itself.

Although the note prompted a straight answer by PM Mario Draghi, the Church’s move provided the bill’s opponents with a solid moral and political backup. What the note substantially does, however, is to submit the law of a sovereign state to the laws of God which considers the difference between man and woman absolute and incontrovertible. Can’t you see the toxic, undemocratic and ultimately unconstitutional interference the Church has put in place here using diplomatic channel to influence a sovereign state’s legislative process? The paramount question, however, remains always the same: how would the fact of depriving gays, lesbians, trans, women and disabled people of the protection of the law strengthen this divinely established “anthropological perspective” of “sexual difference”? How would discriminating on grounds of someone’s gender make society better?

In a move against the hate crime bill under discussion, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Pietro Parolin claimed that “in the absence of an adequate specification, there is the risk of […] making any possible distinction between man and woman punishable.”

So the answer is no, whether a person identifies as a man today and as a woman tomorrow is irrelevant. What’s relevant for the bill is whether there has been an act of discrimination based on someone’s “perceived and manifested perception of self in relation to gender”. Take a simple case: a male employee comes to the office one day wearing a skirt. Can (s)he be fired? I don’t think so, although what I think is not so important. The point is that being subject to layoff, or even street violence, because one is wearing a gender nonconform garment would prevent the very exercise of freedom that the bill was trying to protect: the freedom to be oneself. Too bad that the Church does not appreciate this aspect and considers their own anthropological perspective more important than one’s self-being. Does this anthropological perspective contemplate a man being battered on the street for wearing a skirt?

A third objection to the bill is that it will allow gay and trans associations to access primary and secondary schools, thus invading a sphere that pertains to the parents’ freedom to educate their children as they see fit. Well, I wish this claim were that sophisticated. Some opponents said that, if approved, the bill will make it mandatory for 6-year-old kids or younger to be taught at school that they can change gender as they wish and they can become gay as they please. As irrational as this may sound, this claim has been raised on multiple occasions in social media and has been at the basis of the outrageous law on gay propaganda passed last June in Hungary.

This claim has also a context-specific variant. In Italy there are almost eight thousands Catholic schools that every day receive 866,000 students (over 8 million in total). Both the Church and Catholic MPs expressed concern that introducing a mandatory celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on the 17th of May would impinge upon the autonomy of Catholic schools in teaching the Church’s doctrine of sexuality, and in particular of homosexuality. Yet, this point would make sense only if there weren’t gay, lesbians or trans students in Catholic schools, which obviously isn’t the case. Not only are there many non-cisgender students (I was one of them, along with several others whose names and bodies I remember perfectly), but each of them is a material witness of how the Church’s obsessive anti-gay stance is in fact harming the students’ physical and mental integrity and learning attitude. Would you be willing to learn from an institution that systematically argues for discriminating and segregating those students who happen not to conform to its “anthropological perspective” of “sexual difference”, if you were one of them?

The point obviously outreach Catholic schools. Our society is so anxious about sexual boundaries—and religion has to be blamed here, with its obsessive insistence on policing them—that we believe that children have no sexuality until they turn 18. Indeed, when sex emerges in the discourse concerning underage youngsters, more often than not it is either caricatured or silenced. Now, our schools, of any faith and orientation, is filled with queer kids, and if we are all truly so concerned with children’s well-being, we should be ready to protect also the vulnerable ones. As Paul B. Preciado questioned in An Apartment on Uranus, “who defends the rights of the queer child? Or the intersex child? Or the trans child? The rights of the little boy who loves to wear pink? Or the little girl who dreams of kissing her best friend, who happen to be female?”

A law against homo and transphobic hate crimes would have signalled to all schools, families and individuals, including Catholic ones, that society does not tolerate violence and discrimination against queer children. Too bad that this signal has been killed before it could be aired out.

On the 27th of October, a request for the bill not to be discussed was filed by some senators from the right. In parliamentary procedural jargon, this is called “tagliola”—literally, trap. As senators resolved on this request with a secret vote, the bill’s supporters missed 23 votes for it to be rejected: 154 against 131 voted to kill the bill (cf. Simone Alliva’s excellent chronicle). Has the anti-gay narrative won then?

Identifying who contributed for this outcome would be purely speculative. What we know is that since last spring some of Italia Viva’s senators objected to the bill by mimicking the fake allegation raised by the right: the bill limits free speech, it’s gender-confusing and excessively school-intrusive. They even said that women should not be included in the bill because they are not a statistical minority, deliberately missing the point that the bill is not about minorities but about vulnerable groups, which women certainly are (83 women have been killed, mostly by their husbands and partners, since January in Italy). Even worse, accurately crafted responses to these objections were quickly dismissed as maximalists, with the bill’s supporters being called arrogants for not having accepted a mediation on the text.

Three factors played a role. First, Italian media have hammered for months on the fake allegations against the bill without involving the real protagonists of this legislative process—the dozens of gays, lesbians and transgender people who have been victims of violence and discrimination. In almost all the discussions concerning the bill broadcasted on television, for example, the absence of trans people was remarkable. Second, women and people with disabilities were not considered as part of the conversation, as the whole discussions on the bill revolved exclusively around LGBT people. More voice should have been given to women and disabled people as they also were at the center of the bill. Finally, the real trap was for certain dubious MPs and unwary citizens to believe that right-wing leaders like Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni have an interest in making a law that protects vulnerable groups. They don’t. Whatever they propose as a replacement to the bill sacked in the Senate will be useless, demagogic, harmful and ultimately fraudulent. A trap, like the one they envisaged last week.

Supporters of the (now dead) bill that would have protected LGBT people, women and people with disabilities from aggressions and discrimination gathered in Arco della Pace in Milan (as well as in several other cities throughout the country) to contest the Senate’s dismissal of the bill on 27 October 2021.

In the days that ensued the bill’s debacle, thousands of men and women, gays, lesbians, transgender and disabled people gathered in several towns in support of a law protecting vulnerable groups from hate crimes. Although compared to other countries like Poland, Hungary or Turkey, for Italian LGBT people to march at a Pride or gather under rainbow flags is relatively unharmful, the fact remains that for gay and lesbian couples to hold hands in public or for a transgender person to simply walk on the street might be an endangering experience. This has to stop.

Our rights as citizens cannot depend on political leaders who declare that protecting vulnerable groups from violence and discrimination would mean, as has been said, “obliging kids to change sex”, “enriching nail varnish producers as men will then start using it”, “having men running in female competitions” and “imposing a single thought.” What these leaders want and all they care about is power and freedom for themselves. But our rights cannot depend on MPs who think that gender identity is like a garment either or that see homosexuality as a taboo.

We need to improve the quality of the conversation about the rights of vulnerable groups, as this is a crucial conversation to have if we care about our communities. To this end, we as citizens must:

  • Hold MPs accountable for what they say and vote, calling their names and shaming their anti-gay discourses, regardless of their political affiliation (right or left), on the social media.
  • Distrust political leaders who do not show competence and transparency in what they do.
  • Shame politicians who apply religiously driven perspectives without taking into account that ours is a sovereign state—taxpayers pay their stipends, not tax-exempted churches.
  • Expose the hypocrisy laying behind “anthropological perspectives” that are deeply discriminatory, divisive, harmful and make us feel unsafe.
  • Promoting schools that are inclusive and help kids grow up without indoctrinating them according to views that generate loneliness, fear and segregation.

A law teacher and wannabe novel writer; academic advocate for LGBT+ rights; avid reader, genuine sleeper and modestly good listener.