ROME — The Via San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome is a picturesque cobbled street anchored on one end by the ancient Roman Coliseum and on the other by the Catholic Church of San Clemente, which boasts 2,000 years of history and a pagan temple in its basement. It is also designated as the Italian capital’s official “gay street” and every single establishment is draped with rainbow flags and promises to be gay friendly. This is certainly not the only area of Rome that caters to the LGBT community, but it is the only one that does so openly.
At a bar called Coming Out, a group of young men having lunch tell The Daily Beast that being gay in Italy is complicated. “This street represents our position,” one says. “We are stuck here between the Catholic Church and a long history with traditions that are impossible to modernize. To be gay in Italy is about knowing when to admit it and when to keep quiet.”
Indeed, gays in Italy have long had to march a fine line. On the one hand, cities like Bologna, Gallipoli on the Puglia coast and Taormina in Sicily are among the most gay-friendly spots in all of Europe, according to countless surveys on gay life. But at the same time, the Catholic Church in Rome has been able to convince a number of Italian lawmakers that somehow same-sex marriage is a threat to traditional families, insisting that there are bigger priorities for parliament to discuss than homosexuality.
Really? The Vatican focused much of its attention at its synod last fall on that very issue. And no one should forget that Rome is the epicenter of a not-so-secret gay priest underworld. Yet when Ireland passed a law permitting same-sex unions, a senior Vatican official called it a “defeat for all of humanity.”
Emotions have been running high. On June 20 in Rome, hundreds of thousands of people crammed into San Giovanni square not far from “gay street” to protest proposed legislation that would give very basic rights to same-sex couples. A week earlier, the city’s popular annual summer-long Gay Village festival kicked off with a record number in attendance.
Ivan Scalfarotto, a 49-year-old gay shadow minister, has been on a hunger strike since July 2 to protest Italy’s inability to pass the law. Writing in his popular gay rights blog, Scalfarotto blamed the Catholic Church for the impasse and said he hoped that Italy could one day be like the most conservative states in the United States, who now respect the rights of same-sex couples, however grudgingly.
“Between the demonstrations of Catholic fundamentalists and the Gay Pride marches, you’d think there was nothing in between,” he said. “The time has come to do something more to support those working to ensure Italy finally catches up with Kentucky, or at least gets near.”
He may not have to wait much longer. This week, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, came down hard on Italy for what it says amounts to human-rights violations because of its refusal to recognize same-sex unions of any sort.
While many European nations do not recognize same-sex marriage, as such, many have established frameworks for legal partnerships roughly similar to the PACS (civil solidarity pact) in effect in France for more than 15 years. (Same-sex marriage has been in effect there since 2013.)
Indeed, Italy is the last holdout in Western Europe refusing to grant even basic civil union rights to same-sex couples. So three gay couples took their cases to the human-rights court in a fight for spousal tax benefits and the right to inheritance of joint property.
The court ruled in their favor and ordered Italy to pay their legal fees and €5,000 in damages. In delivering their ruling, the court said it considered that the legal protection currently available in Italy to same-sex couples “not only failed to provide for the core needs relevant to a couple in a stable committed relationship, but it was also not sufficiently reliable.”
On the eve of the ruling, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi once again promised to introduce new legislation that would give same-sex couples basic rights after an earlier bill stalled in Italy’s upper house. Opposition lawmakers have added thousands of amendments to the bill that run the gamut from prohibiting same-sex partners from adopting children to denying surviving partners the inheritance of state pensions.
“We will never have another electoral campaign in which we talk about legalizing civil unions as a promise,” Renzi said after the Human Rights Court decision. “This is the last call, we will pass this law by the end of the year in order to remain in line with the rest of Europe, even if we are already too late.”