ROME—The week the Vatican announced it could not bless same-sex unions because they were “sinful,” 24-year-old Jean Pierre Moreno was feeling disheartened. The activist and member of the advocacy group Gaynet Roma had come to Italy from his native Nicaragua two years earlier in part because, as a gay man, he was discriminated against there. As a Catholic, he said the Vatican news disappointed him, but at least in Italy he says he felt safe.
Then, on Feb. 26, all of that changed. Moreno and his companion Alfredo Zenobio were waiting at a Roman subway stop when they shared a warm embrace and a kiss—something anyone who uses Roman public transportation can attest is a regular occurrence among straight couples. Then they heard a man waiting for the train in the other direction yell in Italian, “Non vi vergognate?” (Aren’t you ashamed?”) Morena says he yelled back, “Cosa te ne importa?” (“What do you care?”)
A few minutes later, the man illegally traversed the subway tracks and jumped up on the platform where the young men were, then punched Moreno in the face and started kicking and hitting them, yelling obscenities. A friend who was with them filmed the whole thing. They took the film to the police, who eventually checked the subway surveillance camera a week after the attack, but by then the tapes had been recorded over.
“We weren’t doing anything wrong,” Moreno said on an Italian television program after Gaynet shared the video on their website. “Alfredo and I exchanged a kiss and the man on the other side began to insult us.” The two men tried to defend themselves and the man eventually stopped and skipped back over the tracks and got on the first train in the opposite direction. The 31-year-old man, whose name has not been released, was arrested Tuesday night and charged with assault.
“I thought I could live peacefully in Rome, where I also found a job,” Moreno said. “But things like this can happen here too.”
The filmed attack, by now viral around the world, has reignited fierce debate in Italy, which is one of the few countries in Europe that does not have legislation against LGBTQ hate crimes, albeit not for a lack of trying. There is currently a bill called the Zan Law that has been stalled in the upper house of parliament—and not even yet scheduled for debate— after passing through the lower house of parliament last November.
The bill is wide-ranging, covering hate crimes against LGBTQ people, disabled people, and women. Until now, the leader of the far-right Lega party, Matteo Salvini, has successfully kept it off the calendar. Salvini, when interior minister, ordered birth certificates be reworded to show mother and father after the previous liberal minister changed them from parent 1 and parent 2, and is staunchly anti-immigrant. He said the attack on the young men should “not be exploited for political means.”
Alessandro Valera is the founder of Ashoka Italia, a network of social innovators, and a member of Famiglie Arcobaleno (Rainbow Families), the national association of same-sex parents. He told The Daily Beast that it would be sufficient to change the current law that exists against discrimination based on race, creed and gender, to include sexual orientation and sexual identity like most countries did in the early 2000s.
“The reason this is not there is because of the enormous power the Catholic Church yields in this country,” he says. “The reason this didn’t happen here is because the Catholic Church is a homophobic institution, so such a law would have put citizens in a position to sue the Catholic Church for discrimination.”
Valera believes that the pushback against the law is precisely because such legislation could put the Vatican and the Italian government in the bullseye.
The Vatican, which discriminates against women, could be a target, and the Italian government, which does not presently allow same-sex marriage (only civil unions are legal in Italy), step child adoption or surrogacy, could also be sued—which could set a precedent for the rest of Europe.
“That’s why if this is passed, we will leap ahead of other places,” he says. “This kind of law will obviously provide legal grounds to challenge the present illegality of gay marriage, you could easily sue the government for that.”
His organization Ashoka has been studying whether systemic change is needed for mindset change to happen, which he says would at least make people take a stand.
When Italy passed a law legalizing same-sex unions in 2016—the last country in Europe to do so—he said people suddenly formed an opinion about it, and that was ultimately helpful in changing the mindset.
“The two are mutually enforced, you don’t need a change of legislation to change peoples’ minds, but there won’t be a change of legislation unless a majority have changed a mindset,” Valera said, adding that Italy is a country where before the same-sex union debate, the public broadcaster RAI cut all the intimate gay-themed scenes out of the movie Brokeback Mountain. “The discussion and legislation massively changed how people thought about same sex unions. Even if one in two changes their opinion, you’ve got millions. For the first time people started thinking about it. That also allows more people to come out and feel safe.”
Rosario Coco, the head of Gaynet Rome, which released the video, says that without the new hate crime legislation it is difficult to prosecute crimes like that against Morena and Zenobio.
In the last 10 years there have been around 12 similar attacks each month, but in 2020 the number was higher, up to 15 attacks reported a month. “Unfortunately the law enforcement process wasn’t easy,” Coco wrote on the group’s Facebook page.
“Police struggled to comprehend the homophobic motive. It took a supplementary complaint to put in a request to retrieve security camera footage, which would prove the facts. We are now awaiting the public prosecutor’s ruling on what happened, hoping that everything possible will be done to identify the attacker and to classify this crime in the best possible way according to the law.”
It's not clear if that will ever happen. But one thing Valera notes is that more people would come forward if these crimes could be punishable. “Often when homophobic or any sort of hate crimes happen, a surge in reported crimes is not necessarily an indication of a surge of the phenomenon, it may just mean that they trust the police more to do something about it,” he told The Daily Beast. “We are the only country in Western Europe not to have marriage equalities or gay families recognized, so the homophobic mentality of the state entitles people to be homophobic. It’s time that changes.”