Obama Stirs Europe’s Debate Over Marriage for Gay Couples

From London to the Vatican, culture warriors reacted to the president’s shift. By Barbie Latza Nadeau.

Andrew Medichini / AP Photo

There’s nothing like a debate on same-sex marriage to bring out the homophobia in a society.

Or at least that’s the way it is being played in Italy, where news of U.S. President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage was met with a somewhat surprisingly heated debate. State-run RAI television and radio dedicated much of Thursday’s programming to pitting pundits on both sides of matrimonial aisle against each other. In what often amounted to an embarrassing tirade against the “evils of homosexuality,” ultraconservative politicians attacked gay-rights activists with cruel insults. The activists, who pleaded that they only want to be treated as equals to heterosexual couples in the eye of the law, were left dumbfounded. “I just wanted to be able to be considered ‘next of kin’ to my companion if something would ever go wrong,” explained Caterina De Simone, a gay-rights activist and journalist. “I just want the same benefits as heterosexual couples. I’m not asking for you to condone us, just don’t punish us.”

“Your way is wrong,” charged Paola Binetti, who last year famously claimed that pedophilia and homosexuality were clinically connected. “Find some other way to say you are committed, but do not dirty the word ‘marriage.’”

“Do you realize how ridiculous you sound?” she yelled at De Simone. “I’m in a committed, stable relationship. Are you?”

Binetti’s sentiments were echoed throughout Italy’s political class. Because Italians are awaiting word of when the country will have elections to possibly replace the technocratic government led by Mario Monti, most politicians are in a sort of campaign limbo, where every opinion counts.

Even Italy’s somewhat-liberal left departed from their European counterparts’ hearty support of Obama’s statement. France just a few days ago elected a new president, the Socialist François Hollande, who had pledged to pass legislation making same-sex marriage and adoptions legal by the spring of 2013. France already allows same-sex civil unions, but a poll last year showed that a considerable majority of French people surveyed (63 percent) was in favor of same-sex marriage, with 58 percent in favor of adoption rights for gay couples.

But Italian center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani said he would consider supporting some sort of definition that recognized the rights of same-sex couples, “as long as you don’t call it marriage.” Even Italy’s most well-known gay parliamentarian, Nichi Vendola, was cautious. “I personally support gay marriage,” he said. “But we as a party on the left don’t condone it.”

In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron is surely watching the fallout from President Obama’s stand closely. He endorsed same-sex marriage in his Tory speech last year, saying, “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” But after a poor showing in local British elections last weekend, commentators were already noting that he left the issue out entirely from his queen’s speech on Wednesday. Now liberals are hoping the Obama announcement puts pressure on him to step up his marriage-equality campaign, which is part of the British version of compassionate conservatism and modernization he was supposed to be delivering.

Back in Italy, the Vatican was suspiciously silent on the issue Thursday, but its primary mouthpiece, Vatican Radio, ran back-to-back tapes of a sermon-style address from America’s premiere prelate, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, on Obama’s decision. “President Obama’s comments today in support of the redefinition of marriage are deeply saddening,” he said. “I pray for the president every day, and will continue to pray that he and his administration act justly to uphold and protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman. May we all work to promote and protect marriage and by so doing serve the true good of all persons.”

Italy’s ruling elite may not support Obama, but in a poll conducted Thursday by Datamonitor, more than 53 percent of Italian citizens do, though 77.5 percent are opposed to gay couples adopting children.

“You must remember that Italy has always been schizophrenic between its public virtues and private vices,” says Vendola. “And that things said during an election campaign are not always from the heart.”

—With Tracy McNicoll in Paris and Mike Giglio in London.