In the European Union, by and large, same-sex partnerships are the law of the land. But there are a few exceptions: six of its 28 member nations do not recognize those unions. Five of them are recent members, former Soviet-bloc states in the East that joined after the fall of Communism — and the other, the lone holdout in Western Europe, is Italy.
With its 60 million people and major-league economy, Italy is by far the largest European country, if you except Russia, that hasn't yet legalized any form of same-sex life partnership. Compared to its peers in Europe, Italy is decades late.
In overwhelmingly Catholic Italy, the church — even under the more open, tolerant Pope Francis — is opposed to same-sex unions. But two other deeply Catholic European Union countries, Spain and Ireland, have both allowed gay marriage. Some made swift progress: In Ireland, where legalization happened in 2015 after a referendum, homosexuality had been a crime until 1993.
Things, however, may be changing for Italian same-sex couples.
On Monday, parliament began discussion of a bill that could become the country's first law on civil unions. Europe is watching: in July last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the lack of legal recognition of same-sex unions in Italy was violating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life."
The Italian situation is "a scandal," said James Esseks, Director of the LGBT & HIV Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "I hope the Italian parliament will understand this is not the Italy of 10 or 20 years ago."
"This is a country that wants to be part of a modern Europe, where everyone, including gay people, is guaranteed fundamental protections," he said.
Still, the so-called Cirinnà bill — named after its proponent Monica Cirinnà, a Democratic Party senator — isn't guaranteed passage, even with a center-left majority in both houses of parliament.
The law would give people health benefits, a right to the deceased partner's pension in case of death, and all the other rights and obligations usually reserved for married couples. Conservatives are especially opposed to the so-called "stepchild adoption" measure in the bill, which would provide the opportunity to legally adopt a partner's son or daughter. Parents of different genders have been able to do so in italy since 2007, even if they are unmarried.
"The law is going to pass ... It's hard, but not impossible"
The vast majority of centrist and center-right parties, including Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, opposes the bill. Even a small but vocal party in the governing majority, NCD — headed by Interior minister Angelino Alfano — isn't in favor of the bill as it is, and asking Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to remove the stepchild adoption measure.
The bill still has a decent chance of passing, but if voting will be secret — Senate speaker Piero Grasso has not made a decision on that yet — anything may happen, especially after comedian Beppe Grillo, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, told his deputies and senators that they are free to vote as they wish on the bill. With 11 percent of the Senate, Grillo's unconventional, cross-ideological party could end up making or breaking the law.
Renzi is optimistic. "The law is going to pass, with stepchild adoption in it. It's hard, but not impossible," he said on Sunday, daily Corriere della Sera reported.
The discussion of the bill in the Senate ends on Tuesday night, followed by voting. If approved, the bill will go to the lower house, where a new debate and voting would take place.
The animosity around the issue is evident in a tweet by Senator Roberto Formigoni, a political heavyweight and ultra-religious conservative, who used language unimaginable in public discourse in many other countries: the "smell of loss on the #Cirinnà bill is causing gays, lesbians, bi-transexuals and assorted faggots to break into hysterics," he tweeted.
Odore della sconfitta su #Cirinnà sta procurando crisi isteriche gravi su gay,lesbiche,bi-transessuali e checche varie. Non è bello,poverini
— Roberto Formigoni (@r_formigoni) February 6, 2016
The main reason Italy has "reached the bottom" of Europe's equality rankings is "the Catholic presence entrenched in the establishment, which has conducted an extremely hostile policy against this kind of law through politics and media," Democratic Party deputy Ivan Scalfarotto, 51, said.
As under-secretary of state for constitutional reforms, Scalfarotto is the first openly gay member of an Italian cabinet. Last year, he made The Economist's Global Diversity List.
Italian progressive parties have failed to propose laws supporting LGBT rights up to now because they "were a direct emanation of the Communists and the Christian Democrats," the parties which dominated Italian politics until the 1990s and were never interested in those issues, Scalfarotto said.
Yet, most Italians say gay people are being repressed. According to a 2012 survey by the National Institute of Statistics, 61 percent of Italians between 18 and 74 thought that gay people were discriminated against across the country, while 80 per cent said the same thing about transgender people.
Most people would welcome a law accepting same-sex unions, according to the same survey, in which 63 percent of respondents said that "a homosexual couple living together should have the same rights of a married couple." (On the other hand, only 44 percent said same-sex marriage should be legal.)
Also according to the survey, one million Italians are openly gay or bisexual, or one in 60. In parliament, that ratio drops to one in 315, with only three elected members out of 945.
"If we managed to win, with all the oppositions we had to face, Italy can win its battle too"
The Vatican, which retains a considerable influence on Italian politics if not on society, is keeping a low profile, at least in public. Officially it considers same-sex unions "an error," but Pope Francis said last month that lawmakers "should never forget the necessary, merciful love towards people who, as a free choice or as a result of unlucky life circumstances, live" in that state of error. Not exactly an endorsement, but at least a message of understanding beyond what any pope before him said.
The bill's opponents claimed a huge victory last month, when a mass sit-in known as Family Day, staged at Rome's Circus Maximus, brought out an enormous crowd. But it then turned out that initial reports of two million people against same-sex marriage were far-fetched; the Circus Maximus couldn't possibly contain more than 340,000, experts said. And, a few days earlier, hundreds of thousands of Italians had taken to the streets to demonstrate in favor of the bill.
'Family Day' crowds in Rome on January 30, 2016. Photo by Alessandro di Meo / EPA
That's leading advocates to say that, if not this time, then it won't be long before same-sex partnerships are legalized in Italy, although marriage is a different story.
"It's better to have civil unions today than gay marriage in 20 years," Scalfarotto said. "Today, we wouldn't have the votes to legalize marriage."
As for the future, at least according to the ACLU's Esseks, it will eventually look like what the United States does today, with gay marriage for all.
"A lot of powerful and influent religious forces are active in the US, both at a state and federal level," he said. "If we managed to win, with all the oppositions we had to face, Italy can win its battle too."