November 30, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Clear 12°C

Ties worth unbinding

In 1929, the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, agreed to make as little trouble for each other as possible.
By Simone Somekh
Published: 2015-11-06

knocked on my neighbors' door at noon as planned, a bottle of Italian red wine in hand. D. opened up and welcomed me into her large and thoroughly decorated apartment. I was in the final days of a recent stay in New York City and they'd invited me over for a Saturday lunch. I'd already fallen in love with the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan because of the friendly interactions with building residents and the invitation just made me love the city all the more.

D. and L. had been married for about a month and were excited to be starting a new chapter in Manhattan. D. manages a successful, green-friendly start-up and L. is a lawyer. We ate, talked, and laughed.

A week later, aboard a Delta flight over the Atlantic headed back to Europe, it hit me: Had I been in Italy, D. and L. would have not been married.

That's because D. and L. are women.

Matteo Renzi and Angelino Alfano, who staunchly upholds Vatican values.

New York's streets boast plenty of same-sex couple holding hands. No one stares. No one judges. It's the same in some cities where same-sex marriage hasn't yet been legalized, such as Tel Aviv. But you don't see it in Italy.

Not only is Italy the only major Western European state that has yet to legalize same-sex partnerships (Cyprus, Monaco, and all of Eastern Europe are also holdouts), it's also a place in which the word "gay" is still used with suspicion and the same-sex relationships remain a controversial topic. Italy has a staggeringly high rate of gay teen suicides because bullying and is commonplace and young Italian gays have no identifiable social future. Even when high school ends, and the teenage bullying phase with it, what then? Get married? Adopt a child? Not really.

In Italy, even the union of same-sex couples legally married abroad isn't recognized. These couples face daily discrimination. In an emergency, spouses are not treated as relatives, a recipe for bureaucratic complications.

Though Reforms Minister Maria Elena Boschi, 34, recently promised legislation that would allow for civil unions, the timetable remains vague. The government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi still treads carefully on the subject partly in deference to Interior Minister Angelino Alfano and his conservative allies, once Silvio Berlusconi confidants. For Renzi's center-right supporters, the prospect of groundbreaking social legislation is a threat.

Alfano got a boost recently when Italy's highest administrative court, the Council of State, annulled a lower-court ruling approving the registration of gay unions contracted abroad. Former Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino set the challenge in motion last year by transcribing 16 such marriages into the city's registry. Alfano balked, and won. Marriage was "non-existent unless it is between a man and a woman," Council of State jurist Carlo Deodato wrote in his opinion, reasserting the existing Italian legal position.

Yet this kind of upper tier resistance doesn't appear to reflect public opinion. According to a joint survey conducted recently by the Piepoli research institute and Turin's La Stampa daily, 67 percent of the Italian population favors allowing for civil unions among same-sex couples.

So what is it exactly that's taking Italy so long to pass legislation that would level the playing field for the LGBT community? Why do Italy's political elite and a portion of its population refuse to equate gay rights with human rights?

Part of the answer that Italy's capital city and legislative hub also hosts the Vatican, an independent and autonomous religious city-state that has been politically separate from Italy since 1870 but still exerts indisputable influence.

Though Catholicism was dropped as Italy's state religion in 1984, the Vatican still comments comfortably on Italian political and social affairs, views that are devoured by Italian media. Though the Vatican has lost key postwar battles on divorce (1975) and abortion (1981) it has not been humbled. When an Irish popular referendum legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Vatican Secretary of State and Cardinal Pietro Parolin called the vote not only an insult to Christian principles but also a "defeat for humanity."

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