According to the Rainbow Map 2013 established by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) Europe, with a rate of “respect for human rights and equality” of 19 percent, Italy is one of the least protective or egalitarian European countries for sexual minorities. In this country, despite the fact that in recent decades several bills have been presented to parliament for discussion, no legislation recognizing same-sex couples and ancillary rights was ever adopted. Apart from the antidiscrimination laws fighting against discrimination at work adopted in 2003 and a law authorizing the change of sex in documents of civil status (1982), which LGBT organizations are now demanding be revised so that legal gender change not be conditioned on sex reassignment surgery, Italian legislators firmly resist the claims brought by the LGBT movement and seem impermeable to anti-discrimination policies promoted at the European level.
However, on September 19, 2014, the Italian Chamber of Deputies adopted a bill criminalizing homophobic and transphobic speech. The bill was presented and defended by a member of the party of the moderate and center-left (Partito Democratico), Ivan Scalfarotto, also one of the few openly gay Members of Parliament (MPs). In the current context of the so-called larghe intese [enlarged agreements] parliamentary majority, with the Democratic Party governing alongside the forces of the center-right, this bill aimed primarily at protecting victims of homophobia and transphobia. It represented a first step toward the aligning of the Italian law with European standards. The bill was to extend the already existing law criminalizing racism and anti-semitism (the so-called ‘Legge Mancino’ of June 25, 1993/number 205) to homophobic and transphobic acts. Finally, at least in its current version pending before the Senate, this bill dramatically became a symbol of structural opposition by the mainstream political parties of the left and right. Indeed, if in its first articles, the law provides for the criminalization of homophobic and transphobic speech, the last sections of the bill – adopted in extremis and in a spirit of compromise within the Justice Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, under the proposal of a centrist MP after center-right MPs threatened to vote against the law – paradoxically provide an exception. Anyone speaking in the context of a political, trade union, educational, cultural or religious organization would be exempted, on the grounds that this exception will preserve the pluralism of opinion and, above all, the freedom of speech of such civil society actors. Then, what was announced as a critical advance in anti-discrimination law became a juridical monstrum.
An Italian Paradox
Although Italian legislators have never been committed in the extension of the field of ‘sexual democracy,’ the Italian Parliament is likely to be among European countries with the highest rate of openly gay, lesbian, and transgender MPs. Significantly, these are not MPs who, once elected, have come out, but who were visible as gay, lesbian, and transgender activists even as candidates. For example, during the 15th legislature (2006–2008) of the Italian Republic, one can count four representatives and senators, among the lists of left and center-left parties, coming from LGBT activism, such as: Franco Grillini (who was co-founder and President of Arcigay), Gianpaolo Silvestri (among the founders of Arcigay), Titti Simone (President of Arcilesbica at that time), and Vladimir Luxuria (a transgender activist within the Circolo di cultura omosessuale Mario Mieli of Rome, one of the oldest and biggest Italian LGBT organizations). During the 16 legislature (2008–2013), Anna Paola Concia (an LGBT activist) was also present in the Parliament. After the 17 legislative elections, which opened the current legislature, in addition to the MP Scalfarotto, who is openly gay but not a LGBT activist, Sergio Lo Giudice (who was President of Arcigay), Nichi Vendola (currently President of the Puglia and an LGBT activist), and Alessandro Zan (an LGBT activist) were elected, while other openly LGBT candidates could not be elected, because of a lack of pools or because of an unfavorable position in the lists. How can we explain the favorable conditions that allowed these candidates to be in eligible positions within left and center-left parties’ lists? One possible explanation is that, at the time, those parties were trying to oppose and overthrow the political hegemony of Silvio Berlusconi and were thus looking for the widest possible electoral base. Nevertheless, I would argue that the LGBT presence in Parliament is foremost the result of a political strategy that has long restricted the Italian LGBT movement. Specifically, the national association Arcigay has come to dominate the space of Italian LGBT activism and, despite criticism from other LGBT groups who have been marginalized as a consequence, played a leading role in the conception of national strategies for the protection and promotion of LGBT rights. Indeed, Arcigay has been a political laboratory for a long time – implanted at an early stage in the tissue of communist activism through the affiliation with the ARCI (Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana) network. Within this laboratory, LGBT activists such as, for instance, Franco Grillini, its first Secretary (1985), then elected President in 1987 and Honorary President in 1998, started their political careers, showing then the belief that, given religious and cultural resistance particular to Italian history and politics, one of the only ways to advance sexual minorities’ rights was to change the laws from the inside. Arcigay’s strategy was, from the beginning, to promote and implement political visibility and participation. Thus, this Italian exception is primarily due to the action led by Arcigay (along with other LGBT associations) in the political field, more than to political opportunities. Thanks to these LGBT MPs, a significant number of bills criminalizing homophobia and transphobia and recognizing same-sex couples have been discussed, though never adopted, in Parliament. How then can this Italian paradox – that sees, on the one hand, a movement strong enough to bring LGBT individuals from its ranks into Parliament and, on the other, an inability to achieve similar levels of legal reforms as neighboring European countries – be explained? Some columnists and polemicists, including some LGBT activists, deplore a constitutive weakness of the LGBT movement that they portray as torn by internal wars or by a fundamental inability to provide a unified and winning strategy. Others point out some critical ‘mistakes’ and deficiencies of the Italian centrist left, which is strongly and permanently seeped in Catholic ideology and firmly connected Vatican clergy lobbying.
Political Inopportunities and Activist Resilience
I do not attempt to provide a comprehensive list of explanations for the ongoing failures of the LGBT movement to change Italian policy. That would require a much deeper political analysis. However, I would like to suggest that the model of political opportunity structures, which scholars use to explain how social movements navigate complex relationships within the political field to mobilize collective action, may not be best for assessing the Italian case. Rather, it seems more appropriate to focus on the political inopportunity structures that the LGBT movement has had to face for decades. First, ecclesiastical power imposes a way of thinking that dominates the Italian political field. Beneath its conservative and traditional ideological stance, these moral entrepreneurs have a mundane political objective to defending their power and influence. The Italian political class supports, protects, and promotes the Church’s view to ensure the favor of an electorate they continue to view as fundamentally Catholic, despite political sociologists’ suggestions that they are changing. Furthermore, the hegemony of the Berlusconian center-right in the past 20 years has helped (re)vitalize the continued Catholic framing of ‘social issues’ in Italy.
Second, political instability of parliamentary majorities, short-lived Italian legislatures, recourse to ‘technical’ governments that lack electoral legitimacy in times of crises, and alliances between center-left and the center-right parties, have always worked against the LGBT movement. Demands for sexual and gender identity equality are put off to each successive election and from one legislature to another. Finally, in more recent years a transnational and trans-European counter-movement claiming to defend the traditional family and the so-called ‘rights of the child’ to have a father and a mother has emerged. Its proponents fervently oppose the extension of marriage and adoption to same-sex couples and, specifically in Italy, a law condemning homophobic and transphobic statements, which they claim threaten their freedom of speech. This opposition reinforces the structure of political inopportunity for the LGBT movement. In fact, after the Chamber of Deputies adopted the ‘Scalfarotto’ antidiscrimination law, a large number of conferences and street protests denouncing a supposed ‘gender ideology’ were organized in major Italian cities to pressure MPs. These long-lasting structures of political inopportunity have produced what some activists define as a situation of high minority stress that contributes to a certain level of demobilization and the emergence of internal critiques. At the same time – I would argue here as a hypothesis – these political inopportunity structures have also produced what I would call a phenomenon of activist resilience: a dynamic of adaptation and permanent reconfiguration of the space of LGBT activism to address these structural barriers. Far from being reduced to a depressed condition, the LGBT movement remains strongly present throughout Italy – the number of groups and associations has grown – and even reinforced at the local level where it establishes and manages targeted partnerships and projects with local administrations. On the national level, this activist resilience produces new strategies and discourse that aim to shape and strengthen the movement itself even if a political victory continues to seem unlikely in the current political Italian context. Held in the month of February 2014, the National Assembly of the LGBT movement, which brought together a large number of associations to discuss the possibility of creating some kind of a national federal organization, is an example of how much this activist resilience, far from (self)-destroying the movement, seems instead to contribute to its reconfiguration. In other words, at this juncture, the aim of LGBT activism is to enact strategies that allow it to forge a new image as a complex structure that, in time, will be able to profitably grasp prospective and potential political opportunities.