LGBT hate crime bill polarizes Italy

 A proposed law that would criminalize violence and hate speech against LGBT people in Italy has thrown together an unlikely alliance of opponents.

Some feminists and lesbian associations have joined the Catholic church and the political right in opposing a bill that would add gay, transgender people and the disabled to the categories protected by a law punishing religion and race-based hate crimes.

Conflict over the proposed legislation has become an ideological battle at the heart of the culture wars in Italy, pitting freedom of expression against protection of those at risk of discrimination and victimization.

Catholic leaders say the so-called Zan bill, named for a Democratic Party lawmaker and gay rights activist Alessandro Zan, amounted to “a liberticide,” with conservatives warning the bill risks criminalizing those who publicly oppose gay marriage or adoptions by gay people. Opposition from some lesbian and feminist groups centers on concerns that recognizing gender identity could put at risk rights won by women.

But even among LGBT and feminist groups, there is great divide over the bill, with some groups splitting from a top national lesbian association after it came out against the legislation.

Although Italy approved same-sex civil unions in 2016, the country lags behind its EU counterparts and is on similar footing with the likes of Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Lithuania in terms of anti-homophobia measures, according to ILGA Europe, a federation of groups pushing for civil rights. Italy placed 35th out of 49 European and Central Asian countries on a list ranking the legal and policy situation of LGBTI people compiled by ILGA. 

A homophobia and transphobia helpline run by the Gay Center association in Italy receives about 20,000 requests for help a year from those who experience violence or threats.

The Zan bill was approved in the lower house of parliament last year. But its passage through the upper house, or Senate, for it to become law has been delayed by a change of government and obstruction by the right-wing League, for whom it has become a rallying cry at a time when, constrained by being in a so-called government of national unity, the party is struggling to differentiate itself.

The case of Malika Chalhy, a 22-year-old from Tuscany, who was thrown out of her home and sent death threats by her family when she came out as gay earlier this year has led to renewed calls for urgent approval of the bill.

Using gender identity instead of biological sex means that “everything that is dedicated to women can be occupied by men who identify as women or say they perceive themselves as women,” the groups said in a statement.

When ArciLesbica, one of the country’s top national lesbian associations, signed onto the joint letter, several of its local affiliates distanced themselves from its stance. 

Zan also rejected the letter. “To say that trans women are not real women is not acceptable,” he said. “We are talking about people who are particularly discriminated against.” There are more murders of transgender people in Italy than in any other European country, he said, “showing an extremely high level of cultural discrimination.”

His bill does not repress freedom of expression, he said, but only the inciting of violence and hatred. “If I say my son is gay and he should be burned to death, it is clear this is not an opinion but an instigation to violence.”

Zan said it was regrettable that the left was not united: “Unfortunately, some statements by historic and radical feminists have the same content as the extreme right and religious fundamentalists.”

Despite the setbacks for the bill, there are signs that the proposed Zan law has increased popular support. 

Italy’s most influential Instagrammers, power couple Chiara Ferragni, a fashion mogul, and rapper Fedez, have taken the cause to heart. There were protests in favor of the bill in 54 towns and cities around Italy last weekend, suggesting the younger generation of Italians may be ready to address the lack of LGBT protection. 

Even the feminists are changing, according to Zan. “The new generation of feminists are inclusive not exclusionary — for them, giving rights to someone doesn’t take away from the rights of someone else.”