Bill offering LGBT protections in Italy spurs rallies on both sides

ROME – Protesters turned out in force on Saturday for rival protests over a bill that would make anti-LGBT violence a hate crime punishable by stiffer penalties than under current law, showing up in the hundreds in Rome despite a resurgence of coronavirus cases in the country.

Protests were planned across the country ahead of a parliamentary vote slated for next week, with supporters presenting the measure as a long-awaited means to ensure basic human rights and protection from attack, and opponents describing it as an excessive measure which would also suppress religious opinion and beliefs.

“We have been through centuries of discrimination,” said Marlon Landolfo, 21, who recounted a vicious homophobic attack on him and another man in northern Italy last month. “We are now in 2020 and we are still discussing a law that protects us for who we are.”

The bill under discussion would explicitly recognize hate crimes and hate speech against LGBT people and women by including these offenses in an existing law that discriminates, assists or incites violence based on a person’s race or religion a felony punishable by up to four years. in prison.

The current law does not provide for a specific designation for such offenses against LGBT people and, therefore, homophobic or transphobic assaults are tried on lower charges than those with racist or anti-Semitic motives.

The bill, which appears to have the support of a parliamentary majority, makes discrimination based on sex, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity an aggravating circumstance, which could mean additional delay. for penalties.

Decades of efforts and multiple attempts to extend protections to LGBT people have failed in Italy, making the country an outlier among Western European democracies such as Britain, France and Spain. Italy approved same-sex civil unions in 2016 but does not allow same-sex marriage.

Within the European Union, she is joined by Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria in refusing to respond to calls from the European Parliament asking Member States to prosecute hate crimes and hate speech motivated by homophobia and transphobia.

Supporters of the bill face resistance from mainstream opponents such as conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church, but also from some less expected corners, such as a group of feminists.

Supporters say a change would allow authorities to keep statistics on homophobic and transphobic attacks, provide a deterrent and send a clear message that these are hate crimes.

Mr Landolfo, his ankle still sore after a beating last month in the city of Padua, said he was discouraged by the debate around the new bill. He and another young man, Mattias Fascina, had held hands and exchanged a quick kiss on a date one September evening where a gang was laughing at them and then punching them. and kicked off shouting homophobic insults. According to Italian law, the couple cannot be considered a victim of a hate crime.

The attack on Mr. Landolfo is not an isolated case. Arcigay, Italy’s leading LGBT association, records more than 100 episodes of violence, hatred and discrimination every year. In September, in the northern town of Novara, a man kicked his lesbian neighbor and broke her nose. In the city of Bergamo, residents of an apartment complex insulted and threatened two gay neighbors, prompting them to temporarily leave their apartment.

“These episodes rarely turn into formal complaints,” said Francesca Rupalti, lawyer at Rete Lenford, a network of lawyers for LGBT rights. “Without a specific law, it is difficult to prove homophobic acts.”

Alessandro Zan, a member of parliament from the center-left Democratic Party who proposed the bill, said its ratification would mark a significant cultural shift in a society with deep patriarchal and conservative roots.

“These people are particularly vulnerable to hate crimes,” he said. “That is why we especially need to protect them.”

Unlike the United States, where speech is largely protected by the First Amendment, Italy and many other European countries marked by fascism and Nazism have stricter laws against the preaching of racial or ethnic superiority. They also banned clearly discriminatory associations or groups.

“Laws must balance freedom of expression and hatred,” Zan said. “This law clearly says that discriminating against LGBT people and inciting violence against them is not an opinion.”

Some opponents of the bill say it will cross the line of censorship. They introduced hundreds of amendments – including one that mockingly called for extending protection to people who are bald or white-haired – to slow down the legislative process.

One objection is that the bill, which opponents have called a “gag law,” could be used to suppress dissenting views on same-sex marriage or adoption by same-sex couples. A leading opponent, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Nationalist League Party, said the bill “tested ideas” and insisted that Italy is not doing it anyway. of discrimination.

Supporters say the bill would not infringe on free speech or religious freedom. Groups or individuals, they say, will still be able to promote and discuss their values ​​as long as they do not engage in violent behavior or incite violence and hatred.

The nationalist and conservative political opposition was joined by the Italian Catholic bishops. This baffled supporters of the bill who had been encouraged by Pope Francis’ tolerant remarks. The Pope told a gay man in 2018 that God had made it that way, and in 2013 he said, “Who am I to judge?” asked about a priest said to be gay – a dramatic change in tone in Vatican comments on homosexuality.

But the Italian Episcopal Conference, which is influential in domestic politics, argued that the measure could criminalize the expression of the Church’s belief that marriage should be between a woman and a man, if interpreted as incitement to discrimination.

The bishops said in a statement that Italian law already has tools to punish violent and discriminatory behavior, and that adding “incriminating standards” would threaten freedom.

Some leftist opponents have also joined the fight against the bill. Although many prominent feminist groups in the western world have expressed support for LGBT protections, a group of well-known Italian feminists have criticized the pending bill for adopting a broader definition of women using the term ” gender identity ”, which would include transgender women. .

In an open letter posted on a prominent feminist website, the 13 signatories argued that progress against gender discrimination against women in Italy would be undermined if the broader concept of gender identity was implemented.

Francesca Izzo, the former Democratic Party MP who signed the letter, said that while it was important to tackle homophobia and transphobia, it was a separate issue from general women’s rights.

Supporters of the law reject this argument.

Mr Zan, the lawmaker, said feminists and LGBT people are fighting the same fight. “Violence against LGBT people is just another consequence of sexism,” he said. “Anatomy is not a person’s fate.”

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