Gay marriage: Why Ireland said ‘Yes’ and Italy said ‘No’

Marta Rosa Spiga

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In the last two years, Italy has started to debate same-sex marriage, although the question of gay marriage has not been put to the people as a referendum, but rather at political level. During Italy’s electoral campaigns, debate on the issue among people and party activists, has highlighted the debate’s ongoing and complex nature. Will everyday words like ‘wedding’ and ‘marry’ eventually apply to LGBT people? Will Italy say ‘I do’ to marriage equality?

not less than anyone else-After the decisive victory for Gay Marriage in the Irish referendum
After the decisive victory for Gay Marriage in the Irish referendum

Same political parties are instead approaching the electorate and  advocating the slogan “defend the traditional family”. The right wing party, represented by Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini announced that if they would win, they are going to abolish the civil partnership and  modify the Constitution to allow adoption exclusively for heterosexual couples.

In Ireland, same-sex couples were first given the right to civil partnerships in 2010 and after a referendum this was extended to full equality as marriage in 2015. The main reason for a discrepancy between the two countries seems  to be the  Catholic Church’s power in society and the different role played by the most conservative elements within their respective societies.

The process that led to gay marriage in 2015 started in the 1970s when the campaign for the decriminalization of homosexuality In the Republic of Ireland was initiated. Senator Davis Norris played a key role claiming that Irish laws prohibiting male homosexual activities were in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in 1993. In May 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage on a national level by popular vote. The Children and Family Relationships Act was also passed which recognizes and protects lesbian and gay headed families with children for the first time. More than 460 same-sex couples married or entered a civil partnership last year and Panti Bliss, an activist fighting the homophobia, was considered the 29th most influential person in the world in 2014.

Italy was the only large western European country that did not recognize either civil partnerships or marriage for gay couples, although some cities had opened registries for same-sex partnerships, guaranteeing limited local rights. In Italy in 2016,  a campaign video on YouTube was organized  with the participation  of actors and actresses to support “ Yes I want” a law for Civil Partnership and another one named “Italy awake!” that was asking Italy to follow the example of other European countries allowing full civil rights for same sex couples.

A draft law landed in the Senate in March 2016 and was named Cirinnà by Monica Cirinnà, a senator for the Democrats and the main architect of the law. It grants gay couples the same rights — for example on inheritance, tax, pensions, welfare and health as heterosexual partners, with the exception of limiting adoption rights and the use of assisted reproductive technology.

Even if Civil Partnership is now legal in Italy, there still remain some unanswered questions.

Carlo Cotza
Carlo Cotza

Carlo Cotza, the  former spokesperson of the ARC (Association Civil Rights) of Cagliari, has expressed his concern about the new law:It seems that it has failed as a Gay marriage law even in the name, we can’t use that strong word in Italy. The laws were amended in two essential elements: step child adoption – it is not possible to adopt the son or daughter of the partner; and there is no obligation to faithfulness in this union. That has been made in order to distinguish this union from  traditional marriage. In Italy the main fear is to change completely the sense of the traditional family that has to match a particular historical  shape. So the difficulty relates more to changing the traditional patriarchal way of life rather that difficulties adding more rights for some individuals. I think gay men and women have to fight together always in this battle of moral values. Against a certain part of society that tries to undermine them, removing fundamental rights. So in this fight they are running together in parallel binaries”. In Italy, in fact, women and gay people have been historically linked to challenging existing laws in Italian courts.

 “The campaign for gay marriage in Ireland made the case about real people and how everybody now knows somebody whose life would be made better by the right to marry. The laws may change in Italy too – five years ago people didn’t really think that the laws would change at the first real attempt here either. The abortion situation is more linked to the power of the church and the conservative nature of a lot of older people here. The abortion issue in Ireland has a long and divisive history – but I don’t think that that necessarily is linked to the perceived discrimination against gay women.”, says a Volunteer at the LGBT helpline.

According to the book  “Ireland Says Yes” there were  three phases to the campaign:

  • The first was called “starting conversation”. People were encouraged to engage with others in conversation on the issue of marriage equality. Under the banner of “I’m Voting Yes , Ask me Why”, there were larger public gatherings and on-street opportunities for members of the public to speak about why they were voting yes.
  • The second was called “Full Engagement” and included participating in national and local media debates, putting a newsletter through every letter  box in the land.
  • The final phase, called “Closing argument”, had the goal of creating a massive “get out and vote” operation.

Posters with the design “Yes Equality” , videos  and the power of sharing personal stories  played a key role. Gay people started to share their  coming-out-later-in-life  experiences and the suffering experienced from being in the prison of the closet earlier  in their own lives.

According to a survey commissioned by Gay Center a Euromedia Research, 6.2% of Italians would vote for a gay equality list.

65.1% of Italians are in favor of laws against homophobia, but in the survey also emerges the transversal nature of the historical battles of the Italian LGBT movement going against the trend with the opinion that on the right there is not a gay friendly vote. Even among voters who abstained from 62% of the last elections, it is favorable.

Even if Giorgia Meloni who leads the right wing party, claims she wants to defend the traditional family,  the data reveals that her own party  is the one with the most gay-friendly voters. In fact, 67.7% of FDI voters have expressed positive opinions and closeness to lesbian, gay and trans people and 58% are in favor of support structures for lesbian and gay people. But the law against homophobia is largely a majority among the population: 65.1% are favorable with overhead Leu with 85.3%, PD with 75% and M5S with 72.3%, and the Center Right above 60%.

The north-east stands as the territory in Italy most favorable to LGBT rights, in fact 72.4% of voters are in favor of the law against homophobia and 73% in favor of actions in schools against bullying towards lesbians and gays.

LGBTQ community action and the massive mobilization of people across Ireland to support Marriage Equality has shown that changes come from below.

According to the voting trends, Italian society is more willing to change than  the respective political powerholders if they seem to be attached to an ideological  position, not held by the majority of the populace.

So  according to the polls, would be time to guarantee women’s equality and freedom also here in Ireland, just as in Italy it is now time to extend LGBT civil equality that has been blocked for too long.

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Marta Rosa Spiga