There’s room for both celebration and exasperation in Italy’s new civil unions legislation. Let’s start with the good stuff. It’s been a long time coming and the fact that it’s arrived, albeit limping and mangled, is worth a raised a glass of Prosecco and a handful of tarallucci. It provides a series of basic rights – inheritance and ‘reversibility’ of pensions, hospital and prison visiting rights, surname-sharing, maintenance, etc. – , that seemed unimaginable a couple of years ago. It recognises for the first time that same-sex couples exist under the law, although there seems to a loophole that will allow the Kim Davises of il Bel Paese to stamp their ugly little feet on the ground and refuse to play with the other children until they get their own way (I hope I’m wrong about this – ‘conscientious objectors’ have already reduced Italy’s abortion provisions to a shambolic lottery). It’s better than nothing, and the risk that we might have ended up with nothing was worryingly present throughout the tortuous parliamentary skirmish that produced it.
But. (Because there is always a but.) In fact, two buts. But One. The original draft of the bill contained a section that guaranteed, in the case of couples with a child, the parental rights of the non-biological partner over the child, a guarantee that protected the child in the event of the biological parent dying. It doesn’t take much thought to see that the aim of this was to provide children with emotional security in the face of loss. However, to get the bill past the group of centrist senators who form part of the majority coalition and whose support was needed for reasons I won’t go into here, this section had to go. Children, these senators said, had to be protected, particularly those children who might be acquired through a surrogate mother (or, as they say so charmingly in Italian, ‘wombs for hire’) at some point in the future (something not contemplated in the law, but let’s not quibble when unconceived, unborn and entirely imaginary babies’ rights to have a mamma and a papà are at stake). It’s pretty clear these people don’t give a dried fig about actual living children, whose fates will now be determined by magistrates and who might find themselves orphaned not once, but twice. What they care about is the shrinking hard core of catholic voters who might otherwise deprive them of the opportunity they now have to dole out power and wealth to their cronies or protectors. By sheer coincidence, their leader, a certain Angelino Alfano, a man whose moral sense is so highly attuned he was once considered Berlusconi’s blue-eyed boy and whose contribution to the whole bunga bunga affair was a respectful silence, is currently under investigation for abusing his power as Interior Minister (with barely 3% of the popular vote). Underlying this superficially pragmatic motive there is also, I suspect, the irrational fear of gay people having anything to do with children at all. Because, you know. Homophobia, in a word, lurking in its usual mendacious way beneath a mask of care.
But Two. The second change required by these senators was to excise from the criteria defining a civil union the obbligo di fedeltà, or obligation to be faithful to one’s partner. Married couples are obliged to be faithful to each other, to ensure that their sexual relations are conducted within the marriage, as part of the legal definition of their bond; couples in a civil union aren’t. Implicitly, they can carry on doing what they’re best at: fucking anything that moves. This is tantamount to saying that gay couples are intrinsically unstable, something that will help any magistrates to decide against gay parents in cases of adoption, should they so wish, and some magistrates undoubtedly will so wish. That is, of course, its main purpose. But the other thing this excision does is remove any indication from the law that a civil union might actually involve, well, you know, sex, or that gay couples might actually, you know, do it. The law might be a victory for love, as the prime minister Matteo Renzi announced rather hastily as soon as the bill had passed the Senate reading, but it certainly isn’t a victory for bonking within the ‘marital’ bed, something it refuses to contemplate. It’s an excision that manages to define gay individuals as inherently promiscuous, and, implicitly, gay couples as chaste, or as conducting a sex life that is, in legal terms, extra-conjugal, wherever it’s carried out, at home or elsewhere. It’s a judicial, and cultural, sleight of hand that manages to be both prudish and salacious.
So, as EM Forster said about democracy, that’ll be two cheers then.