Marriage equality is arguably one of the most defining socio-political developments of the 21st century, with 18 countries worldwide now recognising the right for two consenting adults in a committed relationship to enjoy the same legal protections and tear-jerker flash mob proposals regardless of their sex or gender. It’s a movement which in 2015 alone gave us everything from the staggering expat #HomeToVote pilgrimage for Ireland’s historic referendum, to the frenzy to produce the most viral “Love Wins”-themed advertisement, to the straight couple who hilariously threatened to get divorced if marriage equality passes in Australian parliament – prompting a predictable reply from the internet.
It’s a movement that has seen significant gains particularly in Europe, with the Netherlands leading the charge towards a brighter, sparklier future, as it became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001. Since then, the number of countries in the EU that allow same-sex marriage has risen to 11, with a total of 22 countries providing some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.
The latest country to join this group is Italy, with the Senate passing a bill to allow civil unions for same-sex couples in late February. While the bill still has to pass the lower chamber in order to become law, it is widely regarded as a sealed deal – although one that comes as something of a compromised victory for LGBTQ activists.The bill that passed the Senate lacks crucial legislation that would legalise the adoption of children by the partner of the child’s biological parent. The so called “stepchild adoption” provision became the central bargaining chip in negotiations over the bill, and saw the process delayed by several days after Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party walked away from a deal with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party in mid-February. The deal would have kept the provision in the bill in the face of conservative opposition and amendments, however M5S ended up boycotting the final vote altogether. It’s a cynical move from a formerly laughable party (literally – Beppe Grillo is most famous for his career as a comedian) making rapid gains across the political spectrum, as it spots an opportunity to get more conservative voters on side.
In the end, the Prime Minister hastened the process by calling a confidence vote on the bill, an audacious move that would have seen the government obliged to resign if it did not pass. By removing the stepchild adoption provision, however, the Democratic party were able to come to an agreement with the centre-right Nuovo Centrodestra party that allowed for a final vote supporting the legislation by 173 to 71.
Of course, the civil unions bill, which has been debated in the Senate since January, has faced significant opposition from several quarters. As might be expected, one of the strongest forces opposing marriage equality in Italy is the Vatican, which despite being a separate sovereign state is still permitted to loudly voice its opinion on Italian politics thanks to the complexities of the Patti Lateranensi or Lateran Treaty, established in 1929. Nevertheless, Renzi none-too-gently informed the bishops’ conference where to shove it after its leader Angelo Bagnasco weighed in on the democratic process.
Protesters also voiced opposition to the Vatican’s stance, taking to the piazzas with giant alarm clocks and asking politicians to “wake up,” presumably to the fact that it’s already a quarter past 2016 and they are late to the gay marriage party.But how does marriage equality fare across Europe? On a global scale, those 11 countries in the EU represent a whopping 61% of all countries that have legalised same-sex marriage (add Iceland and Norway to the equation, and Europe has a whole 72% slice of the delicious equality pie). But while much has been made about how Italy is dragging its feet as far as its Western European neighbours go, there is significant – and in some cases surprising – inconsistency in the EU.
Germany, Austria, Northern Ireland and much of Central Europe confine the rights of same-sex couples to civil unions, with accompanying limitations to various aspects of marriage such as adoption rights.Considering Germany’s attempts to present itself as a progressive leader in recent years (and months) it’s puzzling that they haven’t managed to get this sorted out sooner, but Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is no closer to allowing same-sex couples to tie the knot, even after Catholic stronghold Ireland proved you don’t have to choose between #LoveWins and the Lord.
When the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) weighed in on the debate in Italy last July, it found that by not offering equal protection to homosexual couples as it did to heterosexual couples, Italy was in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Given that the purview of the ECtHR extends to all 47 members of the Council of Europe (almost twice the number of member states in the EU), this is a not insignificant precedent to set. Sadly, like many European-level governmental and legislative structures, the ECtHR suffers from an inability to enforce its rulings beyond portraying the offending member state as a hypocrite.
The fact that the provision most often denied to same-sex couples is adoption only compounds the tragedy of this situation. Nothing screams hypocrisy quite like denying parents legal rights to their children in the name of “defending families”. Reinforcing social ostracism, marginalisation, and the idea that a mother should have to carry around a paper saying she’s “allowed” to care for her child is reprehensible, and particularly stupid considering there are good arguments that legalising gay marriage would give Italy an economic boost it sorely needs.
But if the history of the fight for total marriage equality in Italy is anything to go by, the battle is far from lost. Just look at former Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, who in 2014 casually brushed away Italian law to recognise the marriages of 16 same-sex couples, and presumably proceeded to enjoy the full benefits of 16 different reception buffets, open bars, dance floors and hours of tearful, heartfelt speeches. And while the Interior Minister dismissed Marino’s signing of the marriage contracts as merely “[giving] these very respectable couples his autograph,” it speaks to the growing pressure for equal rights in recent years, in a country where the struggle for equality has been fierce and its victories hard-won.