Italian politicians targeting LGBTQ people to divert attention away from the COVID economy, experts say

Italian politicians targeting LGBTQ people to divert attention away from the COVID economy, experts say

Two years ago, Francesco, then 18, became homeless overnight.

His mother, an evangelical Christian, called the police to evict him from the family's home in the southern Italian city of Naples, saying his relationship with his boyfriend was corrupting his younger sister.

"I was literally kicked out on the street with no help from the police or social services to try to resolve the situation," Francesco recounted. CBC News has agreed not to use his last name.

"My boyfriend and I tried to find work to support ourselves, but it's difficult to get hired for young, gay people in a city like Naples. You're constantly made to experience your normality as abnormality."

Francesco from Naples, southern Italy, was left homeless after his family kicked him out, saying his relationship with his boyfriend was corrupting his younger sister. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Through a network of Italian LGBTQ associations, the Gay Center in Rome — one of few Italian refuges for young LGBTQ kids in distress — was alerted to Francesco's situation and took him and his boyfriend in. The group home provided housing, food and support for more than a year, until the two were able to launch a new, independent life in the Italian capital.

But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these kinds of lifelines for LGBT youth in Italy and elsewhere in Europe are even more thinly stretched – putting thousands of young gay and transgender people, trapped in families that refuse to accept them, at even greater risk.

Alessandra Rossi, who helps run the centre in Rome, worries about all the young people calling the centre during the lockdowns, crying out for help with isolation and depression.

"With fewer jobs and university residences shutting down, many youth had to move back home," said Rossi. "The loneliness for LGBTQ kids back with families who reject [their sexual identity] is even more acute. The community and networks that kept them going before the pandemic are now cut off, making the situation even more dramatic."

Large numbers of LGBTQ youth isolated, depressed

In a survey of 2,445 Italian LGBTQ youth carried out by the Gay Helpline after the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, half of respondents reported facing problems of acceptance and support from their families, with 70 per cent feeling isolated and 56 per cent feeling depressed.

"We have cases of kids coming out to their parents during the lockdown and parents punishing them by taking away their computers and cell phones, claiming they're protecting them from gay propaganda," she said. "It's led to a lot of suffering, especially for the teenagers who have had to withstand constant rejection and pressure all on their own."

Alessandra Rossi of the Gay Center in Rome worries about young gay and transgender kids trapped in homophobic families during COVID-19. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Rossi says in her experience as a group home worker, homophobic fathers are more likely to resort to physical violence in reaction to a child coming out. Mothers, she says, tend to exert psychological pressure on their gay or trans children to conform — not just to heterosexual norms, but stereotypical gender roles.

"For lesbian daughters, it's even more complicated," she said, "because there's all the cultural pressure to look 'feminine,' with long hair and skirts and that sort of thing. It's especially tough for those transitioning to men, where it's important for them to bind their breasts, cut their hair and dress in [a] masculine way, and with families forbidding that."

What is just as concerning during the pandemic, say experts, are politicians targeting gay and trans people as a way to divert attention away from the economic challenges of COVID.

Last month, the ILGA-Europe, an LGBTQ rights group, sounded alarm bells about the rise in homophobic language and political hate speech against transgender people in Europe during the pandemic.

In its latest annual report, it found that politicians in 17 countries in Europe and Central Asia, Italy among them, have verbally attacked LGBTQ people.

'LGBT-free zones' in Poland

The situation in countries such as Poland, where a nationalist government has been openly hostile to its gay population and where 100 regions, towns and cities passed anti-gay resolutions, creating so-called "LGBT-free zones," is especially difficult.

This week, a Polish court acquitted activists accused of offending religious sentiment for producing images of a Roman Catholic icon that included the LGBTQ rainbow — a form of protest, the activists say, against a homophobic Polish Catholic Church.

Under Pope Francis, the Italian Catholic Church has been more tolerant of LGBTQ people — with one Rome parish offering shelter to migrant trans sex workers during the pandemic and the Pope telling parents of LGBTQ children that the Church loves their children.

But Italy, one of the last major European countries to recognize same-sex unions in 2016, still doesn't offer legal protection against hate speech to gay and trans people.

It's a situation Italian MP Alessandro Zan has been trying to address for several years.

Alessandro Zan, Italian MP and LGBT activist, is hoping the anti-LGBT hate speech bill he is sponsoring will pass after six attempts. (Chris Warde-Jones for CBC)

Zan, a member of Italy's Democratic Party, has sponsored an amendment to Italy's penal-code provisions on hate speech and crimes that would add LGBTQ, gender and disability to groups already protected under the law, which protects against hate based on religion, ethnicity and nationality.

"Italy is in one of the last positions in Europe when it comes to recognizing civil rights and human rights. That's why we need advanced legislation. For civil society and for all society," said Zan.

The bill has sparked a national debate, including among religious leaders, and has divided the country. An international petition gathered over 77,000 signatures in support. Far-right organizers, opposing the law, argued it would violate freedom of speech.

If passed, Zan says it would likely outlaw as hate speech attacks like one launched by far-right Italian Sen. Simone Pillon, a member of the Lega party and organizer of so-called Family Day rallies against same-sex marriage and parenting.

After Pillon repeatedly accused an LGBTQ group of "luring minors" and "distributing pornography" for handing out gay-positive sex education brochures, a lower court found him guilty of defamation. Late last month, a court of appeals absolved him.

Like Rossi, Zan is especially concerned about the lack of protection against Italy's LGBTQ community at a time when its members, especially younger ones, are more isolated than ever. This year alone, ILGB documented 138 hate crimes against Italy's gay community, including violent attacks and murders of gay and trans couples.

There have also been several cases of politicians denouncing LGBTQ people, with Rome City Coun. Massimiliano Quaresima stating at a meeting last summer that "homosexuality is a disease … caused by vaccines."

While Zan's anti-hate speech bill has failed to pass into law six times, it did pass Italy's lower house in November and will soon be voted on in the Senate. But with a new government headed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi that includes members of the far-right, observers say it's far from certain it will pass.

Zan, though, says he believes enough of his fellow politicians will support it.

"It's important to approve this law because one can change the mentality, the mind of people," said Zan.

And he hopes that by passing an anti-hate-speech law in Italy, a strong message that Europe is firmly on the side of civil rights will be sent to Poland, Hungary and other countries where LGBTQ groups face even more violence with fewer protections than Italy.