SAME-SEX COUPLE SAYS ‘I DO,’ AS ITALY STICKS TO ‘I DON’T’

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Associated Press

Posted on May 27, 2013 at 7:03 PM

c.2013 New York Times News Service

ROME — The nuptials were traditional in almost every sense. The music was romantic. Teary vows were exchanged, along with shimmering rings, and a passionate first kiss was greeted with boisterous cheers, and more tears, by both families.

But from a legal point of view, the wedding last week of Massimiliano Benedetto and Giuseppe Ilaria was purely symbolic, and anything but traditional in a country where gay couples have no legal standing.

“This is celebration that’s outside the rules,” said Imma Battaglia, one of Italy’s most prominent gay rights activists, who officiated at the ceremony at a luxury hotel here. “Gays are accused of being something dangerous for the family. Instead, today, Massimiliano and Giuseppe are merely fulfilling a desire that reinforces the concept of family.”

They were also making a political statement. Movement toward granting legal status to same-sex marriage has been gaining pace around the globe. At least 13 countries have legalized same-sex marriage, as well as numerous states and the District of Columbia in the United States. New Zealand approved same sex-marriage in April, as did Uruguay.

In Europe, Britain is poised to approve same-sex marriage by the summer, and Germany awaits a vote from the Bundestag to do the same. France will have its first legal gay marriage on Wednesday, though the issue continues to generate protests by opponents, including a march by some 150,000 people on Sunday. Same-sex unions, but not marriage, are legal in several other countries.

Italy is one of the few countries in Europe that does not recognize same-sex unions of any kind. For years, bills legalizing gay partnerships have foundered in Parliament, victims of indifference from the center-left and outright hostility from the center-right. Over the past 15 years, several Italian cities, including Milan last year, have enacted a civil registry for same-sex couples, but the few rights they sanction stop at the city limits. Rome is not among them.

“I don’t want to seem rhetorical, but we love our boys, and as an Italian I feel a bit ashamed,” said Marinella Benedetto, Massimiliano’s mother, who accompanied him to the altar. “But times are maturing for change, we just need to press forward.”

Since announcing the wedding plans a few weeks ago, the couple has made headlines. “A friend of ours from New York who came for the wedding said he couldn’t understand what the big deal was,” Benedetto said of the buzz surrounding the event. “I explained, ‘We’re in Italy.’”

“Lots of people asked us, ‘Why didn’t you just get married abroad?’,” Ilaria said during an interview in the home the men share with their two dogs. “But it was important for us that it be in Rome, so our families could participate. It didn’t make any sense otherwise,” he said. “It wouldn’t have had any value.”

Egizia Mondini, a communications officer for Same Love, a same-sex wedding planner that organized the event, publicized the wedding as “part of a wider cultural revolution” in Italy. But, no doubt, it is one still finding its footing. In Italy, she noted, “my companion has the same rights over our daughter as a baby sitter.”

Research suggests that in the case of gay rights, Italian society may be more tolerant than the lawmakers that represent it. A 2011 study by the national statistics agency, Istat, found that nearly 63 percent of Italians thought same-sex couples should have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples and that almost 44 percent thought gay couples should be able to marry.

“For the most part, our politicians haven’t had the courage to fight this issue,” said Giuseppina La Delfa, the president of Famiglie Arcobaleno, an association for gay parents. “They put their careers first; they’re afraid of upsetting public opinion.”

Yet this month, Italian lawmakers voted to extend their parliamentary health benefits to same-sex partners, unleashing accusations of hypocrisy and elitism.

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“It’s like a gay version of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm,’ where some are more equal than others,” wrote Luca Mastrantonio in the newspaper Corriere della Sera. “But it’s only the Italian Parliament, which once again widens the gap between the institutions and common citizens.”

Some critics point to the Vatican’s influence over some lawmakers as the principal obstacle to approving gay rights legislation, but for others that’s just an excuse.

“The Vatican just does its job, it’s like a bouncer at a disco, deciding who’s in and who’s out,” said Alessandro Bentivegna, one of the founders of Same Love. Two years ago, he entered into a civil partnership in Dublin, which he chronicles on his blog.

“Ireland is just as Catholic, yet they’re 100 years ahead of here,” Bentivegna said. Ireland legalized same-sex unions in 2010.

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Italians hoping to tie the knot can opt for other symbolic solutions, like the website Matrimonio Gay Online, where couples can wed by filling out a form and following directions that include an “obligatory kiss” while a version of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” plays in the background. The site also hosts a petition to legalize same-sex unions.

Since the service became operative last December there have been around 30 online marriages, according to Gabriele Tiraboschi, a spokesman for the association that runs the site. “Even if it is just online, it’s a way to say, ‘Here I am, I want this,’” he said.

There are some signals that the Parliament seated a few weeks ago could be more open to the issue. Josefa Idem, the equal opportunity minister, has said on several occasions that she would fight for equal rights for gay couples. And a bill to counter homophobia presented this month is likely to pass after more than a third of the members of Parliament signed it.

“Italy still has a diffuse macho and homophobic culture,” Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the lower house, said during a speech on May 17. She also called for the recognition of same-sex unions.

Marriage may be a harder issue to press, “even if society has evolved,” said Ivan Scalfarotto, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party who presented a bill in favor of same-sex marriage. “I’d be satisfied if we passed civil unions, but I’d still be interested in knowing why I pay the same taxes but can’t exercise the same rights as other citizens.”

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