Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 1, 2014, at 9:11 p.m. ET
ROME — After Sergio Lo Giudice's baby was born in May, he appeared before a California judge to ask that his name be removed from his son's birth certificate.
Lo Giudice is a 53-year-old LGBT activist turned politician, who now represents Bologna in the Italian Senate. When he and his husband decided to have a baby via a surrogate mother, they chose to do it in California because it was illegal for them to do so under Italian law. California recorded Lo Giudice and Michele Giarratano as the child's parents, but the two men feared they would have trouble bringing him home and establishing his Italian citizenship because Italy doesn't recognize same-sex parents.
Their country doesn't recognize their marriage either. Italy is the only country in Western Europe that provides no legal recognition of any kind to same-sex couples; almost every large country in the region has enacted full marriage equality. But that may change this fall: Lo Giudice is part of a group in the Senate Justice Commission that reached agreement on a draft bill on partnership legislation last month, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he wants Parliament to begin debating in September.
The fact that Vatican City is just a short walk across the bridge from Parliament goes a long way to explain why Italy has remained so far behind its neighbors on this question. And the battle over this bill pulls at the seams of Italy's twin nature as a cosmopolitan European state with obligations under international accords that increasingly protect LGBT rights and its place as the seat of the Catholic Church. It is also opening fault lines within the Holy See itself, with an old guard committed to the culture wars fought zealously by Pope Benedict set against Pope Francis' efforts to move away from the divisive fights over sexuality that he believes drive many away from the church.
While Francis' vision hasn't changed any church doctrine, his rhetorical disarmament has made it far easier for Italian politicians to back partnership rights. Those working on the bill believe marriage equality is still politically impossible, and their civil union proposal would also prohibit two-parent adoption by same-sex couples. But it would allow stepchild adoption in cases where one spouse is already the legal parent of a child, so Lo Giudice could once again be recognized as his son's father.
But some same-sex couples and local officials aren't waiting for Parliament to act. The mayor of Naples has declared that his city would start transcribing foreign marriages of same-sex couples into its wedding rolls. Naples is the first large city to take this step after a lower court ordered officials in the small Tuscan city of Grosseto to record a foreign marriage in April.
"It seems that in Italy there is a common line of thought in the battle against homophobia: toward equality," said Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris in announcing the move. "But we never succeed in converting that into law."
The registration of foreign marriages by local officials may have an impact that is more symbolic than legal, worry some to LGBT activists, in part because the Supreme Court issued a ruling in mid-June that undercut it.
That decision came over the case of a couple who now are both named Alessandra, but who were legally married when one of them was Alessandro. When Alessandra Bernaroli legally changed her gender designation in 2009, after the couple had been married for nine years, the courts annulled their marriage, despite their objections. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that their rights had been violated when they were forced to divorce, which initially led some LGBT rights supporters to celebrate the decision. It said, however, that their marriage was still invalid until Parliament passed a law recognizing same-sex unions and ordered Parliament to swiftly enact new legislation.
Back in 2010, the courts had already ordered Parliament to pass such legislation, which lawmakers ignored. (The Italian courts are much weaker than in places like the United States, where Supreme Court rulings translate directly into changes in law.) And the new ruling undercut the old one in a way that had many LGBT advocates feeling like it was more of a setback than a victory. The 2010 ruling left it up to Parliament whether to enact marriage equality or create a new institution to recognize same-sex unions. The June ruling instructed Parliament to create "a different form of registered partnership" that is "not the same as marriage," and included language that suggested the Italian constitution rules out marriage between people of the same sex.
But civil unions are better than nothing, said Ivan Scalfarotto, secretary for parliamentary relations in the Renzi government and Italy's first out gay government minister. Scalfarotto said that he would prefer marriage equality and full adoption rights. But he said as he approaches the age of 50, he doesn't want to wait any longer for basic protections for his relationship.
"I would not like to [wait to] live in the perfect world when I'm 80," Scalfarotto said. "I'd really love to make sure that the person I love has the right to be recognized as my partner, [and] if I pass away — now — I want him to be able to live in our house, and I want everyone to respect that. ... In principle, I would like to have everything, but principles are a luxury … [that] at this moment, unfortunately, in my country we cannot afford."
Despite the presence of the Vatican, public opinion doesn't show any evidence that Italians are much more disapproving of same-sex relationships than nearby countries with marriage equality. Seventy-four percent of Italians who responded to a 2013 Pew survey said they believed "homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society" — about the same as France, which has had civil unions since 1998 and passed marriage equality last year. A 2013 Ipsos poll found that 48% of Italians supported marriage rights for same-sex couples and an additional 31% oppose marriage but support an alternative form of partnership recognition, on par with Great Britain.
The change in tone ushered in by Pope Francis has helped create an environment where this public opinion can be translated into political action.