Research, travel, and legal dispatches from my Fulbright year in Bologna, Italy.
Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola (left) and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano (right) have squared off over same-sex marriage in Italy. Photos courtesy of the City of Bologna and the Italian Ministry of the Interior, respectively.
BOLOGNA — The mayors of several Italian cities have engaged in a months-long standoff with the national government after defying the state by registering marriage licenses of Italian same-sex couples married abroad.
The “mayors’ revolt,” as it has been dubbed by the Italian press, could signal a sea change in one of the few Western European countries that still denies same-sex couples any type of legal status.
The fight began last July when several Italian mayors decided that although gay marriage is not legal in Italy, there was nothing stopping them from entering gay marriages performed in other countries into their municipal records.
In September, a decree took effect in Bologna that allowed Mayor Virginio Merola to formally recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad. In Rome, Mayor Ignazio Marino said Bologna’s actions were “long overdue” and announced his intent to register 16 same-sex marriages performed abroad, the news service ANSA reported.
Mayors in Naples, Milan and Modena soon followed suit. The marriage registrations were largely symbolic given Italy’s strong centralized government, but they did extend some local benefits to same-sex couples married abroad.
Italy’s conservative interior minister, Angelino Alfano, responded by issuing a decree demanding the mayors remove the same-sex marriages from the registries. The political party that Alfano heads, the New Center-Right, has made opposing same-sex marriage one of its main political platforms. The Catholic Church also decried the registrations as a “surprise attack.”
“Marino signs autographs,” Alfano wrote on his official Facebook page. “Marino’s signature cannot substitute the law.”
The mayors, however, responded with open defiance.
“I’m not canceling anything,” Merola announced in October. Alfano’s decree, he said, went against European law, against the Italian Constitution, and against the rights of same-sex couples, La Repubblica newspaper reported.
“It is against the history and future of the city that I have the honor to represent,” he said. If the national government wanted the marriages removed from the registry, it would have to remove them itself, Merola added.
Whether the national government’s representatives, called prefects, can in fact remove the entries has been hotly debated since November. In Bologna, Prefect Ennio Mario Sodano undertook procedures to annul the entries, but the prefect in Udine, a northern city near the Slovenian border, said he didn’t have the authority to alter city registries. Mayor Marino in Rome also vowed to fight any prefect annulments in court.
Regardless of who succeeds, the mayors’ actions have sent a strong message of support to Italy’s LGBT population, and could suggest the tide is turning in a country that has long refused to grant legal recognition to same-sex couples.
Flavio Romani, the president of national LGBT nonprofit Arcigay, praised the mayors. “For us, it’s a time of resistance, even disobedience,” he said in October, drawing parallels to Italians refusing to obey fascist orders.
Italy is one of the few countries in Western Europe that doesn’t at least recognize same-sex civil unions, but new studies show eight out of 10 Italians believe same-sex couples should have more rights, La Repubblica reported. About a dozen European countries have legalized same-sex marriage.
The Italian mayors’ revolt calls to mind former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a democrat who 36 days into his first term in 2004 ordered the San Francisco city clerk to start marrying same-sex couples even though gay marriage was not legal in California. About 4,000 couples were married before the state courts declared the nuptials invalid.
At the time, even pro-LGBT leaders within the Democratic Party opposed Newsom’s actions because they were concerned it would galvanize the opposition, according to TIME magazine.
Italy’s mayors, however, seem to have their parties’ support.
“Dear, Alfano,” Democratic Party president Matteo Orfini wrote on Twitter, “Instead of annulling the transcriptions of gay marriages, let’s occupy ourselves with making [gay marriage] possible also in Italy.”