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Italy's Got a Homophobia Problem, and a Discrimination Bill That's About to Fail

Pope Francis' recent announcement to an Italian Jesuit newspaper that the Church should stop focusing on anti-gay agendas was a step forward, but no clear solution for how this will happen has been proposed. Meanwhile, the Italian anti-homophobia bill, which is advancing through parliament and would outlaw any form of homophobia or transphobia in public, is a sign of progress — but LGBT activists say it still offers loopholes for certain types of organizations to be protected in their hate speech. 

What's clear is that Italy has a homophobia problem. In the shadow of Rome's Colosseum, one of the ancient city's only gay bars, "Coming Out," can be found on Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, essentially the safest space in Rome for LGBTQ locals and tourists. And while the streets might be dicey, the classrooms are worse. In fact, it's school that poses the most danger for LGBTQ people in the country.

In August, a 14-year-old boy in Rome committed suicide after anti-gay bullying. His death came on the heels of a Rome Gay Center study which found that one in three Italian LGBTQ teens contemplate suicide. The study also found that 70% of its gay respondents felt that their schools and families were not accepting of their sexual orientation. A study recently conducted by the European project Nisus, which involved schools in Italy, Belgium, Estonia, and the Netherlands, found that 55% of students surveyed in Italy think that gay and lesbian people are discriminated against in their country. 

Fabrizio Marrazzo, spokesman for the Rome Gay Center, said that about 20,000 Italian youth reach out to the center each year for help. 

"This number is a phenomenon and very upsetting," said Marrazzo. "On average only one in ten incidents of homophobia gets reported to Italian police for fear that reporting the incident leads to further discrimination."

Marrazzo also added that it's not just the students who are homophobic.

"Teachers are also the bullies many times and often go unpunished," he said. "The anti-homophobia bill must be passed because it will help all of us, not just LGBTQ people, the bill becoming law would be an achievement of civilization for everyone."

A completely different story seems to be playing out in American schools, according Jeff Perrotti, the director of the Safe Schools Program for LGBT students.

"The biggest difference I've noticed over the past decade is when I ask an auditorium full of teachers to stand up if they've intervened when they hear homophobic remarks in their schools, a majority of them now stand up, whereas a decade ago very few stood up."

Perrotti said that creating clear, safe spaces for LGBTQ students in American schools has helped a lot.

"I call it 'scanning for safety.' LGBTQ students who see 'Safe Zone' stickers on teachers' doors or know of a teacher who is supportive has helped decrease homophobia in schools dramatically, although it still exists."

He also added that training for faculty needs to take on a new approach.

"Faculty training needs to involve not only didactic information, but also an empathy component. It also always helps when alumni come back and speak out about their experiences of being LGBTQ in school; we have to reach people's hearts."

Regarding the Italian anti-homophobia bill, which observers say will not pass the Senate, which is necessary for it to become law, Perrotti feels that such a bill in the U.S. would be problematic. 

"Rather than calling it an 'anti-homophobia bill,' why not call it 'anti-discrimination' and include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the law?" he said.

Maybe the pope could lead the charge.

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