Rome—“Surrogate motherhood is a crime worse than pedophilia—here we’re dealing with people who want to choose a kid like a paint color for their house.” Fratelli d’Italia spokesman Federico Mollicone’s words on March 20 disgusted liberal opinion—and would have been more shocking if they weren’t the standard fare of the new government. This isn’t just harsh rhetoric. In its worst offensive against civil rights yet, Giorgia Meloni’s administration is stripping same-sex couples of recognition as parents, also threatening their access to benefits and childcare services.
The prime minister’s party often describes the threats to Italy’s future in the alarmist tones of “the Italian people disappearing.” However, Fratelli d’Italia riles up right-wing voters not so much by pointing to the decline in overall population numbers as by claiming that the “traditional” white, Christian population is being replaced by a more diverse one. In this sense, shutting down the limited freedoms of same-sex couples is part of a much broader agenda. “Defending the natural family” means fewer rights for other types of family—from LGBT people to immigrants.
While almost all Western European countries have recognized same-sex marriage and adoption, Italy remained an outlier even before Meloni became prime minister last October. Right-wing pressure groups resisting such change denounce an “ideology of Parent 1 and Parent 2”—an allusion to official forms that use gender-neutral language for parents—as allegedly destroying the roles of mother and father. Nonetheless, in recent years many LGBT couples could register birth certificates with local councils who issued forms not specifying parents’ genders. This came to a halt in March, after the Interior Ministry issued a diktat to city hall in Milan telling it to stop the practice.
On March 18, several thousand people, including many so-called “rainbow” families who already have children, took to the streets of the Northern Italian city to protest this derecognition. Newly elected Democratic Party leader Elly Schlein, herself in a relationship with another woman, declared her solidarity with protesters, accusing the government of “cruelly going after children.” Some mayors—mostly but not only from Schlein’s center-left party—have also declared that they will defy the ban.
Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia insists that its opposition to same-sex adoption has nothing to do with homophobia, and is instead based on an objection to so-called “wombs for hire”: paid surrogacy. Veteran legislator Fabio Rampelli claimed in March that his party’s aim is to “stop women being exploited.” He added that if “same-sex couples are registering their parentage…they must be pushing children born to surrogates abroad as their own”—using a verb more typical of the drugs trade. Yet Rampelli’s explanation tells a small part of the story. The Interior Ministry edict also strips governmental recognition from same-sex parents who benefit from voluntary surrogacy, and indeed lesbian couples conceiving through IVF.
On March 30, the European Parliament voted to condemn the Interior Ministry’s edict, terming it a “violation of the rights of the child” and “part of a broader attack against the LGBTQI+ community in Italy.” The EU has called on the Italian government to revoke the measure—though so far, it’s holding firm.
At the forefront of the current row is Eugenia Roccella, formerly of the civil-libertarian Radical Party, but now a Fratelli d’Italia minister. Upon her appointment in October the department was renamed the Ministry of Equalities, Families and Birthrates. In this role Roccella has pursued her “pro-life” agenda; asked in January whether abortion is a right in Italy, she answered, “Yes, unfortunately.”
Roccella, like her colleagues, has framed the gay adoption issue in terms of “wombs-for-hire” abroad, which, she says, allows a “racist” selection of children by skin color. In a talkshow on Berlusconian TV channel Rete 4, she revealed a broader opposition to gay adoption: If “gay mothers and fathers may be great parents,” to call such couples parents denied “children’s right to know their origins.”
On March 19, public TV station RAI was also dragged into the row, when, during a tense exchange with Roccella, anchor Lucia Annunziata let out an expletive roughly akin to “for fuck’s sake.” While Annunziata instantly apologized, government figures denounced a climate of “ideological intimidation,” with Meloni’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, of the hard-right Lega party, renewing calls for the abolition of taxpayer funding for the broadcaster.
Activist “pro-family associations” in the orbit of the right-wing parties and religious-conservative forces have similarly condemned the “intellectual pandemic” of so-called “gender” ideology. The ProVita e Famiglia association recently used these Covid-inspired words to denounces the Italian Catholic Association of Scouts and Guide, which had issued a form where parents could fill in boxes labelled “Parent 1 and Parent 2.” Rome city hall’s similar approach to kindergarten registration had in February become a target for Salvini’s Lega, which condemned “the left’s unspeakable ideological distortions,” “at the expense of children.”
The government parties often deride progressives’ “ideologia gender”—using this English word to refer to a host of feminist and pro-LGBT causes. Roccella herself founded a Facebook page called “No Gender Day”; despite the name, it aimed to defend traditional gender roles, rather than abolish them.
If the left is accused of being “ideological,” the right-wing parties’ approach is also part of a wider culture war. Meloni’s party has long claimed that “the Italian people is at risk of extinction” from both low birthrates and an “immigrationist ideology” promoting a “planned ethnic replacement.”
This often has a racist twist: Prefacing a 2019 report on “Islamization” in Europe, Meloni bewailed governments’ failure to take action on boosting birthrates. For Meloni, “defending our millennia-long European identity” demanded “policies to encourage birth rates and support the natural family.” This identity was to be defended against “agents provocateurs in the Italian deep state and in globalist networks,” through a policy favoring immigrants with “Italian and European roots.”
The fight against “gender ideology” also means defending the so-called “borders of the family.” At a rally for the Spanish far-right party Vox last June, Meloni claimed that gender ideology seeks “the disappearance of women and the end of maternity.” Political correctness, she claimed, “gives high minded motives to sinister interests: to destroy identity, the centrality of the human person, the achievements of our civilization, to fatten the big multinationals of the indistinct, the synthetic, the wealth held by few on the backs of many.”
Some observers have suggested that Meloni’s government has thus far taken a more “common sense” approach than expected—not least given its engagement with NATO and the EU. She surely has pursued an “Atlanticist” foreign policy; indeed, even during the Berlusconi governments between 1994 and 2011 this wing of the right did little to challenge Italy’s international alliances. Its nationalism is not focused on breaking with international institution but on the fight against domestic left-wingers, immigrants and ethnic and sexual minorities.
Though this version of extremism may not trouble the markets, it is not described well in terms of moderation. It means a government that judges citizens’ life choices—to migrate to or from Italy, to have children or not, to take a job or not—by the yardstick of whether they help keep Italy ethnically homogeneous. This week, Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida claimed that recipients of jobseekers’ benefits, which will be phased out in 2024, should be required to perform unpaid farm work, rather than Italy importing what he called immigrant “slaves” to do the job.
And if this is “culture war,” it is not just about nasty words. This is clear in government reactions to tragedies like the death of 76 people in a migrant boat shipwreck on February 28, after which both Meloni and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi called for tougher measures to halt sea crossings, blamed the victims’ own lack of caution and insisted that the government was being unjustifiably blamed.
The Italian reversal of same-sex couples’ rights is just one recent example showing that progressive change is not always permanent. On March 24, after a Council of Europe report pointed to extensive abuses in Italian prison system, Meloni’s administration declared that it would reverse 2017 legislation that defined torture as a crime.
Yet the backlash against ministers’ more outrageous comments on same-sex couples also suggests public opinion is turning against Fratelli d’Italia’s views. One recent poll showed that, overall, Italians split 47-32 percent in favor of gay adoption, with even 30 percent of Fratelli d’Italia supporters in favor (though 58 percent are against). The clear trend is toward greater acceptance of gay couples—however much the bigots in government rail against it.