With the signing of Italy’s civil union law on May 20, 2016, queer activists celebrated an important milestone: Italy was the last major Western European country to enact any kind of formal recognition of gay or lesbian couples.
It was a dream many once thought impossible in the home of the Catholic Church, where the Pope still wields significant political influence. To many, this will appear to be a climax of decades of struggle for the LGBT movement. Much of the European media — gay and traditional — even reported it as such. But in truth, it’s just one tiny step on a long road toward full equality for queer people everywhere.
Even the scope of Italy’s civil union law is too narrow to be called anything other than a qualified victory. Under pressure from his right-wing and populist political opponents, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stripped step-child adoption provisions from the law, and included clauses that make it explicit that civil unions are meant to be inferior to full marriage. Renzi has pledged to deal with these issues in future legislation. In the meantime, queer families in Italy are denied full recognition and protection. It’s unclear if the resulting law will even stand as constitutional, or hold up to scrutiny from the European Court of Human Rights.
Meanwhile, Italy’s conservatives have pledged to force a referendum to repeal the law entirely — a disturbing show of power from the political right against a beleaguered minority. Last year, Slovenia’s religious right successfully forced a referendum to repeal that country’s same-sex marriage law.
In addition, family recognition remains elusive in several Western European microstates — Monaco, Guernsey and San Marino — all of which are slowly considering some kind of civil union or marriage law.
And why draw the line at civil unions, anyway? While they are perhaps a useful half-measure while support builds for true equality, they remain a poor compromise for couple who want access to full marriage equality. Only Germany, Switzerland, Malta and a handful of British territories appear likely to enact equal marriage laws in the next couple of years.
In Central and Eastern Europe, the advance of far-right political parties threatens to erode the meagre progress on LGBT rights made in those countries. Already, the situation is precarious for many LGBT people in Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Turkey. Romanian anti-gay activists just announced they have gathered the required 3 million signatures to force a referendum banning same-sex marriage.
As Canadians, we can help advance and protect our global community by engaging with our own cultural communities here and in our “mother countries” on LGBT issues. Those who can afford it — and are willing to risk potential danger or discomfort — can also help put a face to LGBT issues and families by travelling to parts of the world where LGBT people are less visible. The government’s recently announced Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion could become an important advocate for LGBT issues across the globe.
True, LGBT Europeans are still, in general, safer and more secure than LGBT people in many other parts of the world. But the steady and mostly unanimous support of LGBT issues by European countries has been a hallmark of global LGBT activism for the past two decades. The global LGBT community benefits from a Europe that is united, progressive and outspoken on our issues. Breaking up this coalition would be a huge setback for LGBT people everywhere.