Exclusive: Meet the Italian minister on hunger strike for gay civil unions

PinkNews Exclusive
Italian junior minister Ivan Scalfarotto, former Vice President of the Democratic Party who is on hunger strike to push for a debate on civil unions, speaks exclusively to PinkNews about his battle, why he is inspired by Gandhi and that he will keep going until he reaches his goal.

A bill to debate civil unions was introduced in the Italian Parliament earlier this year, but hit rocky ground when some 2,000 amendments were introduced meaning it would be unlikely to see the light of day.

Mr Scalfarotto says he takes inspiration from Gandhi for the hunger strike, during which he will drink only two cappuccinos a day. He says he just wants the debate to happen on same-sex marriage or civil unions, and that if Italy, or other Catholic countries can overcome barriers, Italy should be able to as well.

PN – What exactly inspired the hunger strike? On your blog, you discuss your correspondence with a man named Caesar, whose same-sex partner is ailing. 

IS – What I wrote on my blog was part of the decision. Of course, there was a bigger picture, in which I would find both the referendum in Ireland and the Supreme Court ruling in the United States.

Italy is the only country in Western Europe where no legislation whatsoever has been passed recognizing the gay and lesbian couples. And I think this is an unbearable position.

We are working hard on passing legislation on civil partnerships, similar to what you used to have in the UK. However, in spite of the support of the government and support of the Democratic party, those who are opposing this piece of legislation are very effective at delaying the process to the extent of really getting the whole process stuck.

So, what I’m doing basically is trying to bring back under the spotlight the issue of gay rights in my country to explain to my fellow citizens that violation of gay rights is violation of human rights and that this is not just recognizing rights to a certain minority.

This is something which has to do with the state of our democracy, the sort of society which we want to live in. So, this is not just something that should be interesting the LGBTI community; this is something which should be under the spotlight of every single citizen in the country, but the debate is not yet where it should be.

What does it mean to you for your country to fall behind traditionally conservative countries, like Ireland?

If you look at the map of Europe compiled only a few months ago, you will see that Italy falls very low in the rankings.

I think we are number 34 of 49 countries and we have a number of countries which are more advanced than we are in terms of GLBTI rights. They have a more liberal, more planned legislation in terms of GLBTI rights than we have in Italy.

Exclusive: Meet the Italian minister on hunger strike for gay civil unions

So, I think this is not the position – and we’re a large economy, a member of G7, one of the founding members of European Union- should be.

And what I’m trying to do with my hunger strike is to bring back the issue and to make it central of the political debate in the country, while, at this moment- you know, everyone thinks this is nice to have. You know, not something that you must have.

Everyone thinks human rights is a sort of a soft issue. It’s not the real politics we try to do with economics, labour- the typical matters of politics- while I think human rights are very much part of the founding stones of a society.

We have a number of issues on the table, but this shouldn’t make us think that the violation of gay rights is less important.

Why was it important to you for it to be a pacifist, non-violent protest? Why a hunger strike of all things? 

Why I chose the hunger strike is because I think this is a form of taking a political stance, which is also very personal and something that stands its activity on a period of time and it gives time for people to think.

It comes from a very noble tradition, from Gandhi.

It’s a very peaceful, pacific, but also very firm way to take a stand on something, which is basically a principle.

Equality is one of those big ideals you want to fight for.

Some people suggested that I resign from the government, but this is not what I want to do because I’m not protesting against the government.

The resistance that we are experiencing in the country is very strong and, especially Catholic Fundamentalists, being able to stop the process.

They recently arranged a big rally, where hundreds of thousands of people were rallying against equality. They would say they would be there in order to defend marriage, defend family, but, actually, they were denying rights to other fellow citizens.

I’m happy to be in the government and I’m happy to keep working to the main plan of reforms that the government is carrying out.

However, I want to bring back the issue of gay rights and gay equality and I want to make sure that my country re-aligns itself to the biggest Western democracies, i.e. the UK, Germany, France, Spain.

I think it is unbearable that we don’t have any legislation at this moment and that we don’t have any clear set date, deadline to have this legislation in place.

This means that we don’t have clear ideas on when this- what I consider a violation of human rights- is going to stop in Italy, which, again, is one of the G7 members, founding member of the European Union, a country where legal culture has been.

We created law with the Romans. We should be very advanced.

We shouldn’t be sitting in such an uncomfortable seat.

Has it received both the attention and support for the Italian LGBT community that you’ve hoped for from your hunger strike?

In Italy, a lot of people are talking about this.

I hope that by, of course, getting thinner, people will see that something is changing in my body and that there is something which is worth discussing.

I’m a very moderate and very pragmatic person, so I’m prone to be a bit different from your typical Italian political person. I tend to be quite British in terms of my reactions.

Again, the world has changed after the Supreme Court ruling. I think that was a real milestone.

This brings back to the attention of the world the state of gay rights around the world and I think Italy needs to be where it deserves to be- which is, in the front line of civilized, developed countries.

We are one of the places where human culture was created. Everyone admires Italy for its humanism and, so, I think we have to be in a better place than we are today.

I hope that by protesting in a peaceful way, but also in a firm way, my fellow citizens will reconsider how important this issue is and I also hope that there will be some gentle pressure from the LGBTI community from abroad and also from our government.

It’s definitely making a statement – to bring up a social issue that’s been pushed to the back.

Most people, they would say, “Gay people are nice people and would be nice for them to have rights.”

And people would think of this on the sofas, while it’s a call to action in a way from my side.

Please, Italians, stand for your GLBTI rights and for your fellow LGBTI citizens, but be aware that, by doing this, you’re fighting for yourselves because you’re working for a better country, for a better society, which is more inclusive, more respectful- at the end, better.

I was very impressed by what happened in Ireland because, in Ireland, it was clear that the popular participation in the referendum went well beyond the gay marriage thing.

You know, people came back from abroad on purpose to vote on the referendum. It was about what kind of Ireland they had in mind- was it more open, progressive, modern, developed? Or was it more conservative, closed, exclusive and dark?

I’m not really sure that the public opinion in Italy has this clear.

What are you surviving on?

Milk and coffee basically. I’m drinking mostly milk because, of course, you have fat, you have sugar, you have proteins.

I’ve been told by other people who went through this process that it’s good kind of food because it gives you some basic elements that you would need.

I’m taking some milk and coffee in the morning when I wake up and before going to bed.

How long do you expect for this to go on?

As long as it needs, to be honest with you. I’m very firm.

I think it will take some time and, you know what, I’m prepared to go through whatever.

There are countries where things are developing quite fast, so, it’s quite inexplicable why Italy gets stuck and we are not able to move it forward.

Gandhi used to say, be the change you want to see in the world. So, you have to take personal action.

I’m sure it’s frustrating, as an Italian who’s pro-LGBT rights, to see your country in this state.

It’s very strange that, while flying over the Alps, you lose your rights and you lose your status and you lose your dignity.

At the time in which I was living London, even at work, everyone knew that my partner was same-sex partner. And that was completely fine, no issue whatsoever.

Coming back to my own country, which is a wonderful country- so civilized, we are the perfect place to live- I just cannot see the point.

I just cannot see why we are unable to do this.

The moment was when the Supreme Court made their decision and, on the Sunday after, I received an e-mail from this guy [Caesar], telling me that his partner had passed away.

After months of talking to each other, after months of which I was saying to him, “You know, you have to resist. We’re working. We’re going to do it. Don’t worry, keep going because we’re coming with the law, with a bill.”

And, then, I found that America had turned and this guy had passed away.

I didn’t do anything, I couldn’t do anything for them, and, so, I said, “There must be something I can do.”

What role do you think that the Catholic Church is playing in this opposition in Italy?

With the current incumbent Pope, I think things are changing massively. He’s managing the church in quite an open way, always saying words of compassion and of openness.

Now, I’m not Catholic and I don’t have any faith, I don’t believe, but I appreciate that the guy is an innovator.

What we’re facing now, I don’t think it’s a challenge brought forward by the Church.

I’m protesting against those people who present themselves as Fundamentalist Catholics and those political parties that believe they are representing this part of the Catholic world, which are stopping the process.

I’m not asking the Parliament to make a certain position.

What I’m asking is to stop what would be considered a violation of human rights and I don’t think Italy can afford to violate human rights.

There are many other countries, which are deeply Catholic, that still manage to move on, like, for example, Malta, Spain, Portugal, Ireland.

My product is not against the Church because, of course, I respect the Church as a role. The Church does its job.

It’s on the political leadership, to take responsibility for secular leadership, regarding society and to give answers, whether the Church wants or not basically.

So, it’s not necessarily the Church or the government themselves, but the people standing in the way of equal rights?

I think there is a majority of people, thinking this is an issue that needs to be fixed, but, probably, still haven’t got that they need to act.

It’s not just be saying generically, “I would be in favour.” It’s not enough any more.

What I’m trying to say to my fellow citizens – straight guys especially- you have to fight for your gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

You’re in a very rare position as well – to be an open leader in both the LGBT community and the government, to be able to have this effect that you have right now.

I have this ability, which is a tool that other people wouldn’t have.

My reputation in political world is someone very moderate, one who is also open to dialogue, someone who listens.

I haven’t been the favourite politician of the GLBT world in Italy because, sometimes, being accused of being too conservative or too open to listen to other opinions.

What I always tried was to understand the complexity of my country, the complexity of politics, and, also, to understand the work which politics requires.

In 1967, the US Supreme Court said that you can marry whoever you wanted, regardless of their ethnicity or race.

Now, it’s 48 years after. You wouldn’t even believe that, in the United States of America, a black man couldn’t marry a white women or vice versa.

Now, I think, in 48 years, no one could ever believe that, once upon a time, it was forbidden for two men or two women to get married. So, I think the ruling of the Supreme Court is as important as- and historical- as the ruling of 1967.

The question to my country is: where do we stand?

One day, when people will stare at each other, saying, “Can you believe men and women couldn’t get married six years ago?”

I don’t want Italy to be one of the countries where they say, “Yes, but, in Italy, they couldn’t marry for 10 more years.”

Why did all these countries- which we recognize as civilized countries, free countries, democracies- why all these countries have made this decision and we haven’t?

This is the question I would like to ask because people asking me, “Don’t we have more important issues to deal with now? Why aren’t you on a hunger strike for unemployment or the economy crisis or Greece or whatever or immigration?”

My question is, why did other countries make this decision already? It means that was in their scale of priority.

Now, why isn’t this issue on our priority list?

Why all these important countries decided to make an important decision on something unimportant? Probably because that was important.

And why not Italy?

Above all, what are we waiting for?

What I’m asking is a clear deadline. I’d like to know, from the political world, from the country, from my fellow citizens, when are we going to be where we should be?

I want to have a clear commitment.

Not just from President Renzi, who I know is generally willing to do this, but I would like to know from those who are stopping this, when they think the Parliament would be able to discuss and decide a realistic time frame, in order to bring back Italy to where it should be.

I think, there are times in which you’re fighting for big principles, for big things. And, so, I wouldn’t even define this as a protest. It’s just a constructive way to bring back the attention of the public opinion and something which, I think, has been forgotten somehow.

I hope other LGBT communities in other countries could look at Italy and help us in this effort.