On October 27, 2021, the Italian Senate blocked the discussion of the “Zan Law,” definitively halting the promulgation of the law. The regulation was intended to ban discriminations based on gender, sexual orientation, disability, and gender identity. This decision makes Italy one of the last countries in Europe with no legal framework to protect the LGBTQ+ community.

The Zan Law: What’s At Stake?

The Zan Law takes its name from its creator Alessandro Zan, a representative of the center-left Democratic Party at the House of Deputies. The purpose of the legislation is to modify the Italian Penal code by adding the above mentioned discriminations to those already punishable by law (racial, ethnic, and religious based discriminations). It would have also made them an aggravating factor for crimes and discriminations. Zan’s purpose was to finally pass a law protecting the LGBTQ+ community in Italy, a group that suffers from daily discriminations.

According to the Rainbow Europe annual report-which ranks 49 European countries according to their legislative system and the policies adopted to ensure equal rights-Italy ranks as number 35 with a score of 22%, where 100% represents full respect of rights and equality. Eastern Europe’s countries can be found below Italy, where members of the LGBTQ+ community are arrested, assaulted, and where hate speech campaigns against the community are promoted by public institutions and the media.

Furthermore, a 2018 OECD paper that measures acceptance of homosexuality on a scale from 1 to 10 shows that Italy remains below the OECD average. Additionally, experimental data confirmed that LGBTQ+ people are penalized with respect to employment status and labour earnings: in Italy, homosexual applicants are 30% less likely to be invited to a job interview than heterosexual applicants. Homophobic assaults have been increasing in the recent years-105 assaults were reported in 2019.

On March 11, 2021, the European Parliament declared the European Union a “LGBTQ+ freedom zone”, inviting the countries of the Union to adopt new legislations in order to protect the community. With Italy being one of the last countries to have no proper legal framework to defend the LGBTQ+ community, Alessandro Zan wanted to put an end to unpunished assaults and discriminations, and promote equal rights.       

The Political Debate And Its True Matrix

This law has been the object of intense public debate that has distorted the real text. On the one hand, some glorified the text as an elementary civilization measure that would help Italy keep up with the other European countries. On the other hand, it was accused of containing unnecessary regulations and, most importantly, of being anti-freedom because it introduces censorship.

The first interpretation is supported by the left, particularly the Democratic Party with Enrico Letta, the new Secretary, who fought for the law. Opponents include the populist far-right parties, such as Lega Nord and Fratelli d’Italia, and the Italian Episcopal Conference, which reiterated the importance of the traditional family made of a man and a woman. Moreover, the Vatican argued that the legislation violates the agreement between the State and the Church-a pact signed in 1929 and later revised-which ensures Catholics the freedom of assembly and speech, a clause that the Zan law supposedly defies.    

Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist far-right party Lega Nord argued that the law would create a kind of “reverse racism”, limiting the freedom of expression for those who do not agree with it, even after an amendment was introduced stating that opinions are not punishable under the law, provided that they do not lead to discriminatory or violent acts.

Other forms of opposition came from feminist associations that did not agree with the inclusion of the concept of “gender identity” in the text of the law. The bill specifically defined gender identity as the “identification perceived and manifested by themselves in relation to gender, even when not corresponding to sex”. The feminist critique argues that the separation between gender identity and biological sex creates a misconception of women’s identity. 17 associations joined together to release a document that states: “They want the reality of bodies–especially feminine ones–to disappear. This is the premise to self-determination without restrictions in the choice of the gender someone wants to belong to”, making the role of biological sex insignificant and creating confusion. The associations stated in a press release that women are not a part of the “LGBTQ rainbow”, they are not a minority but the majority of the world population. According to them, using the concept of gender instead of sex allows men identifying as women to take up spaces traditionally made for women, such as the legislations made to protect women, funds destined for female victims of domestic violence, and so on. According to this argument, the notion of gender identity gives the illusion that centuries of gender inequalities, the gender gap, violence against women, can be swept away by naively stating that “differences do not exist”.

The public opinion was divided over these contradictory interpretations of the law. The political debate has contributed to steer the public opinion and change some people’s mind about the subject. The populistic far right has definitely influenced a part of the population, thanks to the strong grip it has on its voter base. Despite that, the law has always benefited from broad public support. According to the Italian newspaper Repubblica, 62% of the interviewees approved the law, while only the 24% were strictly opposed to it. While the opinions that fueled the political debate seem irreconcilable, the public debate was not as heated.  

The Law Beyond the Debate

The Italian Parliament has a highly heterogeneous composition due to the rise in importance of more far-right populistic parties, a phenomenon that concerns many European countries today. Power is divided in both Houses between the center-left, center-right, and far-right. The Senate, the House that blocked the bill, has a very weak majority; a coalition of left and center-left constitutes the majority, with 166 senators, while the opposition made of right and far-right parties has 149 members. The legislative process in Italy involves the agreement of both Houses of the Parliament on a unified text, which, in this case, was blocked at the Senate after being approved at the House of Deputies.

The members of the center-left party Italia Viva, founded by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, tip the balance. Their 16 senators were crucial for the passing of the law.

After being submitted by Alessandro Zan, the text of the law was assigned to a Justice Comity in the House of Deputies, and it was approved in November 2020 by the House of Deputies.

On October 27 , 2021, when Senators were supposed to analyze and discuss the text of the law that passed in the House of Deputies, leaders of the far-right populist parties Fratelli d’Italia and Lega Nord asked the speaker of the Senate to pass a procedure nicknamed “tagliola” (the Italian word for a trap used to catch small animals). The “tagliola” is a special parliamentary procedure regulated by the Senate rules that allows a senator to ask, before the examination of the articles of a law, to stop the review and the discussion. This procedure must be ratified by a majority of the present members. The Senators from the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia asked the Speaker to call for a vote on the procedure, and they also asked to make the vote anonymous. With 154 votes for the measure, 131 against, and two abstentions, the examination was dropped, and the draft law will not be voted on by the Senate.

The definitive suspension of the proposed law was celebrated with screams of joy, applause and exultation by conservative Senators who blocked the vote. “Those who blocked the Zan Law with the secret vote, therefore without showing their faces, supporting the obstructionism to this text, aligned Italy to Hungary and Poland: only people who fit into the categories of the stereotype considered by someone “normal” deserve to be integrated in society”. This is how Monica Cirinnà, a deputy of the Democratic Party, described the results of the vote that blocked the legislative process.

The Challenges of the Law

Beyond the contradictory interpretations of the law, which have fueled political debate for months now, it should not go unnoticed that the purpose of the legislation is more symbolic and educational than legal. The Zan Law only entails the extension to violent behaviour those “based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability” of the aggravating circumstances already provided for in the Italian legislation regarding crimes “committed for the purpose of discrimination based on ethnic, national, racial or religious hatred” (art. 604-bis and 604-ter of the Penal Code). At this point, the question is how can a small innovation inspire such a powerful opposition and fuel such a virulent debate? The answer is that what is being argued here are not the legal implications of the law, but its strong symbolic character.

Not only does the law regulate individual situations, but it also sets the basis of the mentality of the society it influences, shaping its face and the perception that others have of it. Legal norms not only make something legal or illegal, but they also create the values of a Nation.

It is comforting, although facile, to conclude that the conservative, homophobic right destroyed the Zan Law, but in reality, the right does not constitute a parliamentary majority. The majority that voted against the examination of the law consisted of not only those who swore they would sabotage the law, but also of those who have been pretending to be defenders of LGBTQ+ rights, and hid behind an anonymous vote. 

The founding principle of a good law is the “concordia discors,” the harmony that can be achieved through dissent and debate. The left pretended to adopt a façade of openness, but as soon as it was allowed to voice its opinion anonymously, it revealed its true colors.

Blocking the law reveals a deep division in the left wing of the Italian Parliament. Members of the Democratic Party attacked the members of Italia Viva, Matteo Renzi’s party, which after months of public campaign advocating in favor of the law and made a strong effort in the House of Deputies to ensure that this law passed, showed little interest in helping it pass in the Senate.

In fact, this vote revealed a much wider problem: the deep-rooted division between the “conservative” and “progressive” left. The left has always had the role of the more progressive side of politics, the one that often-favored social change or reform, but modern challenges are showing that many supporters of the left wing are not yet ready to follow through with deeper commitments.

Recent decades have set big challenges for the European Left, causing many divisions and rivalries within its ranks. While the left is having a hard time following progressives’ demand, the right wing has managed to overcome its divisions and to present a united front represented by today’s populist far-right exponents (Matteo Salvini and the Lega in Italy, Vox in Spain, Eric Zemmour in France, and so on). In the past, populist radical-right parties were considered fringe parties, condemned to the opposition. In Europe and many other countries, these parties have acquired broader support in the recent decades, providing some voters what they were asking for through a supply-demand logic: hard stances on controversial issues, such as immigration and multiculturalism. The far-right has thus gained greater support thanks to its strong nationalist rhetoric, flanked by neoliberal economic politics. Modern challenges and crises have provided a strong base for these sovereignist and nationalist parties, enabling them to reach more voters and present a platform to spread their ideas.

Meanwhile, deep divisions within the left-wing are preventing the formation of a strong, progressive coalition, and supporting the tendency for today’s left to adopt a more centrist approach to politics, even concerning civil rights.

         While populist far-right parties are expanding their voter base, civil rights are at stake. Not only did the Italian Senate formally block a law, it sent a strong message: inclusivity has no place in Italian politics right now. The country is ready, the protests following the blockage showed it. From Milan to Naples, younger and older people have taken the streets to express their disappointment with Italian politicians and condemn the gravity of their action. However, senators made their excitement after the obstruction very apparent by cheering and applauding the demise of regulated inclusivity.