The recognition and protection of LGBT people has become something of a global litmus test for modern civil states that claim to respect democratic and legal processes and believe in human rights. In those that don’t, including dictatorships and religious oligarchies, the open persecution of LGBT people can be both a battle cry and rallying point.
One cornerstone of civil society is tolerance and respect for diversity, including religious beliefs. But for societies based around religious doctrine it’s rarely enough that an individual lives according to his own beliefs and rules. All too often religious zealots achieve political dominance by adjusting and imposing morality in name of God. This has given us an untold list of horrors that includes the massacre of Waldensians and the Holocaust.
A look at the human timeline shows how the advent both civilization and complex society concentrated religious and political power in the same hands. For example, the Egyptian pharaoh was the god. Remnants of the pattern exist in modern Britain where the Queen is God’s representative, at least in name.
The growth of civil society in Europe marked the beginning of a slow but progressive move toward the recognition of individual and self-determination. While some religious institutions adjusted, or tried, many older and established power structures like the Roman Catholic Church resisted social evolution in principle. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini tried separating the Vatican from the Italian Fascist state but eventually conceded that Italy’s couldn’t be ruled without Church involvement.
Communism presented itself as a final evolutionary step evolution in which existing religious power structures would be extinguished by popular consciousness. In fact, Communist states merely appropriated religious authority, replacing the ecclesiastical oligarchy with a state dictatorship. From the killing fields of Cambodia to Eastern European ethnic cleansings, Marxist dictatorships closely mirrored religious oligarchies in their crimes against humanity. Their behavior was anything but advanced.
Though we’d like to think that religion and the state represent separate currents in modern civil society, the reality is that the separation is an uneasy one. The two sides often do not get along.
Ireland, by supporting LGBT rights through a popular vote, recently cast off the Catholic yolk of social and religious oppression. This summer, the United States took a bold step forward by joining a growing number of Western nations that put human rights ahead of religious authority. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the U.S. will also strike down the many state-level legislative efforts to legitimize discrimination, prejudice and hatred based on religious principle. Before this year, 19 states had adopted versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In Indiana and Arkansas, widely disputed laws make it possible for some companies and organizations — and not just individuals — to use religious dissent as a reason for ignoring the law. Since the LGBT community is a so-called Minorities at Risk group, one whose civil rights are not guaranteed, such legislation is a recipe for trouble.
The situation in Italy is hardly better. Though homosexuality is not a criminal offense, Italy still refuses to address the issue in terms of human rights, putting it at odds with more tolerant European Union policy and keeping it on the side of religious oligarchies and dictatorships.
The increasing visibility of LGBT people in Italy (entirely unprotected socially and legally) has produced a surge in violent homophobic attacks.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said his government wants to recognize same-sex civil unions. “After 20 years of ideological discussion we have the numbers to push [legislation] through, though I hope we can find a consensus.”
That seems unlikely so long as the Church view stands up. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the archbishop of Genoa and the head of the powerful Italian Episcopal Conference, has repeatedly expressed the Vatican opposition to legislative changes. (He called the Irish vote “a defeat for humanity.”)
All this makes me skeptical of the Italian outcome. I wonder if Renzi actually intends to legally protect same-sex couples or if he’s just trying to keep PR pace with Ireland and the U.S.
I’ve expressed these doubts to my Italian partner Alberto, and he’s no more hopeful I am. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he tells me. In Italy, that’s the only realistic response.