ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Italy lags behind the United States and its EU partners in equal rights for homosexuals. Gay couples have no legal recognition or adoption rights. A bill that would outlaw discrimination on the grounds of homophobia has been bogged down in Parliament by right-wing opposition, and a new conservative Catholic movement claims that the legislation violates freedom of speech. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: They call themselves the Standing Sentinels.
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POGGIOLI: They first appeared in public last spring, including this - a vigil in Rome.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: A man welcomes a crowd of a few hundred people and tells them to stand about two yards from each other as they read books of their choosing in absolute silence. It's their way of protesting against a bill that would make homophobia a crime punishable by law.
PIETRO INVERNIZZI: In Italy, there is not homophobia emergency.
POGGIOLI: Pietro Invernizzi, a financial broker, is spokesman for the Standing Sentinels. Like many of its members, he opposes what he calls gender ideology that he says is undermining the traditional family. Most of all, he believes the anti-homophobia bill in the Italian parliament undermines freedom of speech.
INVERNIZZI: If tomorrow, I would express myself publicly, in my opinion, a boy has the right to have a mother and a father or same dad - in my opinion, the marriage is only between a man and a woman - I would end up in jail.
POGGIOLI: But this alarmist position is not gaining ground. Standing nearby, four young men and a woman watch the silent demonstrators. They're wearing small pink triangles, reminiscent of those imposed on homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps. Amedeo Pagliaroli is 26 years old.
AMEDEO PAGLIOROLI: They speak about gender ideology. It's not ideology. It's just a theory. It's just a possibility of choosing how to be a man and how to be women. These strict and rigid forms are like cages. It doesn't help anyone.
POGGIOLI: Italy's first gay pride parade took place in Rome in 1994, and some 10,000 people attended. This year, the turnout was estimated at 100,000. Polls show that Italians today are much more in favor of equal rights for LGBT people than they were 20 years ago.
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POGGIOLI: Andrea Maccarrone, a spokesman for this year's gay pride parade, says greater visibility has its cost.
ANDREA MACCARRONE: So when you are more visible, you are a target. Of course, there is a backlash of Catholic conservatives - the ones who fight our progress.
POGGIOLI: At the same time, the issue of homophobia has been in the spotlight, with a series of suicides of gay teenagers who had been bullied in school.
IVAN SCALFAROTTO: Being an LGBT person in Italy is very, very difficult.
POGGIOLI: Even Ivan Scalfarotto is undersecretary for constitutional reform and sponsor of the anti-homophobia bill languishing in Parliament. He rejects the charge that the bill would endanger freedom of expression, saying, it extends existing anti-discrimination legislation to gays, lesbians and transgender people. He himself had to overcome right-wing opposition to become the first openly gay person in an Italian government.
SCALFAROTTO: In Italy, it is completely acceptable to say homophobic jokes.
POGGIOLI: He pins the blame on the absence of the notion of political correctness in Italian culture.
SCALFAROTTO: So there would be no one standing up and saying, guys, in my home or in this office - in this workplace, these banters are not acceptable, so it is acceptable.
POGGIOLI: Scalfarotto believes in the power of legislation to make cultural changes.
SCALFAROTTO: There are facts - young guys committing suicide. There are people who are beaten up - gay-bashing. The issue is mostly about how we grow the country into a civilized, inclusive, respectful place for everyone, including LGBT people.
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
SIEGEL: At the Vatican today, some 200 bishops who were meeting to discuss family issues released a report saying, gays have gifts to offer. The statement sounded a conciliatory note. Traditional church teaching holds that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered.
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