Out in the World: In SF, gay Italian activist urges global alliances to fight for LGBTQ rights

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday July 27, 2022
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Franco Grillini, a gay former member of the Italian parliament, is pushed through Bologna Pride by his lifelong friend and filmmaker Filippo Vendemmiati. Photo: Courtesy of Genoma Films Production
Franco Grillini, a gay former member of the Italian parliament, is pushed through Bologna Pride by his lifelong friend and filmmaker Filippo Vendemmiati. Photo: Courtesy of Genoma Films Production

Prominent Italian gay activist Franco Grillini called for LGBTQ activists to build international alliances in order to learn from each other and defend the rights of LGBTQ people across the globe during a recent visit to San Francisco.

Italy's "Harvey Milk," Grillini is a former member of the Italian parliament. He spoke exclusively with the Bay Area Reporter earlier this summer, joined by his lifelong friend and filmmaker Filippo Vendemmiati, as well as openly gay Italian General Consul Sergio Strozzi.

Annamaria DiGiorgio, director of the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco, provided translation during the interview.

Grillini expressed gratitude and respect for American LGBTQ rights activists.

"Respect go towards your country," he said, stating that LGBTQ American activists set "an example" for queer Italian activists, especially during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. "It's very high and it's a debt of gratitude."

Grillini, 67, and Vendemmiati, 64, were in San Francisco as guests of Strozzi, 49, for a special screening of their award-winning documentary, "Let's Kiss: Franco Grillini, Story of a Gentle Revolution" ("Let's Kiss, Storia di una rivoluzione gentile").

The 85-minute Italian documentary with English subtitles follows Grillini as he tells the story of his life from his humble beginnings on a farm in Pianoro outside of Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy; his life as a politician; and his 40 years as a leading LGBTQ advocate in Italy. The documentary was released in 2021.

The Consulate General of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco co-sponsored the free, public screening attended by 70 guests on June 19 during Pride Month.

Strozzi said he was "super excited" for the Italian consulate to host Grillini and introduce him to LGBTQ leaders and allies in the Bay Area. Beyond Italian food and fashion, Strozzi said Grillini's visit "shows another aspect of Italy and our culture and our society, which is very much in favor of human rights [and] civil rights."

Grillini is considered the father of Italy's LGBTQ movement. He served as a member of the Italian Parliament from 2001-2007. During his tenure in office, he pushed to pass protections such as anti-discrimination protections, civil unions, and other rights for LGBTQ Italians. The laws failed in the legislature as Italy's government fell apart, a common occurrence, he said. Each time the Italian government crumbled, he had to start over by building alliances and introducing the legislation again.

Since his time in office ended, Italy passed a civil unions bill to legally recognize same-sex relationships in 2016, but the European country has yet to pass anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, women, and people with disabilities.

An anti-discrimination bill did make it through its first hurdle in parliament when the lower house passed the bill in 2020. The bill backed by Italy's center-left Democratic Party would amend Italy's anti-discrimination law to include protecting sexual orientation and gender identity if it became law. Openly gay MP Alessandro Zan introduced the bill in response to a spat of anti-LGBTQ attacks in Italy in 2018.

The Vatican openly opposed the bill.

The Senate killed the bill with a 154-131 vote in October 2021 despite public support.

At the time, discussions about the bill would not be able to be reopened in parliament for six months, reported Reuters. Lawmakers believed approving the bill before the legislature expired in early 2023 would be impossible.

Nearly a year later, discussions remain dead in Italy's legislature but not with the European Union.

Italian General Consul Sergio Strozzi introduces Franco Grillini, second to left, and filmmaker Filippo Vendemmiati, foreground, at a June 19 film screening in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of the Italian Consulate and the Italian Cultural Institute  

Zan, who is also a prominent leader in Associazione LGBTI italiana, or Arcigay, met with the E.U. Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli in Brussels in June, reported Euractiv. She liked his proposal for a comprehensive hate crime and hate speech law with harsher penalties for perpetrators who discriminate against LGBTQ people, women, and people with disabilities, tweeting on June 28 that it was "in line with the EU LGBTIQ Equality Strategy."

The E.U. LGBTIQ Equality Strategy is the E.U.'s first five-year strategic plan to promote LGBTQ equality and defeat hate in member countries launched in 2020.

The International Lesbian and Gay Association ranks Italy last for recognizing and respecting LGBTQ rights in Western Europe.

In the weeks leading up to parliament's vote on the bill, LGBTQ Italians and their supporters, as well as opponents, took to Italy's streets in large demonstrations.

Grillini said Italians have wanted protections for LGBTQ people, women, and laws addressing other controversial issues, such as end-of-life, for about 40 years.

"People in Italy agree with ... these reforms," he said.

The government's regular falling apart and rebuilding itself along with its failure to modernize laws in line with what Italian citizens want "is a problem," Grillini said.

Parliament has never caught onto legislating change from the people, he continued.

"This is a problem that not only concerns citizens," Grillini said about the Italian government's failure to recognize and legislate on issues everyday Italians face. "This is a problem that concerns human rights."

However, Grillini was taunted by his peers who called him "the American" and "the Italian Harvey Milk," he said about importing American LGBTQ activists' strategies to Italy, such as setting up LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS organizations and supporting pride festivals.

It was American LGBTQ activists blazing a path an ocean away in New York and San Francisco where Grillini saw inspiration and got support to be able to do the same in Italy.

This is why queer activists need to build better alliances internationally, he said, talking about LGBTQ people around the world living in countries where they continue to face the death penalty, criminalization, and discrimination.

"That's why I would like to further our relationships and these alliances," he said, hoping that his own story will help others. "It has been very important."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected].

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