Activists Call on Italian Government to Pull Support for Anti-LGBTQ Event

The European nation is hosting the notoriously anti-gay World Congress of Families in Verona this March.

More than 100,000 people are calling on the Italian government to revoke its support for an upcoming conference backed by an international group critics say promotes anti-LGBTQ hate.

Later this month, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, is one of several major figures slated to appear at the World Congress of Families (WCF), an annual summit billed as the “Olympics of social conservatism.” He is scheduled to attend the three-day conference alongside Family and Disability Minister Lorenzo Fontana and Education Minister Marco Bussetti.

The 2019 WCF will be held in Verona from March 29–31, marking the first time Italy has hosted the event.

Although organizers of the conference say it’s intended to promote the “natural family,” a coalition of civil rights advocacy groups warn that it sets a dangerous precedent for the European democracy. In an online petition that began circulating last week, opponents describe the group as “one of the world’s most powerful anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ groups.”

The plea further urges Italian leaders—including the Veneto Region and the Province of Verona—to immediately rescind their “support [for] this event and withdraw all endorsements of [WCF].”

Gabriele Piazzoni, secretary of the Italian LGBTQ group Arcigay, says the government’s support of the organization is “hurtful and scary.”

“Half the government is endorsing [WCF],” he tells NewNowNext. “It makes me angry that a founding member of the European Union support a conference that denies all the basic principles of human rights and civil liberties that are at the core of the European Union.”

A History of Anti-LGBTQ Hate

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
Allan Carlson, founder of the World Congress of Families.

WCF was founded two decades ago as a partnership between U.S. and Russian conservatives opposed to LGBTQ rights. The alliance is the brainchild of former Reagan advisor Allan Carlson, who was invited to meet with Russian sociologists Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov in 1995 after they read his book, The Natural Family: A Manifesto.

Two years after that initial meeting, the group’s now-yearly conference would meet for the first time in Prague. The initial gathering reportedly attracted over 700 participants from countries all over the world.

While WCF has journeyed everywhere from Madrid and Sydney to Salt Lake City, it has focused the majority of its advocacy efforts in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa. The organization has been credited with the passage of anti-LGBTQ laws in numerous countries.

Its leadership was instrumental in advocating for a 2013 law banning the spread of information on “nontraditional sexual relationships” in Russia. Brian Brown, who was elected president of the organization in 2016, spoke to a subcommittee in the Russian Duma to urge the bill’s passage. In a 2018 interview with MSNBC, Brown claimed he “would do so again.”

WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs met with bill sponsor Elena Mizulina on three separate occasions prior to its unanimous passage by members of the legislature. Regarding the anti-gay “propaganda” law, Jacobs has claimed Russia “might be the Christian saviors of the world.”

The organization has had a similar impact in other nations. Five years after WCF held its first summit in Nigeria, the African country passed a law criminalizing same-sex relationships.

Nigeria’s Theresa Okafor, one of the most vocal supporters of that law, received the “Woman of the Year” award from the group the following year. Okafor, who has compared LGBTQ people to the terrorist group Boko Haram, will reportedly be present at its Verona summit.

According to The Guardian, Okafor will be joined by Ugandan lawmaker Lucy Akello. Akello supported a bill mandating the death penalty for homosexuality and called for schools perceived as tolerant of LGBTQ youth to be investigated.

A Dangerous Precedent for Equality in Italy

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LGBTQ Italians at the 2018 Milan Gay Pride parade.

Advocacy groups are concerned that bringing figures who have built their careers on opposing equality and giving them direct access to Italy’s most powerful political leaders could set a dangerous precedent for LGBTQ rights. The country could be vulnerable to a rollback of civil liberties for marginalized groups following unprecedented victories by alt-right politicians in the 2018 elections.

Yuri Guaiana, senior campaigns manager with the LGBTQ organization All Out, says the World Conference of Families event is “really, really worrying.”

“The concern is that this is an occasion to meet, discuss, and plan laws and policies that will go against LGBTQ rights,” Guaiana tells NewNowNext. “That’s what happened in many other countries. They come with an agenda.”

“In the last 20 to 30 years, Italy has slowly moved toward the recognition of human rights for LGBTQ people,” Piazzoni adds. “This is the first real attempt to go back.”

Progress for LGBTQ people has been mixed in Italy. Although the Italian Parliament passed a civil unions bill in 2016, it has yet to legalize full marriage equality. Meanwhile, same-sex couples are still barred from adopting. There are no nationwide protections against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing, and protections in the workplace are only granted on the basis of sexual orientation, not gender identity.

Supporters of LGBTQ rights say they are mobilized to keep moving forward, instead of forfeiting the victories they have made. To date, 23 organizations have joined in calling on the government to withdraw its support for WCF, including feminist groups, trade unions, and anti-fascist organizations.

In addition to the petition, local LGBTQ organizations are planning their own schedule of events all three days of the conference. The biggest is a March 30 rally under the famed Romeo and Juliet balcony in Verona.

Piazzoni says campaigners hope to “show that love is inclusive.”

“We want to reclaim the value of family, which is very cherished by all Italians,” Guaiana adds. “[WCF] are not the ones dictating what family is. Everybody can choose what family is for them, as long as there is love. Love is what makes a family, not ideology and not religion.”

Although WCF is still two weeks away, the pro-LGBTQ counter-campaign has achieved some success. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte distanced himself from the organization after it used his office’s logo to promote the event.

Meanwhile, his representatives claim the seal had been used without his authorization.

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
@Nico_Lang