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 A country’s failure to protect human rights: Institutionalized homophobia and discrimination in Italy

Robert Connor Magnacca



LGBT individuals face employment discrimination in the Italian city of Trento and in the country writ large. This article discusses the current state of Italian law and identifies areas where it lacks adequate protection for LGBT community. The article also employs qualitative and quantitative research methodology to analyze the state of homophobia in Italy. Since existing laws against discriminatory practices in the workplace in Trento have failed to prevent discrimination against LGBT people, the article proposes three policy options and discusses their potential contribution to changing the status quo. The proposed ideas include a conditional cash transfer (CCT) policy for employers to disincentivize employment discrimination against LGBT people. Other proposed policies include stricter anti-discrimination laws and government-mandated diversity training to mitigate homophobia and discrimination in Italy. The article evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed policies and concludes that, on net, the Italian government could benefit from these policies in combating anti-LGBT employment discrimination.

Keywords: LGBT rights, Italy, CCTs, Trento

I. Introduction

Italy has extremely limited protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, with no current laws protecting LGBT people against homophobic hate speech or hate crimes, and significantly limited anti-discrimination laws (“Rainbow Europe: Italy” 2018). For example, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart Institute are an organization of Christian women dedicated to education, among other services ("Principi E Valori" 2018). This group of women runs a school in Trento, Italy that dismissed a teacher in 2017 for failing to disclose her homosexuality despite laws in place to protect her employment (Scammell 2017). This dismissal represents broader public opinion in Italy: A study shows that only half of the Italian population would hire an LGBT professional as a teacher or doctor (Santona and Tognasso 2017). There are several potential policy solutions that could mitigate the presence of LGBT discrimination in the workplace in Italy. For example, the Italian government could incentivize employers likely to discriminate against LGBT individuals with stipends to encourage these employers to actively seek out LGBT people. Conversely, the government could pursue stricter punishments against discriminatory employers and businesses to ensure that they comply with the anti-discrimination laws. Finally, rather than maintain a voluntary diversity directive as in some European nations, the government could mandate that employers engage in the directive to increase diversity in the workplace and thereby improve the labor force participation of LGBT individuals.

This article advocates a stipend approach with a conditional cash transfer (CCT) method to address discrimination in the workplace by incentivizing employers to hire LGBT individuals. No government has used a CCT to reduce discrimination, but a number of countries, including Brazil, have used CCTs to alleviate poverty. Using a CCT could help because exposure to queer individuals is proven to decrease homophobic beliefs (Tepperman 2016). Therefore, incentivizing employers to increase their queer employment would not only directly decrease discrimination but also implicitly reduce homophobia by exposing more people to the queer community. Although some religious employers may refuse these conditional stipends, this method may prove to be the most successful and beneficial in limiting homophobic discrimination in the workplace among other alternatives. Thus, this approach is the most practicable option to combat discrimination in Italy outside of explicit anti-discrimination laws.


II. Background

The article will begin by defining its key terms:

LGBT: One’s identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or any other sexual or gender minority outside of heterosexuality and a cisgender identity.

Homophobia: Homophobia, as used in this article, represents an individual’s prejudice or negative attitude toward the LGBT community because of this identity, whereas discrimination applies to the practice of depriving LGBT individuals of opportunity because of homophobic beliefs.

Discrimination: Discrimination in this paper specifically applies to employment discrimination and therefore refers to situations when employment opportunities are denied, revoked, or withheld from an LGBT individual strictly on the basis of their LGBT identity. This definition follows Italian law; the article also defines indirect discrimination as disadvantaging individuals because of their identity (“Attuazione della direttiva” 2003).

Western Europe: This paper is based in Western Europe geographically and considers the European countries west of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Balkans. The paper also recognizes the Scandinavian countries as a part of Western Europe but excludes Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, San Marino, and Vatican City because of the small size of their geography and population. 

The state of LGBT protections in Italy and its shortcomings

Italy severely lags in the legal rights and protections offered to members of the LGBT community, especially compared to the rest of Western Europe. There are no Italian laws that deem crimes against a person for their sexual orientation as hate crimes or hate speech ("Rainbow Europe: Italy" 2018). Furthermore, discrimination against LGBT individuals remains legal in Italy: As of 2018, no Italian law prevents LGBT discrimination in education, health, law, or in the selling and purchase of goods and services (Ibid). To this end, the only anti-discrimination law protecting the LGBT community that exists in Italy regards legal prevention of discrimination in the workplace (Ibid). Despite a law preventing homophobic employment discrimination, discrimination frequently occurs, which indicates a need for stronger laws and enforcement.

Though there are many gaps in rights for Italy’s LGBT community, some protections do exist. For example, although the fight for same-sex marriage in Italy is ongoing, Italy legalized same-sex civil unions in May 2016, and the country’s first legally recognized same-sex marriage occurred in 2017 (“LGBT Rights” 2019). Regarding the transgender community, specifically, surgery is no longer required for one to claim one’s own gender identity as of July 2015 (Ibid). Furthermore, as discussed in more detail below, codifying the prevention of LGBT discrimination in the workplace is a significant advance in LGBT rights in Italy. Notably, the policy positions of this article are independent of the existing and missing laws to prevent LGBT discrimination in Italy, and thus they will not be given more focus in this article. However, the current laws in place are crucial for understanding the state of the LGBT community in Italy and the need to diminish the discrimination against them.

The prevalence of discrimination in Italy

Homophobic beliefs are still prevalent in Italian society and manifest in discriminatory behavior; Italy may have laws against sexuality-based discrimination in employment, but it has not eliminated discriminatory beliefs or practices. The smattering of protections that Italy has enacted may have more to do with supranational organizations’ requirements than with Italian society’s genuine interest in reducing discrimination and homophobia. As Phillip Ayoub notes in When States Come Out, European institutions applying to become members of the EU “directly contribute to a minimum level of policy change across all member states,” including “anti-discrimination in employment” (Ayoub, 2016). Furthermore, the Employment Equality Directive of 2000 codified anti-discrimination in the workplace based on certain identities of a person, including sexual orientation (Tymowski, 2016). Thus, the driving force behind making LGBT discrimination illegal in the workplace may be a need to cooperate with EU norms as opposed to a progression in social acceptance. A survey from the Italian National Institute of Statistics, as presented in a Santora and Tognasso study (2018), fortifies this claim by showing that, although 70% of Italians say that gay or lesbian people should be hired despite sexual orientation, only 50% would hire an LGBT professional for positions such as a doctor or a teacher (Santona and Tognasso 2018, 364). Furthermore, an ISTAT study claims that 40.3% of the polled LGBT individuals claimed to have experienced discrimination at school, university, or the workplace (“La Popolazione Omosessuale,” 2012). These statistics show that anti-discrimination laws have not sufficiently protected LGBT citizens from employment biases.

Italy also lags in public support of LGBT individuals, leaving them in danger of hatred and attack. When a perpetrator attacks an individual because of their sexual orientation, Italian law does not recognize this action as a hate crime. Thus, homophobia-based crimes against LGBT individuals remain prevalent in Italy. In 2017, Italy witnessed 63 reported crimes “against groups of people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity” (“Crimes Based” 2017). Evidence suggests that this number does not reflect the gravity of the situation in Italy because hate crimes are severely underreported. The report Running through Hurdles: Obstacles in the Access to Justice for Victims of Anti-LGBTI Hate Crimes records the 2013 EU LGBT survey, which reports that 19% of respondents claim to have been assaulted within the last five years, but only 17% of these individuals informed the police(Godzisz and Viggiani 2018). Furthermore, the publication notes that little data exist regarding anti-LGBT hate crimes because of the lack of laws and protocols about homophobic hate crimes. It specifically notes that Italy faces severe underreporting, indicating that a significant proportion of crimes against the Italian LGBT community go unrecognized (Ibid).

In rare cases, homophobic hate crimes are so severe that they gain national attention. In 2016, a homophobia-motivated attack on the Rome Gay Center sparked national concern for the violence that LGBT community faces (“Italy One” 2017). In 2018, a gay man in Syracuse lost his eye during a brutal attack (Grattan 2018). These instances demonstrate that hateful bias toward the LGBT community persists throughout the country. Trento, in particular, performs poorly in efforts to effectively protect LGBT people from discrimination and mistreatment. Recently, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart Institute terminated a female teacher for refusing to clear up rumors of her homosexuality (Scammell 2016). The anti-discrimination laws in place did not prevent her termination. However, the court ordered the Daughters of the Sacred Heart Institute to pay 25,000 euros (approximately $26,500 in 2017) in reparations to the teacher because of their discriminatory actions, marking the first time in Italian history that a court has charged a Catholic school for an instance of homophobic discrimination (Bentz 2016). Although this ruling demonstrates progress in the Italian government’s efforts to diminish discriminatory behavior, the mere existence of the problem itself reveals the prevalence of homophobic attitudes in Italy today. Discriminatory beliefs are so strong that residents continue to act on them in spite of the laws prohibiting them.

Homophobia hinders Italy both domestically and internationally. Italy has among the fewest nationally-recognized LGBT rights and protections in Western Europe ("Rainbow Europe: Italy" 2018).Italy has no laws that protect queer people from homophobic hate speech or hate crimes, and its only anti-discrimination law failed in Trento (Ibid). Rainbow Europe, a site that ranks countries based on their LGBT protections, has ranked the countries of Europe based on scores that range from 0% – representing “gross violations of human rights” and “discrimination” – to 100% – representing “full equality” and “respect of human rights” (Ibid). According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Association (ILGA), which established these scores, the ranking is based on any legal protections or hindrances that affect the LGBT community in these states (Ibid). The ILGA places Italy at 26.67% while neighboring countries such as Spain and France received scores of about 67.03% and 72.81%, respectively (Ibid). Societal homophobia and discrimination cause Italy to lag behind the rest of Western Europe on human rights issues. In order to remedy its poor human rights image, Italy must not only adopt new laws to protect the marginalized LGBT community, but also must strictly enforce these laws to ensure its population follows them.


III. Policy options for dealing with homophobia and discrimination

Stipends to employ LGBT individuals

Studies show that one way to diminish social stigma against the homosexual community is to foster interpersonal relationships between heterosexuals and members of the LGBT community. The Santona and Tognasso study measures perceptions of the LGBT community among a group of students in Milan using the Modern Homonegativity Scale and Attitudes Toward Lesbian and Gay Men – Revised questionnaires (Santona and Tognasso 2018, 366-367). Their research indicates that students who had personal interactions or relationships with LGBT individuals tended to respond to their LGBT identity more fondly than those who did not have such relationships (Ibid). A similar study in Washington State in the United States polled 46 men and 46 women to measure the effects of connections with queer people to attitudes toward the community (Lemm 2008). On a scale from one to six, with six representing a more positive attitude, those who had “at least one gay friend” had a mean of 4.52, compared to those without gay friends having a mean of 3.68 (Ibid, 89). These data suggest that relationships with LGBT individuals generate positive perceptions of the LGBT community.

Conditional cash transfers, which have been successful in alleviating poverty in numerous situations, may also work to encourage non-discriminatory practices. In 2003, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sought to diminish poverty by distributing stipends to poor families on the condition that parents send their children to school (Tepperman 2016, 38). This strategy not only succeeded in diminishing “those living in indigence” to less than 3% as of 2014, but it also proved to be 30% cheaper than other policy alternatives; it also increased school attendance by 14% (Ibid, 41-42). Of course, poverty differs from homophobic bias, but the concept of CCTs may be a successful approach to alleviating homophobia. Incentivizing employers to hire queer individuals with stipends could lead to an increase in the number of queer people in the workforce, thereby diminishing discrimination by mitigating homophobia through exposure. This solution could decrease both discrimination and homophobia, which benefits the employer (through the stipend), society at large (through decreased prejudice), and the government (through improved human rights).  

Notably, a CCT approach to diminish employment discrimination would differ from CCTs addressing poverty. The amount of money needed to incentivize a hesitant employer to hire an LGBT worker, followed by recurring stipends to maintain the LGBT individual’s employment, could exceed the amount needed to relieve the poverty of families in Brazil. However, an increased taxation of the Italian population and allocation of these funds to target small businesses could prove beneficial at the onset of this police initiative. Logically, small businesses would not only be more amenable to accepting a CCT, they would also be more likely to accept a relatively modest CCT. Thus, the Italian government would need to target businesses that are most likely to need and accept a CCT. 

Harsher punishments for discriminators

An alternative policy option would be to seek harsher punishments for those who engage in discriminatory behavior. In the Daughters of the Sacred Heart case in Trento, the perpetrators merely paid a fine for the damages to the LGBT individual who lost her job (Bentz 2016). The possibility of a harsher punishment for engaging in discriminatory behavior could increase the likelihood of employer compliance with the existing anti-discrimination laws. Under this policy option, there is a risk that one could abuse the system by falsely identifying as LGBT to keep a job, but given the social stigma and discrimination that exists, the plausibility of one engaging in such behavior seems low.

According to the liberal U.S. think tank Center of American Progress (CAP), many cities and municipalities in the United States permit the revocation of business licenses when employers or companies discriminate based on sexual orientation. CAP specifically refers to Los Angeles and Indianapolis, which have laws that allow the city to revoke licenses for discriminatory offenses. As the CAP notes, “Portland, Oregon, provides just one example of license revocation being used effectively against a cab driver who discriminated against a lesbian couple” (Durso et al. 2017). CAP also notes that Denver, Colorado is a city in which discriminatory practice can lead to the revocation of a company’s license, while other cities in California have similar laws (Ibid, 26). While the previous recommendation attempts to make employing LGBT people a fiscally advantageous business decision, this method seeks increased employment through a heightened potential for business losses. In the Daughters of the Sacred Heart case in Trento, the risk of a fine was not enough to prevent the perpetrators from engaging in discriminatory behavior. The CCT solution’s positive effects could manifest with this solution as well. In the short run, this approach could mitigate discrimination because employers would fire fewer LGBT people out of fear of being harshly sanctioned and suspended from business activity. Furthermore, the approach could lessen long-running discrimination because more LGBT employment increases heterosexual individuals’ exposure to the LGBT community. Previous studies have proven that increased exposure alleviates homophobic perceptions. To this end, the policies proposed here could be piloted on a limited scale and expanded from there. Trento, where anti-LGBT discrimination is a serious problem, is a prime candidate.

Mandatory diversity management and training

Austria may relate to Italy in terms of geographical location, EU membership, and western norms, but the countries are very different in their approaches to LGBT employment discrimination and equality. Specifically, as of 2010, the Austrian Charta der Vielfat acts as a push towards increased diversity in the workforce (Schwarz-Woelzl et al. 2015). This initiative intends to set a precedent for “diversity management implementation” among those who sign onto the initiative. It offers membership tools, such as guidelines for diversity management, an implementation checklist, and a manual to address diversity (Ibid, 20). Based on this guidance, the Austrian Federal Railway (ÖBB) created an equality policy that specifically addresses “equal treatment irrespective of sex, age, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, handicap” (Ibid, 21). Austrian companies that have signed onto the diversity management plan claim that it has had a “mid-range impact on the development of their diversity policies and activities,” though they have noticed improvements in public image and business opportunities (Ibid, 20).

Diversity training mitigates LGBT employment discrimination because it emphasizes the economic benefits of having LGBT workers. Adopting diversity goals encourages businesses to actively recruit LGBT individuals and create a safer work environment for LGBT employees. Diversifying the workforce with LGBT employees yields variation in thought and ideas in the workplace, adds the devotion and dedication of talented LGBT employees to the company, and leads to an overall improvement of company image ("Charta Der Vielfalt”). Hence, this policy would both benefit the LGBT community and the companies themselves. Under Austria’s current system, however, diversity commitments and management represent an opt-in system. This means that companies for which the training may constitute a financial burden may not opt in, and mandating diversity training resources could be too expensive for some businesses. A possible middle ground would be to target the policy to business sectors that are known to be particularly hostile to LGBT individuals. Though cost constraints for businesses are real hurdles, it is also true that societal rewards from reducing prejudice would be significant.

IV. Potential stakeholder objections

As demonstrated by the existing bias in Italy, certain individuals and groups may oppose anti-discriminatory policy propositions. Religious individuals and groups, such as the Daughters of the Sacred Heart Institute, would likely object to changes because they are steadfast in their convictions. This religious opposition may cause political parties that are right-of-center to oppose anti-discrimination policy solutions because they need to appeal to a base that condemns homosexuality.  

The Italian government, on the other hand, ought to support the CCT method to change discrimination and homophobic views because it is a fairly inexpensive way to achieve equality, diminish domestic turmoil, and get increasingly closer to the international norms of LGBT rights that Italy’s neighbors already meet. Tepperman’s description of the Bolsa Família program demonstrated how affordable it was to finance families below the poverty line to send their children to school: The program cost no more than 0.5% of Brazil’s GDP (Tepperman 2016, 41). It is impossible to deduce the potential cost of a CCT program regarding discrimination with certainty because no government has attempted to create one. However, starting with smaller firms or where homophobic discrimination occurs at high rates would be a beneficial starting point. Therefore, starting in places like Trento with smaller firms could allow the Italian government to address and lessen discriminatory behavior at sufficiently low costs. Based on its success in Trento, the program could be expanded to the whole of Italy.



V. Limitations and conclusion 

Homophobic discrimination remains prevalent in Italy despite the few anti-discrimination laws that exist. In Trento, the government failed to meet its responsibility to protect the marginalized LGBT community, but this problem applies across the country. Because Trento’s exhibition of these discriminatory views is emblematic of a nationwide problem, eliminating homophobic employment practices must become a national goal if Italy hopes to see broad success. Ultimately, the CCT method can counter homophobia and discrimination and improve human rights in Italy. 

Notably, the proposed solutions to homophobic employment discrimination in Italy have flaws. First, some organizations may refuse to participate in a government stipend program because of their pre-existing beliefs. There is also no model for the proposed type of CCT program because Italy would be the first country to attempt a stipend approach to address homophobic discrimination and oppression. The CCT method, however, is relatively cheap; ergo, there would be a low opportunity cost for implementing this institutional change. CCTs are successful in partially alleviating poverty and encouraging socially beneficial behaviors, so using CCTs to facilitate LGBT employment and exposure could mitigate the problem of homophobic discrimination.

The non-CCT proposals also offer limitations. Just as homophobic employers may refuse stipends, they may continue to act in accordance with their own homophobic beliefs despite harsher punishments for discriminatory practices. In addition, forcing employers to hire LGBT individuals may put LGBT individuals in unsafe work environments under antagonized bosses.

Therefore, the policy could also be complemented by mandated reparations for those discriminated against. Diversity training is likely the most effective way to reduce stigmas and ensure a safe workplace for LGBT individuals. The Italian government should also increase explicit legal protections for LGBT individuals in the workplace to ensure the reduction of homophobic discrimination and make the LGBT community safer.

Finally, there is a risk that making Austria’s voluntary diversity management program mandatory in Italy only minimally impacts the Italian LGBT public. Italy has a similar EU-commissioned diversity charter through which employers may elect to enact preventative anti-discrimination policies (“Carta per Le Pari” 2019). The Austrian charter focuses less on sexual orientation than on other marginalized minorities such as racial, ethnic, gender, and other identities (Schwarz-Woelzl et al. 2015, 20). That said, compared to the diversity management agreements of Spain, Poland, and the Czech Republic, Austria’s is the only one that grants awards for the inclusion of minority sexual orientations. Thus, according to national reports, Austria has a greater focus to LGBT employees (Ibid, 87). Another risk is that, because the training operates in an opt-in system, the companies and employers where diversity management is most needed are likely the ones that would not engage. Thus, enacting legal requirements and remedies for employers may be explored. Although this approach poses the potential safety pitfalls previously noted, the long-term effect on the company itself and on the LGBT community through exposure and less direct discrimination could be highly beneficial.

A central challenge facing any attempt to mitigate homophobia in Italy is a lack of LGBT data and focus on the community. There is limited legal and documented research into the dangers the LGBT community faces in Italy. As noted in the 2018 Running Through Hurdles report, the absence of laws protecting LGBT rights in Italy make finding specific data for these problems difficult (Godzisz and Viggiani 2018). Thus, Italy must acknowledge the marginalization of the LGBT community and support studies to expand understanding of the issues they face.

Though this article focuses on employment discrimination, Italy faces many more equity issues within the LGBT community. The existence of civil unions for LGBT individuals in Italy is significant, but Italian LGBT couples are still unable to marry (Equaldex 2019). In addition, very few provisions or protections exist for transgender people. Many laws targeted at helping LGB individuals – including the ones that fail in protecting gay and lesbian people – solely apply to sexual orientation (Ibid). Italy must act strongly against homophobic behavior and beliefs to prevent discrimination like the case in Trento.


+ Author biography

Robert "Connor" Magnacca is an undergraduate sophomore studying Government at the Georgetown College. He is a Massachusetts native and this is his first publication with Georgetown Public Policy Review.

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