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    February 16, 2007

    Italian-style family values

    Posted by: Chris

    Sylvioberlusconi Italy's raucous debate over civil unions for unmarried couples has been overshadowed by a marital squabble plaguing the man claiming the mantle of "family values."

    Prime Minister Romano Prodi introduced the legislation, which would be open to both gay and straight unmarried couples, to fulfill a campaign promise. But several members of his fragile governing coalition have threatened to bolt if the legislation is adopted and one cabinet minister said she'd rather resign than support rights for gay couples.

    Center-right opposition leader Sylvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, saw the political opportunity and took it.  After Prodi's cabinet unified long enough for a unanimous vote for the civil unions bill, Berlusoni attacked. "It creates exactly what we don't want," he told Reuters, "a sort of 'second division' marriage, which devalues the meaning of family."

    Berlusconi certainly knows a thing or three about "devaluing the meaning of family." At 70, the bazillionaire business mogul is used to flirting with impunity despite the fact that he's married (to a woman 20 years younger). At a television awards ceremony a couple weeks ago, he told one beautiful woman, "I'd follow you anywhere." To another, he said, "If I weren't already married, I'd marry you."

    Veronicaberlusconi That was all his semi-separated wite, former actress Veronica Lario, could take and she demanded an apology. When he refused in private, she wrote an open letter to him and sent it to the newspaper most critical of him. "They are comments that I interpret as damaging to my dignity, comments that for the age, political and social position, family context … of the person who made them, can't be brushed off as harmless jokes."

    Berlusconi relented and issued a public apology, but too late to make transparent and hypocritical his claim to defending the institution of the family for all Italians. (Though whether due to the language difference or the unique co-existence of Catholicism with Italian male bravado, I haven't seen media reports picking up on the irony and polls show most Italians more sympathetic to Berlusconi than his wife.)

    For me, the irony is even deeper because I agree with Berlusconi that, as written, the Italian civil unions bill undermines marriage and the family — but not because it's open to gay couples or would lead to adoption by gay couples.  The problem is that it's open to unmarried heterosexual couples, an approach (also adopted in Washington, D.C.) that seems equal on its face but actually threatens marriage much more so that allowing gays to wed, since straight couples then have the easier option of "marriage lite."

    Especially in a culture like Italy's dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, where divorce is still heavily frowned upon, these civil unions will become more and more tempting for straight couples.  Berlusconi, for example, was only seen in public twice with wife during his entire tenure as prime minister, during state visits from President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But they stay technically married yet separated, no doubt for political reasons.

    "Marriage lite" civil unions, like the "PACS" adopted by France, may well undermine long-term relationships and even exacerbate the chronically low European birthrate.  Civil unions ought to be a half-step toward true marriage equality for gay couples, not a half-step backward for heterosexuals.



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