Daniela Lourdes Falanga has had her fair share of battles. The first was to survive a brutal upbringing as the firstborn son of a mafia boss in Naples.
Falanga, 43, had been expected to follow in the footsteps of her father, currently serving a life sentence, into the powerful Camorra organised crime syndicate. Instead, she found the courage to break ranks, and in 2019 was elected the first trans woman president of a branch of Arcigay, Italy’s largest LGBT activist group.
“I was not the boy who could adapt to that family, and it brought me so much suffering,” Falanga, who leads Arcigay in Naples, told the Observer. “And so, aged 17, I rebelled. When I transitioned, I did so for freedom and happiness. This is where my activism for trans people was born – I wanted people to understand that we are the same as everyone else and not monsters.”
Falanga is now among the prominent activists campaigning for Italy to adopt a long-awaited law that would criminalise violence and hate speech against LGBT people.
“This law is fundamental,” she said. “We’re not inventing things – if the hate doesn’t happen at home, then it happens in the street.”
An attack a fortnight ago on a gay couple who kissed at a metro station in Rome prompted renewed calls for the urgent approval of the law. The law was passed by the lower house of parliament in November, but its passage through the upper house, or Senate, has been delayed by a change of government and fierce resistance from politicians in Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party.
The bill, drafted by Alessandro Zan, a gay politician with the centre-left Democratic party (PD), would be an extension of an existing law that punishes racist violence, hatred and discrimination, with jail terms of up to four years.
A second attempt last week by the Senate’s justice committee, whose president is the League’s Andrea Ostellari, to schedule a date for the final vote failed.
“The majority of people in the commission back the law, but we are being held hostage by a president who arbitrarily decides that the vote shouldn’t be scheduled because he belongs to a party that doesn’t want it,” said Zan.
Although Italy approved same-sex civil unions in 2016, the country lags behind its EU partners in creating anti-homophobia measures. Attempts by various governments over the past 25 years to enshrine LGBT rights in law have either been stifled or sabotaged.
When Zan’s latest draft began to be debated last summer, Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the smaller far-right party, Brothers of Italy, organised protests in Rome.
They argued that the law would suppress freedom of expression. A couple of Catholic priests held vigils to pray for the bill not to be enacted, while the Italian conference of bishops said it would mark the “death of liberty”.
More recently, far-right politicians have used the coronavirus pandemic to claim that a vote on the law is not a priority. Massimiliano Romeo, the League’s senate whip, said that the push for the law risked “causing trouble” for the broad coalition government led by Mario Draghi. The League re-entered government when the alliance was formed in February.
But for Falanga and other activists, a law that protects LGBT people is even more crucial because of the pandemic. Rights groups receive hundreds of hate crime reports each year, but many go unreported.
“Episodes are rising,” she said. “In the same way we saw a rise in domestic violence during lockdowns, LGBT people were stuck at home with parents or aggressive siblings who don’t tolerate them.”
In June last year, a 25-year-old man was brutally attacked by a gang of seven people as he walked hand-in-hand with his boyfriend in the Adriatic city of Pescara. Less than two weeks later, a gay couple were assaulted by a group of six after they kissed each other at a train station.
For Falanga, the most horrific case hit close to home. In September, Maria Paola Gaglione, 22, was killed after her brother rammed his vehicle into the motor scooter she was riding on with her transgender partner, Ciro Migliore, in Naples. The brother, who is on trial for manslaughter, told investigators he didn’t intend to kill his sister but instead wanted to “teach her a lesson” over the relationship. Falanga said the couple had continuously been the target of death threats.
Despite the setbacks in the law, Italy has made some progress in terms of LGBT acceptance, with Pride events held across several major cities and attended by thousands. If the vote was left up to the population, Falanga believes it would pass, even if only by a small majority.
But Lorenzo Xiques, another LGBT activist in Naples, begs to differ.
“Italy has this strong Christian element,” he said. “I don’t think society is ready for people like me.”
He supports the law but doesn’t believe it goes far enough to protect people, especially in a society “that doesn’t understand the difference between hate speech and free speech”.
“We still question if a woman being called a whore is discrimination or freedom of speech,” he added. Xiques also said it would be hard to punish verbal attacks that appear softer than the most explicitly offensive terms. He added: “Let’s just say that hate always has a way of being reinvented.”