ROME, Oct 16 (Openly) - When Marlon Landolfo kissed his date on a night out, onlookers started heckling, a fight broke out and his friend ended up in hospital - the latest in a series of anti-gay attacks in Italy where plans to combat homophobic violence are hotly contested.
"They hurled insults at us," said Landolfo, 22, describing how he and Mattias Fascina, 26, were pushed to the floor, kicked and punched, in the northern Italian town of Padua last month.
"When a friend who was with us told them off, one guy headbutted him," he said, adding that the friend was then hit on the head with a glass bottle, requiring 10 stitches.
The police were not immediately available for comment but local media reported that four men and a woman had been charged with actual bodily harm, which has a penalty of up to three years in jail.
Gay rights advocates said such incidents highlight the need for a law that specifically recognises LGBT+ hate crimes in Italy, which the advocacy group ILGA-Europe ranks as one of the worst countries in Western Europe to be gay, bisexual or trans.
A proposed anti-discrimination law has sparked heated political debate in the southern European country, with rival demonstrations planned in Rome on Saturday and supporters of the bill set to take to the streets in about 50 cities.
A pro-reform rally drew about 3,000 people in Milan last week, according to local media reports, with most wearing masks amid a spike in new coronavirus infections, which surged to a new daily record of 8,804 on Thursday.
Parliament is due to vote next week on the bill which would include LGBT+ people and women in an existing law that criminalises discrimination and incitement to violence based on someone's race or religion, with sentences of up to four years.
Italy's largest LGBT+ rights group Arcigay records more than 100 hate crime and discrimination cases each year, but numerous attempts over the last 25 years to create a law to punish acts of homophobia and transphobia have failed.
Italy approved same-sex civil unions in 2016 after facing stiff opposition from Catholic groups, buoyed by the presence of the Vatican in Rome, but it does not allow gay marriage.
Two in three LGBT+ Italians avoid holding hands with their loved ones in public for fear of harassment or assault, according to a European Union survey.
"If people can't show affection and just be who they are out of fear ... (public) institutions have to intervene," said Alessandro Zan, an openly gay lawmaker with the centre-left Democratic Party, who devised the proposed legislation.
If passed, the law would also set aside 4 million euro ($4.7 million) a year for LGBT+ shelters and fund campaigns to combat homophobia and transphobia, Zan said.
FREEDOM AND HAIR LOSS
While backed by the ruling coalition, the anti-discrimination bill has met a fierce resistance from the opposition - including the far-right League, Italy's most popular party - and the Catholic church.
Opposition parties have filed hundreds of amendments in a bid to derail the reform, including asking for the bill to punish discrimination based on weight, poor hygiene, baldness and ignorance.
The League and its ally Brothers of Italy, which together muster about 40% of the vote according to recent polls, have criticised the bill as useless and an attack on free speech.
"There is no discrimination in Italy ... and all the possible sanctions and punishment one can think of are already in place," the League's leader Matteo Salvini told a news conference in July.
The Italian conference of bishops - an influential Catholic Church body - has described the proposal as "freedom-killing".
The conservative campaign group Pro Life and Family has said the bill would make LGBT+ people "more equal than others" and would lead to homosexuality being taught in schools through its initiative to raise awareness about homophobia.
"To say that two men do not make one mother is a fact, not homophobia," said its deputy chairman, Jacopo Coghe, adding that the proposed law could make it a crime to voice such views.
Zan denied that the bill would impinge on free speech, punishing only those who incite hatred, and said that the far-right's opposition was aimed at rallying support among socially conservative voters.
Only 59% of Italian think there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, compared with 95% of Swedes and well below a European Union average of 72%, according to a Eurobarometer survey last year.
"(The opposition) use spurious arguments and don't have the courage to say they don't want this law because they are against the rights of LGBT people," Zan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"To say 'let's go kill gay people tomorrow' - that's not freedom of expression," said Zan, who has received death threats in the run-up to the parliamentary vote.
If the bill is passed by the lower chamber, it would move to the Senate, where the last LGBT+ hate crimes bill ran aground without being voted on in 2013 and the ruling coalition holds a thinner majority.
If Italy does vote to outlaw anti-LGBT+ violence and discrimination, it would mark "a very important step towards equality for all of its citizens", said Akram Kubanychbekov, an advocacy officer with LGBT+ group ILGA-Europe.
Landolfo said the law would help him, and other victims of LGBT+ hate crimes, to feel safer.
"These type of attacks are a continuous problem," he said.
"The law doesn't solve the issue but can help. What's really needed is education as we are still light years away from full social acceptance."
($1 = 0.8480 euros) (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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