Italian politicians targeting LGBTQ people to divert attention away from the COVID economy, experts say

Two years ago, Francesco, then 18, became homeless overnight. His mother, an evangelical Christian, called the police to evict him from the family’s home in the southern Italian city of Naples, saying his relationship with his boyfriend was corrupting his younger sister. “I was literally kicked out on the street with no help from the police or social services to try to resolve the situation,” Francesco recounted. CBC News has agreed not to use his last name. “My boyfriend and I tried to find work to support ourselves, but it’s difficult to get hired for young, gay people in a city like Naples. You’re constantly made to experience your normality as abnormality.” Through a network of Italian LGBTQ associations, the Gay Center in Rome — one of few Italian refuges for young LGBTQ kids in distress — was alerted to Francesco’s situation and took him and his boyfriend in. The group home provided housing, food and support for more than a year, until the two were able to launch a new, independent life in the Italian capital. But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these kinds of lifelines for LGBT youth in Italy and elsewhere in Europe are even more thinly stretched – putting thousands of young gay and transgender people, trapped in families that refuse to accept them, at even greater risk. Alessandra Rossi, who helps run the centre in Rome, worries about all the young people calling the centre during the lockdowns, crying out for help with isolation and depression. “With fewer jobs and university residences shutting down, many youth had to move back home,” said Rossi. “The loneliness for LGBTQ kids back with families who reject [their sexual identity] is even more acute. The community and networks that kept them going before the pandemic are now cut off, making the situation even more dramatic.” In a survey of 2,445 Italian LGBTQ youth carried out by the Gay Helpline after the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, half of respondents reported facing problems of acceptance and support from their families, with 70 per cent feeling isolated and 56 per cent feeling depressed. “We have cases of kids coming out to their parents during the lockdown and parents punishing them by taking away their computers and cell phones, claiming they’re protecting them from gay propaganda,” she said. “It’s led to a lot of suffering, especially for the teenagers who have had to withstand constant rejection and pressure all on their own.” Rossi says in her experience as a group home worker, homophobic fathers are more likely to resort to physical violence in reaction to a child coming out. Mothers, she says, tend to exert psychological pressure on their gay or trans children to conform — not just to heterosexual norms, but stereotypical gender roles. “For lesbian daughters, it’s even more complicated,” she said, “because there’s all the cultural pressure to look ‘feminine,’ with long hair and skirts and that sort of thing. It’s especially tough for those transitioning to men, where it’s important for them to bind their breasts, cut their hair and dress in [a] masculine way, and with families forbidding that.” What is just as concerning during the pandemic, say experts, are politicians targeting gay and trans people as a way to divert attention away from the economic challenges of COVID. Last month, the ILGA-Europe, an LGBTQ rights group, sounded alarm bells about the rise in homophobic language and political hate speech against transgender people in Europe during the pandemic. In its latest annual report, it found that politicians in 17 countries in Europe and Central Asia, Italy among them, have verbally attacked LGBTQ people.