By Stephan Faris
ROME, Italy -- Is it an insult to call somebody gay?
That is the question Italians are pondering as they await a pivotal court decision on gay marriage expected this week.
Last week, in an unrelated case, one of Italy's highest courts issued a ruling that states calling someone gay can be an insult if it's done with the intention to denigrate. The ruling sparked a debate among the country's homosexual community: Will the decision, which aimed to protect gay rights, hurt not help?
"It risks reinforcing the idea that if you call somebody gay, they should feel offended," said Aurelio Mancuso," one of the country's leading activists on the issue. "For us to be called gay is to be serene and comfortable."
The case concerned a letter written by a policeman, named in the court documents as Dante S., to a colleague, Luciano T., in 2002. The two men had a long-standing rivalry and were competing to become the chief of police.
In addition to describing his competitor as "gay," Dante noted that Luciano had gone on a mountain holiday in the company of a sailor and accused him of having been expelled from a sports club frequented by young men.
In Italy, insulting somebody is a fineable offense, and Luciano took his rival to court, sparking a long process that concluded on March 17. Though Dante insisted he had not meant to be judgmental, the court found otherwise and ordered him to pay Luciano 400 euros ($540), plus 4,000 euros ($5,400) in fines and court fees.
Generally, the decision has been warmly received by a homosexual community frustrated by a lack of progress in gay rights when compared with other European countries.
"The fact that the word is neutral doesn't mean it can't be used to offend," said Paolo Patane, president of Arcigay, Italy's leading homosexual advocacy group. "If the intention is to hurt, to humiliate, and in doing so I add actions or other words, then it's an offense."
In October, the Italian parliament rejected a law that would have made violence against homosexuals a hate crime. The court decision is seen as the first -- albeit tiny -- step toward putting homophobia legally off-limits.
"It's not because the word 'gay' itself caused the injury, but it was the context that caused the offense," said Franco Grillini, a politician and director of gaynews.it, a news site. "A stick by itself isn't offensive. But if I hit you with it, it hurts."
"It's the association between being gay and being a pedophile that's inacceptable," said Patane.
But others, like Mancuso, see the court's decisions as reflecting a larger discomfort in Italy's predominantly Catholic society.
"I'd like to understand why being called gay is so offensive in this country," Mancuso said.
After the verdict was announced, Luciano's lawyer, Michele Brunetti, took pains to point out his client wasn't homosexual. "Certainly, he goes on vacation with male friends and he's never been married," he told the Italian daily La Repubblica. "But I never had the impression that he had those tendencies."
According to University of Bologna sociologist Luca Pietrantoni, gay rights in Italy remain behind other European countries. Homosexuals are much less likely to be open about their sexual preference, especially in the work place.
As is often the case in Italy, when it comes to homosexuality, people are generally tolerant in the public sphere -- the country elected the first transgendered parliamentarian in Europe -- but conservative at home.
"Gay people aren't totally rejected by their families," said Pietrantoni. "There's a kind of negotiations of don't ask don't tell."
According to a 2006 poll, 31 percent of Italians favored of gay marriage, compared to 42 percent in the Europe Union as a whole and 82 percent in the Netherlands. Only 24 percent of Italians agreed that homosexuals should be allowed to adopt, compared to 31 percent in the EU and 69 percent in the Netherlands.
The word "gay" is considered shameful, said Pietrantoni. Politicians tend to use synonyms: "different," "those people." When Bologna hosted a Gay Pride parade in 2008, the permit forbid the demonstrators from entering the city center or passing in front of churches.
"There's a culture of avoidance," said Pietrantoni. "As if gay identity is embarrassing, shameful."