A general at the top of Italy’s armed forces bashed gay people in a recent publication. But LGBTQ+ activists and officers tell Euronews that, despite ongoing challenges, the situation is getting better for queer people in the army and the police.
In a controversial self-published book that has become an object of heated debate, Italy’s General Roberto Vannacci - one of the people at the very top of the country’s armed forces - bashed gay people, saying they were “not normal.”
Vannacci was the head of the Italian paratroopers' brigade and the Military Geographical Institute in Florence before being officially removed on Friday as the result of the homophobic, misogynistic, and racist statements contained in ‘The World Upside Down’, published some two weeks ago.
In the self-published book the general bashed environmentalists, feminists, Jewish people, Black Italians, and the LGBTQ+ community as the causes - according to him - of the problems afflicting the Italian society.
“Dear homosexuals, you’re not normal, get over it!,” he wrote. “Normality is heterosexuality. If everything seems normal to you, however, it is the fault of the plots of the international gay lobby which banned terms that until a few years ago were in our dictionaries.”
The fiery statements were immediately condemned by politicians and LGBTQ+ activists across the country, with Italy’s defence minister Guido Crosetto saying that the general discredited the army, the defence ministry, and the constitution.
“It’s disturbing that an army general, and so a person at the highest level of the army, can express a thought that’s so openly homophobic, racist, and mysoginistic,” Gabriele Piazzoni, Secretary General of the national LGBTQ+ nonprofit Arcigay, told Euronews.
“The armed forces must be inspired by the values of the Constitution,” he added. “This a democratic country, not a military dictatorship, and these statements cannot be tolerated.”
Vannacci’s punishment - with his removal from the two top positions he covered in the army - was what Piazzoni and Arcigay were calling for.
It wasn’t an obvious outcome considering that the government currently ruling the country has been pushing forward policies reducing LGBTQ+ rights in the country, including limiting the parental rights of same-sex parents.
For Alessio Avellino, a trans police officer and the president of Polis Aperta, Italy’s first association for LGBTQ+ members of the armed forces and the police, Vannacci's removal is a sign that Italy is making steps forward to make its armed forces more inclusive.
“Talking about this issue, we managed to get Vannacci removed from his post, a result that makes us happy,” Avellino told Euronews.
“In Italy, there’s a lot to do, really, really a lot. But we’re doing it.”
‘There’s a lot of people who don’t think like Vannacci’
Avellino, one of the first trans police officers in Italy, doesn’t like focusing on the negatives when talking about the situation facing LGBTQ+ people in the armed forces and the police in the country.
While initially concerned that Vannacci’s statements might find support within the broader public, the 28-year-old officer said that he’s living proof that the armed forces and the police have gotten more inclusive in recent years.
“I’m a trans person, I’ve declared it, I’ve done my gender affirmation journey within the police and the community and I live a normal life within the department,” he said. “Like me, there’s another colleague within the prison police who’s decided to come out and has started his transition journey,” he continued.
“In the armed forces, there’s a guy who has never declared himself to be trans not to compromise his work, but everyone knows he’s a trans man and has kept his job.”
By law, new police officers in Italy must follow strict regulations when being sworn in, with men wearing trousers and women wearing a skirt. Avellino was allowed to wear trousers when sworn in in 2020, despite the fact that his official documents didn’t reflect his transition journey at the time and would have forced him to wear a skirt.
“Many officers above me were understanding and let me wear trousers,” he said. “At the top, there are many people who have different opinions than Vannucci,” he added. “As always, people get to making progress before legislation catches up.”
Talking to La Repubblica, a gay officer who's been serving in the army for 30 years confirmed that coming out at work, at the age of 50, had been hard for him - but added that the army has since then changed, as Avellino said about the police.
Piazzoni is less optimistic about the situation in the country.
“In the last decades Italy surely made some steps forward, but we’re still behind compared to other countries in Western Europe in recognising LGBTQ+ rights,” Piazzoni said.
“The fact that last year the country couldn’t approve the law on homotransphobia means that we still don’t have a law that specifically condemns discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation,” he added.
The sweeping legislation - called Ddl Zan - was passed by the lower chamber of Parliament in 2021, but was sunk by the Senate, with lawmakers defending the right to freedom of speech over the need to exacerbate punishments for discriminating against women, gays and lesbians, and trans people.
“This is a clear sign that the Italian institutions struggle to understand how to oppose this phenomenon, which in turn allows parts of the public opinion that discrimination can be legitimate,” Piazzoni added.
Vannacci defended what he discussed in his book saying that it falls under his constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech.
On Monday, after being removed from office, he still defended his statements, saying that gay people are "statistically abnormal."
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right party League - part of the rightwing coalition government - sided with Vannacci, saying on Monday that he refuses to have a "Big Brother telling people what to think" in Italy.
In a list of 49 European countries ranked by their efforts to protect and recognise LGBTQ+ rights compiled by international organisation ILGA-Europe earlier this year, Italy was 34.