ROME, Italy — One night last September, Francesco Zanardi walked toward the back of a gay nightclub on the Greek island of Mykonos. Before he reached his moped, four men came from behind, pulled him to the ground and beat him unconscious.
The next day Zanardi awoke in the ER wing of a Mykonos clinic with severe internal bleeding and an unshakeable anxiety. Had he died, his young partner would have been left without the home they share in Italy and all legal rights spouses are granted under Italian law.
It was then that Zanardi decided to stage a hunger strike to advocate gay marriage, and publicize it online. Now he and his 22-year-old partner, Manuel Incorvaia, are webcasting their own campaign, streaming it live, 24-hours a day, on www.glbt-tv.it.
“We came to a point where we wanted to protect each other,” said Zanardi, 39, who began fasting on Jan. 4 and is now living off just three cappuccinos a day. “This is not my first relationship, but for the first time I feel the need to protect my partner,” he said.
More than 1,500 fans have shown their support on Facebook and according to GLBT TV, thousands more are following the webcasts every day.
In Rome, the couple's supporters recently organized a vigil of about 200 people. Activists of all ages silently gathered outside the Parliament building. Within the crowd was Europe’s first transgender legislator, Vladimir Luxuria, who served in the Italian Parliament for one term in 2006.
“If you’re gay and have the fortune of falling in love like Francesco and Manuel have,” she said, “then the Italian government says you aren’t legally tied even as distant relatives. And you don’t benefit from any rights."
Without civil unions, same-sex couples have no right to care for a partner during illness, or claim property in case of death. The fear that Zanardi’s home could go to a distant cousin over his own partner is what first prompted them to begin the fast.
Citing Catholic moral values and national civil codes, Italian legislators have continually pushed gay civil rights aside. The law forbids same-sex partners from engaging in legal domestic partnership or adopting children as a couple.
Zanardi himself wrote letters to all the 630 parliament deputies demanding a new civil rights law. Only two replied.
“I think their initiative is courageous, very important and I admire them so much for what they are doing,” said Francesco Bilotta, an attorney at Rete Lenford, a national agency for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in Italy.
Last November, Zanardi and Incorvaia and 23 other same-sex couples walked into their local city halls and requested that they be married. Once mayors denied their request, the couples took their cases to court, claiming that the Italian constitution doesn’t forbid gay couples from marrying.
“Because the constitution is so broadly written one could interpret it in light of social change,” said Bilotta who is the attorney for all 24 couples. “So extensively, to include same-sex couples,” he said.
By demanding gay marriage, same-sex couples organized under the so-called “Civil Affirmation” campaign are asking courts to re-examine current interpretation of Italian law.
Four tribunal courts in Florence, Venice, Ferrara and Trento — where the couples first made their claims — now must reject the cases or send them to a higher constitutional court.
“The outcome is a given,” said Claudio Mori, an upbeat gay rights activist in Rome. The 68-year-old veteran, who has pushed for LGBT rights since the 1970s, said it’s time for a progressive turn. Like many others, Mori is betting on Zanardi’s and Incorvaia’s case reaching constitutional courts.
“If they don’t respond to the call, they will be remembered as those constitutional judges who didn’t love the people,” said Mori, “who discriminated against people based on their sexual orientation.”
On Wednesday, Zanardi and Incorvaia will appear in court for their first hearing — that is, if they still have enough energy to leave their house. The tall and slender Zanardi has already lost 18 pounds. He has collapsed several times and is now unable to retain any liquids. “My body is giving up,” he said.
But that doesn’t deter him.
“I am not going to stop striking,” said Zanardi. “If necessary, I’ll die at home.”