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Italians debate whether "gay" is an insult

Court decision implies that calling someone "gay" can be an insult punishable by law.

A man walks past a banner showing couples of men and women during a rally in support of gay marriage in downtown Rome on March 21, 2010. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty)

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.