Italy's right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has demanded local councils only list biological parents on birth certificates, flinging hundreds of same-sex couples into a legal morass.
Last year, Denise Rinehart and Giulia Garofalo Geymonat's six-year-old son was rushed from his school in Bologna, Italy to a nearby hospital with a life-threatening allergic reaction. In a panic, the two mothers scrambled to the emergency services to find their son. He had gone into anaphylactic shock. As healthcare personnel treated him, one nurse turned to Geymonat and asked: "Who are you?" The question fell on her like a tonne of bricks.
Geymonat is not officially registered as her son's parent on his birth certificate. In the eyes of the law, his only official parent is her wife, Rinehart. "[The nurse] had the power to kick me out," Geymonat says. "It was up to her to decide whether I would be by my child's side in a life-threatening situation. It's all in the hands of other individuals."
Because Rinehart was the one to carry their eldest son to term, when he was born in Pisa in 2016, she was the only one registered on his birth certificate. Geymonat, despite being his mother from the moment he was born, is not officially recognised as such because she is not his biological mother.
After same-sex civil unions were legalised in Italy in 2016, and in the absence of any clear legislation on parental rights for same-sex couples, a handful of city councils across the country started listing parents of the same gender on their children's birth certificate. Unfortunately for Geymonat and Rinehart, the city of Pisa did not.
For seven years now, the couple have been swallowed up in a legal morass to grant Geymonat parental recognition. After their first son was born, the council of Pisa only registered Rinehart as a parent on his birth certificate. For Geymonat to be recognised as his parent as well, the couple had two choices: appeal the council's decision and try to get full parental recognition or attempt the adoption route. Knowing the adoption process would be intrusive and time-consuming, they went for the first option. They appealed Pisa's decision and their case has been in and out of various courts ever since. It was most recently heard in Florence's court of appeals, which ruled in favour of their argument that Geymonat be on her son's birth certificate, and will now be dealt with in Italy's highest court on October 6.
Throughout that time and until today, Geymonat has been what she calls a "ghost parent" to their eldest son.
But in recent months, Italy's right-wing government has been cracking down on city councils to stop listing same-sex parents on birth certificates. Led by the hardline traditionalist Meloni, the ministry of interior issued a directive in January 2023 instructing Italian mayors to stop automatically registering the births of children conceived or born abroad through assisted reproductive methods. It cited a case from December 2022, in which Italy's top court ruled that a child of a gay couple who was conceived through surrogacy abroad shouldn't have their birth certificate automatically transcribed in Italy.
Though the directive primarily concerned surrogacy, which is banned in Italy and now even a crime for those seeking surrogacy abroad, its interpretation by local councils has disproportionally affected LGBTQ families - including those who resort to other reproductive methods.
Single women and same-sex couples do not have access to assisted reproduction treatments in Italy.
By April, the Milan prefecture broadened its interpretation of the directive to include same-sex couples who had children abroad through IVF or artificial insemination. Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, who had previously allowed the automatic transcription of birth certificates, would no longer be able to do so. He confirmed he would stop the practice moving forward, but chose not to amend the birth certificates he had previously approved.
In the northeastern city of Padua in June, the state prosecutor took things even further and opened a legal case demanding that the 33 birth certificates issued to the children of lesbian couples since 2017 be changed to remove the name of the non-biological mother. A court will rule on the request later this year.
The decision caused outrage. Centre-left MP Alessandro Zan, who has pushed for LGBTQ rights in Italy for years, called it a "cruel, inhumane decision".
"These children are being orphaned by decree," he said.
A close call
Alice Bruni, Brona Kelly and their son Zeno are one of the 33 families involved in the Padua case. In July, just four months after the birth of their son, Bruni and Kelly received a letter from the state prosecutor summoning them to a court appearance in November. Bruni was fuming with anger. "It makes you wonder what this is all about. We are citizens, we pay our taxes like everyone else ... we should have the same rights as everyone else," she says. "It's pure discrimination."
After Zeno was conceived through IVF at a clinic in Greece and Bruni became pregnant, she contacted the Padua municipality to ensure they could register both names on their son's birth certificate. She was reassured by the administrative office that this would be no problem, but that she should "call back when the baby is almost there" to make sure nothing had changed.
When news of the directive sent out by Meloni's government came out, Bruni began to panic. But they were lucky. Zeno was born in March, three months before Padua's state prosecutor opened the case against lesbian parents.
"I think we were the last couple to be registered before the case opened," says Bruni.
While the case is ongoing, the couple have been told their son's birth certificate is valid. To limit any risk of Kelly losing her parental rights as Zeno's non-biological mother, they have started the process of getting him an Irish passport, since Kelly is from Ireland. Their lawyer has assured them that, if both parents are registered on an official document from another European state, the Italian government must accept the same.
"That's made us feel a little better," says Bruni. "But it doesn't solve the problem. We care a lot about all the other families, and it's a matter of principle."
'It's never done until it's done'
The consequences of restricting the parental rights of same-sex couples are dire, something Geymonat and Rinehart know all too well. Stripped of her parenting rights, Geymonat avoids taking her eldest son to doctor's appointments and never crosses borders without her wife. She cannot even pick him up from school without a written permission from Rinehart. "Even within the country, we avoid being on our own," the couple says.
Behind the bureaucratic difficulties families face are also emotional strains. The years the couple have spent fighting to get Geymonat parental recognition put a financial burden on the household. "We just get the feeling we have to pay for our rights. And putting down the money is not a guarantee that we will," says Rinehart. To cover legal fees like paying a lawyer and getting documents notarised, the couple created two crowdfunding campaigns and are now opening a third for what they hope will be the last step towards parental recognition.
When the couple have tried explaining the situation to their eldest, they are faced with utter incomprehension. "His reaction was, 'To say that you are not my mum is like saying a light isn't a light, or that this chair isn't a chair!'," Rinehart says, laughing with Geymonat at their son's poeticism.
In 2021, five years after the birth of their first son, the couple moved to Bologna where Geymonat gave birth to their second child. "We knew that in Bologna, we would both be registered as his parents on his birth certificate," says Rinehart. "But it's never done until it's done ... You just never know if things can change."
For now, the mayor of Bologna has interpreted the government notice more loosely. But at any moment, the Italian state can take the mayor to court and override his decision. "Municipalities act as organs of the ministry of the interior, so everything will boil down to the will of the government," explains Vincenzo Miri, president of Rete Lenford, an association that provides legal help for LGBTQ people.
A family policy ... for heterosexual families?
Tracing its roots to political factions steeped in post-war neofascism and Catholic conservatism, Meloni's Brothers of Italy party has long been hostile to LGBTQ equality, especially in the realm of domestic life. Although Meloni has tried to package some extremist views into progressive trappings, like arguing that surrogacy is anti-feminist as it exploits women's bodies, her brand of conservatism under the slogan "God, homeland and family" clearly excludes same-sex families.
Since taking power in October 2022, Meloni has vowed to rail against what she calls the "LGBT lobby" and has repeatedly reiterated her view that children should only be raised by heterosexual parents.
"Under [former PM] Draghi, the government had stopped opposing automatic transcription of birth certificates," says Miri. "But now Meloni has decided to resume challenging these registrations."
In defence of the decisions taken by Meloni's government in the past months, Minister for the Family Eugenia Roccella told Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra: "In Italy, one becomes a parent in only two ways - either by biological relationship or by adoption," and urged same-sex parents to follow the adoption procedure.
But in Italy, adopting the child of a same-sex partner is extremely difficult. Non-biological parents can obtain parenting rights through the special stepchild adoption procedure, but it takes years, can cost thousands of euros, involves countless court hearings and involves invasive interviews by social services.
"Couples are told [by lawyers] not to start the adoption procedure until the child is older, since social workers have to verify the emotional relationship between the child and non-biological parent," Miri says, to ensure there is no abuse or mistreatment and that the person is fit to be a parent. "In those years, anything can happen. Either parent could die, they could split up, many situations could put the child in an extremely vulnerable position," he says.
That's why for Rinehart and Geymonat, adoption was never on the table. They preferred trying to get Geymonat recognised as a legal parent.
Rete Lenford and another LGBTQ organisation, Famiglie Arcobaleno, are representing hundreds of cases like Rinehart and Geymonat's in court.
"I don't understand why the government has to impose a whole judicial rigmarole on a family just because a mother or father wants to assume their duties as a parent," Miri says. "It's not like they are appealing to claim their rights as activists. They are saying they want to protect their child and take on parental obligations. They just want their child to be part of their family."
For now, the hundreds of families who have been plunged into a legal limbo have no choice but to go to court, or risk becoming "ghost parents" like Geymonat.