ROME — Under the fleeting light of an autumn half-moon, an Italian medical student made his way to the top of a modern high-rise in east Rome, not far from an ancient arch built by the emperor Claudius.
From the 11th floor of the apartment block, which once housed a pasta factory, the 21-year-old could probably just discern the darkened outline of the Colosseum about a mile away. It may have been the last thing he saw.
"I'm gay," the student, identified only as Simone D., said in a note discovered after he jumped to his death. "Italy is a free country. But there are homophobes, and those like that must search their consciences."
His suicide in the early hours of Oct. 27 brought sorrow to this city, but also a tragic sense of familiarity. It was at least the third death in Rome within 12 months of a young person who had decided to end his life out of despair over being gay or over the harassment he had endured. Two months earlier, a 14-year-old boy leaped from his balcony; before that, a 15-year-old hanged himself.
For many Italians, the deaths have served as a reminder of a sorry fact: Theirs is the only major nation in Western Europe to offer virtually no rights or protections to homosexuals. From a legal standpoint in Italy, gays and lesbians essentially do not exist.
Where other countries outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, for example, Italy has no such ban (though
Representatives in the lower house of Parliament last year approved hate-crimes legislation covering anti-gay speech and violence. But the Senate may yet block the bill. Other countries, by contrast, have had similar laws on their books for decades.
"We're not talking about building a spaceship or getting marriage equality, which is utopia," said Marcello Signore, 25, a writer in Milan. "An anti-homophobia law is something that we should have had in the '80s."
Critics cite a fractured and conservative political establishment, a macho culture and the presence and outsized influence of the Vatican for Italy's laggardly approach to gay rights. They say that though the situation has improved for gays and lesbians in Italy's big cities, which boast gay social venues and community centers, life for homosexuals in small towns and rural villages often remains an oppressed and closeted one.
"I can do whatever I want in the city center of Rome, but I can't do whatever I want in my [home] city, which is in Sicily, or outside in the Roman suburbs," said Alfredo Capra, 27, an information technology student in the Italian capital. "People in the suburbs continue to live hidden."
Progress for gays and lesbians has often come with help and pressure from abroad, not from within Italy alone. When the head of the world's largest pasta maker, Barilla, declared in September that he would never use a same-sex couple in his advertising — "If the gays don't like it, they can go eat another brand" — gay groups around the world called for a boycott of his products. A satirical image of a Barilla pasta box stamped with the word "Bigotoni" instead of "Rigatoni" quickly made the rounds on the Internet.
Guido Barilla has since apologized for his remarks, and the company has promised to create more inclusive ads.
But the question of civil rights remains stuck in the hands of Italian legislators, who are a notoriously divided and fractious lot. Their incessant squabbling and fear of offending the Vatican, which sits imposingly in their backyard, have pushed gay rights far down the agenda. Though the Vatican does not campaign for political candidates, the influence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy at so many levels of Italian society makes lawmakers leery of incurring its wrath.
Activists find the inaction particularly frustrating because a majority of Italians express support in opinion polls for civil unions for same-sex couples.
"We have an Italian society open to gays," said Alessandra Filograno, an activist at Rome's Gay Center. "We don't have a political class in favor…. They seem to be the [mouthpiece] of the Catholic Church."
Matteo Renzi, the fast-rising young secretary general of the left-leaning Democratic Party, promised recently that civil unions would be included in his party's next electoral platform. But Maurizio Sacconi, a senator with one of Italy's center-right parties, warned that pushing for some kind of recognition of same-sex relationships was currently too controversial and would risk dividing Parliament further at a politically delicate time.
Sacconi said he did not support either "quasi-marriage" or even "second-class marriages" for gays and lesbians.
"For us, the priority is the family, which is formed by marriage between a man and a woman," he told the newspaper La Repubblica last month. "Principles of ethics are not negotiable for those who believe in them."
That doesn't mean there are no supporters of gay rights in positions of power. In September, a group of legislators with the populist Five Star movement, the largest party in Parliament but not a member of the ruling coalition, staged a same-sex hug-and-kiss-in at the chamber during debate over the hate-crimes bill.
But the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of government plus the demands of other issues such as Italy's foundering economy have hindered the fight for gay rights. So has the blatant prejudice of some lawmakers, like the one from the right-wing Northern League who mockingly held up a piece of fennel when openly gay representative Alessandro Zan stood to speak. In Italian, the word for fennel is used as a derogatory term for gay men.
"There are people who will try anything to create news," said Zan, who belongs to a small left-wing party.
He is hoping to introduce a proposal for same-sex marriage in Parliament; its prospects are vanishingly small.
Zan and others attribute the official indifference or contempt for gay rights partly to the influence of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 77, who tried to make a political virtue of hosting "bunga bunga" parties and sleeping with women a third his age (or younger — he has been convicted of paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl).
Berlusconi once proclaimed that it was "better to like beautiful girls than to be gay." Many of his supporters are men who admire his wealth and the bevy of young beauties on whom he has lavished gifts and political appointments.
Critics say Berlusconi has coarsened civic life and fueled a widespread culture of reflexive machismo.
"Here in Italy we've had 40 years of [conservative] Christian Democrat governments and 20 of Berlusconi," said Zan. "It's time to change."
But building a grass-roots movement and enlisting high-profile supporters has been difficult. A few well-known figures in Italian society have come out of the closet, including singer Tiziano Ferro and fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, but few lend their names to the cause.
Gay role models are difficult to identify, though sympathetic gay characters, not just stereotypical ones, have gradually begun appearing in films and on television. There are now two openly gay regional governors, both elected, surprisingly, in the supposedly more traditional south.
One of them, Nichi Vendola of Apulia, told an Italian newspaper last year that he was afraid to go out alone for a walk at night in Rome because of potential gay-bashing.
A nationwide survey of 4,000 high school students by Rome's Gay Center found that 5% identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; of these, nearly three-quarters said their families and schools would not accept their orientation, and one-third said they had contemplated suicide.
The death of Simone D., who was believed to have suffered harassment at the hospital where he worked as an intern, drew hundreds of activists and allies onto the streets of Rome demanding legal rights and protections for gays and lesbians.
But the government did not respond with any new promises. The power-sharing coalition is hanging on by a thread, making it unlikely that lawmakers will go any further than the hate-crimes legislation under consideration.
Signore, the Milan writer, said the political situation was complicated, but that "is not an alibi for not doing anything." He credits much of his political awakening to the year he spent living in Los Angeles, in 2009, when he was 20.
"I knew that it was far, far away, but I would never imagine that it was so different from the world I was used to. I saw gay people having babies. I saw families," he said.
"Everything seemed so natural," said Signore, who discovered the world of dating, relationships and happy everyday existence. "And I think I brought that back with me. If that is really possible … I want to have it in my country too. I said to myself, 'I can have that.'"