Italy's new family minister Lorenzo Fontana, 1 June 2018. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images.There will be hard times ahead, unless you are a heterosexual, cisgendered, white man. The new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, told undocumented immigrants: “Get ready to pack your bags.” The man now in charge of the families ministry, Lorenzo Fontana, is known for his opposition to sexual and reproductive rights.
Italy’s new government was sworn in on 1 June, after three months of seemingly interminable negotiations between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the right-wing Lega (‘League’) party. The new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is an academic with no previous political experience.
Fontana, the families minister, has been a prominent member of the Lega party for 20 years. An ultra-Catholic politician from Verona (in northeastern Italy), he represents the serious threats posed by his party, and this new government, to the rights of women and minorities across the country.
His political CV includes experience building relationships between the Lega and foreign far-right parties, including the Front National in France (an achievement he celebrates in his biography on his website).
In February, he spoke alongside an ultra-conservative deputy in the Russian Duma at an international anti-abortion meeting in Verona, organised by the Italian association Pro Vita, a partner of the transnational World Congress of Families network of anti-sexual and reproductive rights groups.
Toni Brandi, leader of ProVita, was one of numerous international anti-choice activists who travelled to Ireland last month “to support pro-life friends” ahead of the country’s historic referendum on abortion rights. Brandi also has well-documented links to the neo-fascist movement Forza Nuova.
“The most right-wing minister of the new government.”
Anti-abortion activists celebrated Fontana’s nomination to the families ministry. The Italian website Il Post described him as “the most right-wing minister of the new government,” citing his well-documented links with local far-right and Catholic fundamentalist movements in Verona.
One of Fontana’s primary targets is abortion, which has been legalised in Italy for 40 years, though widespread ‘conscientious objection’ by medical staff continues to limit women’s access to these legal services.
Last month, he joined the March for Life in Rome, an annual rally of Catholics and anti-abortion groups. One of the claims of this year’s edition was that “abortion is the top cause of femicide in the world.”
March for Life, Rome, 2012. Photo: Saint Joseph/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Some rights reserved. As minister, Fontana said, he wants to “intervene to strengthen counselling” services to “dissuade women from having abortions. I am Catholic, I do not hide it. And that's why I believe, and I also say, that the family is the natural one, where a child must have a mother and a father."
Alongside his struggle against women’s reproductive rights, Fontana has presented racist claims of an immigrant “invasion,” and possible “ethnic replacement” as Italian women have fewer children.
In a book he published in February 2018, he said the Italian population “risks extinction” amid declining birth rates and a “choice to fill the demographic gap with migration flows.”
Fontana also opposes same-sex marriage (which is still not legal in Italy; there is only a law on “civil unions”) and trans rights as attacks on the “natural family” that could “wipe out our community and our traditions.”
“Today the resistance is against who would like an upside down world, one which would like to deny the existence of mums and dads, of little girls and boys … We have to educate children on the model of the natural family,” Fontana’s said, explaining that he does not like “other strange formulas.”
After his nomination to the government, the minister told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he is not “against gay people,” and has “a lot of homosexual friends,” as he “lived for many years in Brussels, where [gay people] are also in the institutions.”
In that same interview, Fontana said that LGBTI families “don’t exist” -- triggering outrage from rights activists who started a popular social media campaign posting pictures of same-sax couples and families with the hashtag #NoiEsistiamo (“We exist”).
“The “personal ideas” of these ultra-conservative men can have real-world consequences for women.”
Salvini said that Fontana’s statements were the minister’s “personal ideas.” But, he added: “Personally, I think that… our country must continue to have principles like the one for which the mum is called mum and the dad is called dad. And a child can be adopted if there is a mum and a dad.”
The “personal ideas” of these ultra-conservative men can have real-world consequences for women.
Fontana is also a “man of power” within his party, as blogger Yàdad De Guerre has noted. He’s previously been a member of European Parliament; deputy mayor of Verona; vice president of the Italian chamber of deputies.
Worryingly, the new families minister is the expression of a party whose policies and ideas are racist and careless of the rights of women and minorities — and he has decades of political and institutional experience.
We underestimated the threat posed by such men and the movements that support them. Now, there are likely very tough times ahead. Women’s, LGBTI, and immigrant rights activists are all on high alert.