SAVONA – It’s not exactly a full-fledged marriage, but the official recognition by one Italian coastal town that two men constitute a “family unit” is being seen by some as an important step in the battle for legal recognition of same-sex couples in Italy.

Last year,  Francesco Zanardi and Manuel Incorvaia tried to get the mayor of Savona, a seaport on Italy’s northwestern coast, to marry them. That effort failed. But they did get the town’s registry office to recognize them as a “family unit.”

The town hall plays down the recognition, saying officials have merely applied a 1989 local decree that allows people living under the same roof to be given a family status, even when not married, provided they declare a mutual bond of affection.

It’s a bit of bureaucratic miracle, but it was accomplished quite easily. All Zanardi and Incorvaia had to do was go to the town’s registry office and fill out a form in which they stated their bond of affection and their desire to form a family. The couple was accompanied by some center-left local politicians who have backed their cause.

“It’s a further step forward for the rights of gay couples,” the two men declare. 

Inspired by their new status, the couple has renewed their marriage request. The original petition was denied on grounds that Italy does not envisage same-sex marriages. It’s likely their second request will suffer the same fate.

Italy, a Roman Catholic nation that hosts the Vatican, does not recognize same-sex marriages and current center-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said his government has no plans to do so. An effort by the previous center-left government to introduce rights for de-facto couples, including gay ones, drew opposition and was never turned into law.

Italy does have detailed – and constantly evolving – statutes regulating cohabitation. National law allows people who share the same residency to constitute separate family units for fiscal reasons. But it also allows people to form a single family in cases involving a degree of kinship, adoption, guardianship or when the individuals involved state their bond of affection.

As Zanardi and Incorvaia demonstrated, this “affection clause” can operate as a legal loophole for same-sex couples seeking some type of legal acknowledgement. But it can also be a fragile bond. As easily as a family unit is formed, it can also be dissolved. All that’s needed is another visit to the registry office to state the mutual affection is no longer there.

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