Italy is the only major Western European country not to have enacted civil union legislation allowing same-sex couples to have their relationships acknowledged and protected in law. A bill, which the Senate will start examining on Thursday, January 28, 2016, is the first to get to parliament.
If approved, the draft legislation will enable same-sex couples to commit themselves to one another before a state official, to take each others' names and, in certain circumstances, adopt each others' children and inherit each others' residual pension rights.
Thousands of people marched in Italian cities Saturday, January 23, 2016, to demand legal recognition for gay couples and their children, days before lawmakers begin addressing the deeply divisive issue.
Two women who marched nearby held up a sign that read- "Stella and Paola, we've been together for 30 years and you still don't acknowledge us."
Protests had been planned for 90 towns and cities across Italy, under the slogan "Wake up Italy! It's time to be civil."
Opponents of the bill, in contrast, are planning a show of strength at a demonstration scheduled for January 30, 2016, in Rome's Circus Maximus.
Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend the self-styled 'Family Day', organized by mainly Catholic groups under the battle cry of "Defend our Children".
Angelo Bagnasco, the chair of the Italian conference of bishops, has denounced the whole debate as a grave and irresponsible distraction from the real problems of the country.
In the world of politics, dividing lines cut across party loyalties. A minority faction within the ruling Democratic Party supports junior coalition partner the New Center Right (NCD) in opposing a reform championed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Renzi, who has allowed his allies a free vote on the 'issue of conscience', can however count on backing from most of the opposition Five Star movement, left-wing fringe parties and even sections of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
Most observers expect Renzi will get the bill adopted in the end.
According to Italian media, there were at least 7,000 demonstrators in Turin, 5,000 in Milan, thousands in Rome and Bologna, a thousand in Bari in the south, and hundreds in Naples and Venice among others.
"It is a historic day for this country, an immense protest that was fed by the desire and enthusiasm of a lot of people who hold the belief in equality close to their hearts," said Gabriele Piazzoni, the national secretary of Italy's biggest gay rights group, Arcigay.
In what many saw as papal intervention in the debate, Pope Francis on Friday, January 22, 2016, ruled out any form of union except Catholic marriage.
"What he said didn't surprise me, all he did was to repeat the church's anthropological viewpoint. But he chose to say this on the eve of the day when we took to the streets to defend the rights of our children to have a little security," said Andrea Rubera, a gay man who married a fellow homosexual in Canada. They came to the demonstration with their three young children.