LONDON - Italy's Defense Minister is to personally officiate a same-sex civil union, in a move she said would send a strong message against discrimination and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the armed forces.
Italy in May became the last major Western country to legally recognise gay couples, but activists say homophobia and prejudice remain widespread, particularly in male-dominated environments like the military and police.
"The fact that the defense minister decides to officiate a civil union sends a powerful message to all armed forces," Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told Italian state broadcaster RAI Uno on Friday.
"We need to condemn all behaviours that create a negative environment."
Pinotti said she will celebrate the union between two women in Genoa on Saturday, becoming the first Italian defence minister to officiate at a same-sex civil union.
She originally made the announcement in a letter to Polis Aperta, a group promoting LGBT rights in the police and armed forces.
"I am glad to inform you that on Oct. 8 I will celebrate a civil union," she wrote in the document seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The head of Polis Aperta, Simonetta Moro, said Pinotti's gesture would embolden police and military personnel who are forced to hide their sexuality, fearing abuse.
"Many are afraid that coming out could harm their career, leading to excuses and pretexts to sideline them," Moro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Italian law makes no restrictions on gay men and women joining the armed forces but "disorders of gender identity" are still listed as a cause of ineligibility, in a norm that Moro said is discriminatory against transgenders.
The Italian parliament approved same-sex civil unions in May after months of fierce debate across the country.
The bill had faced stiff opposition from Catholic groups who said it went too far, while gay activists said it was too timid.
It gave gay couples the right to share a surname, draw on their partner's pension when they die and inherit each other's assets in the same way as married people.