LONDON • Singer-songwriter and gay rights advocate Elton John has criticised the new mayor of Venice on social media as being "boorishly bigoted" for banning books about homosexuality from the Italian city's preschool libraries.
Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, who was elected last June, banned about 50 books featuring same-sex couples from schools a month later, fulfilling one of his campaign promises.
After an outcry - from residents, authors, publishers, librarian associations and even Amnesty International - he whittled his list of the books to just two.
But that was not before he had ignited a debate about the right of educators to choose their teaching tools without political interference, and about Italy's continuing struggle with broadening civil rights for gays.
Campaigners also carried out a marathon read-in of the banned books and more than 250 authors wrote to the mayor asking for their books to be removed in an act of solidarity.
John, 68, who has two children with his partner David Furnish, took to Instagram to post an image of Todd Parr's The Family Book, which details the lives of various kinds of families, and described Brugnaro as looking "extremely silly".
"He's stupidly chosen to politicise children's books by banning titles that touch on same-sex families living happily ever after," he posted last Saturday.
"Beautiful Venice is indeed sinking, but not as fast as the boorishly bigoted Brugnaro."
Some saw the ban as reflecting ingrained Roman Catholic doctrine. One of the two books that remains banned is Ophelie Texier's Jean A Deux Mamans (Jean Has Two Mothers).
"Books that challenge the status quo are seen as eroding the church's hold over social issues," said Francesca Pardi, author of Piccolo Uovo (Little Egg), about an egg that discovers new types of families. It is the other book still on the forbidden list.
Before the ban, many of the books had already lived on school shelves for years without creating a fuss.
Then they were put together on a reading list by a panel of university professors and preschool experts to help preschool educators fight prejudice and stereotypes.
Brugnaro, 53, has defied criticism of his decision in a statement posted on his website and Twitter.
He criticised the "cultural arrogance" of the previous administration which introduced the books without "asking anything to anyone, especially to families".
"Dear Elton John, I have no problem with homosexuals," he tweeted last Tuesday.
The controversy comes amid wider debate in Italy on same-sex marriage and parenting.
Since Ireland backed same-sex marriage by a landslide in a referendum last May, Italy is now the only country in western Europe where any form of same-sex union - whether civil partnership or marriage - is still illegal.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said last month his government would introduce a law on civil unions by the end of the year. Italy is deeply divided on the issue and protests against civil unions last June brought hundreds of thousands to the streets of Rome.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES