ROME, Italy — Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi once fended off accusations of sexual impropriety by stating that "it's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay."
That kind of macho sentiment may be losing its appeal among Italians.
On Sunday, people in Sicily elected an openly gay man to be their governor, in a region traditionally seen as one of the country's most Catholic and conservative.
An anti-Mafia campaigner, Rosario Crocetta will be the second openly homosexual governor of one of Italy's 20 regions.
"This is very important as a message for the Italian LGTB community," said Andrea Maccarrone, president of the Rome-based gay rights group Mario Mieli.
"Citizens appreciate when politicians are open and honest with them, including about their private lives," he added in an interview. "Being gay is no longer seen as a problem that stops them being good representatives of the people."
The main loser in Sicily was Berlusconi's right-wing People of Freedom Party, or PDL, whose share of the vote fell by almost two-thirds since the island's last election in 2008.
Gay rights campaigner Nichi Vendola became governor of Apulia in 2005. He could play a major role in next year's general elections as leader of the radical Left, Ecology and Freedom party, following his acquittal Wednesday on abuse of power charges.
Despite the success of Crocetta, Vendola and other gay politicians — as well as flourishing gay scenes in Rome, Milan and other cities — activists complain that Italy's gay rights lag behind those of other European countries.
Italy ranks near the bottom of a survey that assessed gay rights in the 27 European Union states this year by the International Gay and Lesbian Association, ILGA.
Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta are the only EU members outside the former Soviet Bloc that offer no legal recognition of either same-sex marriage or civil unions between gay couples.
Proposals to allow gays to adopt children and widen hate-crime laws to cover sexual orientation have also been blocked.
"There's a lot of catching up needed in Italy," says Juris Lavrikovs, communications director of ILGA-Europe. "Hopefully now things will start to move forward after such a great signal from that important vote [in Sicily], where sexual orientation did not have an impact."
Maccarrone explains the apparent contradiction between support for gay politicians and the failure to advance gay rights legislation partly by Italians' respect for private life — even their politicians'.
"Look at Berlusconi," he says. "I don't think he could stand as president in America or prime minister in England. Italians are more tolerant of the private lives of politicians."
Acceptance of homosexuality is evolving faster in public opinion than among politicians, he adds.
The influence of the Vatican and the sway small conservative groups can hold over the balance of power in the country's fractious political landscape have helped obstruct reform.
But even in the conservative south, public attitudes are more open than outsiders believe, Maccarrone says. He points to the vibrant gay community in his own hometown, the Sicilian city of Catania.
"It's very open to gays," he says. "You can see openly gay people in the streets, sometimes holding hands, it's not a big issue. Of course I'm not saying there's no homophobia, no violence, but in the south, like in all of Italian society, the people are more open than politicians."
Crocetta's election campaign focused on his past as a courageous anti-Mafia mayor. His stand against the mob prompted at least three assassination plots and his protection by a permanent armed guard. One gang leader was recorded in a 2003 police wiretap ordering a hit man to eliminate "that communist faggot."
Crocetta has downplayed perceptions about southern hostility toward homosexuals. After an American travel guide cautioned gay tourists about risks in Sicily, he countered by pointing out that homosexuals have long found sanctuary on the island, including the playwright Oscar Wilde, who traveled there after serving two years in a British jail for "gross indecency."
Gay rights campaigners are hoping that the success of Crocetta, Vendola and other gay politicians, together Berlusconi's fall from grace, may mean changes are now on the way.
Before he stepped down as prime minister last year, Berlusconi had said his government would never permit gay marriage or allow gays to adopt children. However, a candidate for the leadership of Berlusconi's own party this week signaled the time has come for a rethink.
"Having seen orphanages in Ukraine and Venezuela full of children without hope and care, I can say that two fathers or two mothers are better than none," said Giancarlo Galan, a candidate for the leadership of the PDL party.
"A gay or a lesbian deserve happiness as well," the former agriculture minister told La7 television. "We ignored that issue for years, but now it's time to promote a new kind of society."