Toronto couple wins lawsuit against Italian government for 'offensive use of their image'

One of the happiest moments of Toronto couple Frankie Nelson and BJ Barone's life turned into a nightmare. Seven years later, they have found solace

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One of the happiest moments of Toronto couple Frankie Nelson and BJ Barone's life turned into a nightmare when a far-right political party used a photo of them hugging their newborn son in an anti-surrogacy campaign in Italy.

"You can see in the moment of the photo that it was a culmination of all my dreams coming true," Nelson said in an interview with Yahoo Canada.

The photo shows an emotional moment captured shortly after Nelson and Barone welcomed their son Milo into the world in 2014 via surrogate. Caught up in the haze of new parenthood, the couple didn't think much of photographer Lindsay Foster's request asking if she could post the photo on social media.

The new parents agreed, and shortly after, Nelson received a call from a friend saying the photo had gone viral and garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

While the pair received an outpouring of love from around the world, in an unexpected twist, the photo was slapped onto an anti-surrogacy campaign without their consent by right-wing Italian political party Fratelli d’Italia in 2016, Nelson said.

Italy's now-ruling party — the FdI won the country's 2022 election, led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni — has been ordered to pay Barone and Nelson 10,000 euros each for “offensive use of their image,” seven years after the ordeal began.

"I think this sends a strong message to the haters that pride and love is always going to win," Nelson said, though the couple has not received the payment yet as the government has appealed the court's decision. "I hope our win sets some sort of a precedent sending a message to Italy to stop doing this."

Posters featuring the couple were circulated around Italy by far-right political group Fratelli d'Italia for an anti-surrogacy referendum they were pursuing at the time. Translated from Italian to English, the poster read: "He will never be able to say mom."

"We just felt no control," Nelson said.

He added that they felt confused, wondering how the narrative of the photo — in which they only see love, care and joy — could shift so drastically by powers beyond their control thousands of kilometres away.

Unsure of how to even approach the situation, Nelson and Barone turned to social media posting a plea for help.

Birth photo from Toronto couple used without consent in anti-surrogacy by Italian far-right group
Birth photo from Toronto couple used without consent in anti-surrogacy by Italian far-right group (Screenshot)

Legal action

With both Nelson and Barone teaching at Toronto high schools at the time, the concept of hiring a legal firm seemed unattainable.

In a twist of fate, Italian LGBTQ+ law firm Gay Lex extended an offer to represent the couple pro-bono.

"We felt like we had nothing to lose and decided to sue," Nelson said.

Court proceedings against the political party dragged on for seven years.

"After year six we began to lose hope," Nelson admitted. "We did not expect COVID, We didn't expect a very-far right neo-fascist party to ever get elected, or expect to then be suing the party that rose to be Italy's leading party along with the (prime minister)."

In June of this year — Pride Month 2023, no less — Nelson and Barone received some long-awaited good news.

"We won! It blew our minds. It felt very fitting to us that it happened in June and during Pride Month, and our son Milo was born during World Pride in Toronto. It just felt full circle," Nelson said. 

Who are the Fratelli d’Italia?

The Fratelli d'Italia, also known as the Brothers of Italy, are a national-conservative and right-wing populist political party in Italy currently in power led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

The political party's website states: "The Fratelli d'Italia movement promotes the peaceful coexistence of peoples, states, ethnic groups and religious confessions while respecting sovereignty, independence and national unity."

While campaigning, Meloni platformed a vision that was anything but peaceful coexistence of peoples.

Meloni, a self-professing Christian, litters her speeches with anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and conservative stances on family values.

“Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology, yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death,” she said while addressing supporters of Spain’s rightist Vox party in Marbella in June 2022.

"Giorgia Meloni is really trying to promote the concept of a nuclear family, even though she is a divorced woman herself," Nelson said.

As Meloni has stepped into her role as prime minister, Italy remains the only western European country that has not legalized same-sex marriage.

In March 2023, Italian city halls were ordered to officially stop recording the names of both parents within city registers in the case of same-sex couples, a move that was denounced by gay activists, according to reports.

"Meloni says that for a child to grow up well, they need a mother and a father. It is insulting to hundreds of thousands of families with two same-sex parents," Yuri Guaiana of activist group All Out said in an interview with PBS News Hour.

More recently, in May 2023, Meloni dodged criticism from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G7 Summit about her government's stance on LGBTQ+ rights.

In a television interview, Trudeau can be heard saying “Canada is concerned about some of the positions Italy is taking on in terms of LGBT rights.”

Meloni looked on in annoyance, twiddled her thumbs and listened in silence offering little retort.