Lady Gaga in gay rights march
Rome - Thousands gathered in Rome on Saturday for a gay pride parade to challenge the Vatican and Silvio Berlusconi's "backward" government over same-sex rights, with Lady Gaga as the star guest.
Slogans read "Different People, Same Rights" and "Equality and Human Rights for All!" as the parade got under way, while fans and photographers massed around the luxurious hotel where the singer is staying.
Organisers of the EuroPride event said their main message was that deeply Catholic Italy is a laggard in terms of gay rights in Europe, with no specific laws against homophobic violence and no provision for gay civil unions.
Prime Minister Berlusconi in 2010 dismissed a sex scandal with a homophobic comment saying: "It's better to be passionate about beautiful women than to be gay."
Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender former member of parliament who organised Italy's first gay pride festival in 1994, said the event would be more of a protest than a celebration.
"The fish stinks from the head and we have a prime minister who is a gay-basher," Luxuria said in an interview.
Paolo Patane, director of Italian activist group Arcigay, said he hoped the parade would help "push out" what he claimed Italy's "most backward government" since World War II.
The leaders of two small opposition parties - Italy of Values and Left, Ecology and Freedom - have said they will attend the parade, which also came on the eve of referendums that will again challenge the government.
Susanna Camusso, the leader of Italy's main CGIL trade union, also plans to attend.
Organisers said they were expecting around one million people at the parade, while police forecasts ranged between 300 000 and 500 000. Tight security measures were in place to prevent any possible outbreaks of violence.
"Ours is a hospitable city that is open to everyone," Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno said in a video message to participants.
"There are different views and different laws that have to be considered in a democratic way in parliament with mutual respect," he said.
A religious group calling itself "Militia Christi" was planning to hold an anti-gay protest and Catholic politicians have warned Lady Gaga, a vocal advocate of gay rights, against making provocative statements about the pope.
Lady Gaga is to give a short speech at around 19:00 GMT at the Circus Maximus - an ancient Roman arena often used for concerts - and will reportedly sing her hit single Born This Way, which celebrates diversity.
"The gay world does not feel represented by someone who makes videos that offend Jesus," said Rocco Buttiglione, the deputy speaker of parliament.
"If Lady Gaga attacks the Holy Father or the Catholic Church, millions of gay moderates will not recognise themselves in those comments," he said.
Carlo Giovanardi, an outspoken junior minister in charge of family policy, dismissed the event as "a chance to mock the Holy Father, make fun of the clergy... and dress up in all sorts of costumes".
Referring to Lady Gaga, he added: "Maybe she is badly informed about our country since all the opinion polls prove that an overwhelming majority of Italians are against marriage between a man and a man and a woman and a woman."
The 25-year-old singer, ranked this year's most powerful celebrity by Forbes magazine, spoke out last year against the now repealed US policy 'Don't Ask Don't Tell', which forced gay servicemen and women to keep their sexuality secret or face dismissal.
But some weren't pleased about her participation in the parade.
"Frankly, I feel a bit humiliated" that Lady Gaga has to come and support the cause of gay rights in Italy, Paola Concia, a member of parliament from the main opposition Democratic Party, said at the parade.