MILAN (AP) — On Twitter, it's a playing out as battle of the hashtags: #boycottdolcegabbana vs. #boycotteltonjohn.
But gay rights activists say there is more at stake than Dolce&Gabbana's brand image and bottom line. They charge that the fashion designers' comments expressing skepticism about conceiving children through in vitro fertilization and bearing them through surrogates undermine the fight for recognition of gay and lesbian families in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Italy.
"They have done real damage to the cause just as a law on gay rights is in parliament," said Franco Grillini, a former lawmaker and honorary president of Arcigay, Italy's largest gay organization. "Obviously, everyone can have their own opinions, even mistaken ones. But if a homosexual says the traditional family is privileged and renounces having a child and getting marry, then he is a homosexual with a strong internalized homophobia."
Elton John, whose two children were born through a surrogate mother, has rallied a star-studded battle call against Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, the designers behind the 25-year-old label, after they endorsed traditional families with a mother and a father in an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama. The designers themselves are gay and were in a relationship for more than two decades.
"For that reason, I am not convinced by what I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Uteruses for rent, semen chosen from a catalog. And then, go and explain to these children who the mother is," Dolce was quoted by Panorama as saying.
The designers issued a statement Sunday saying the comments were not meant to judge others' choices and that they recognized the legitimacy of non-traditional families, but that did little to quell the social media firestorm.
More than 67,000 tweets have been sent containing the hashtag #boycottdolcegabbana, getting a turbo-boost from John's social media post expressing outrage that his children had been labeled "synthetic," followed by endorsements from celebs with huge social media followings, including Ricky Martin and Victoria Beckham.
Courtney Love vowed to burn her Dolce&Gabbana garb and Martina Navrativola pledged to toss her D&G shirts in the garbage.
Soon the competing #boycotteltonjohn hashtag appeared, winning support from both social conservatives and free-speech advocates. More than 3,900 tweets have included #boycotteltonjohn, according to Topsy.com, which measures hashtag usage.
What concerns gay rights activists is that the designers' statements have given comfort to conservatives in Italy who have undermined efforts to have gay marriage legalized in Italy, or to officially recognize gay marriages of Italian citizens abroad. A bill in the Italian parliament would grant civil partnerships — far from the rights sought by the gay and lesbian community, Grillini said.
The bill, which the premier has vowed to pass by summer, also contains language that would allow gay adoption of a partner's biological children, but not outright adoption by gay or lesbian couples.
"They have given a propaganda gift to the Vatican and far-right parties that oppose LGBT families. Their comments have already been used by some far-right politicians to defend their opposition to gay equality in Italy," said Peter Tatchell, a London-based human rights campaigner who is organizing a demonstration outside Dolce&Gabbana's Bond Street store on Thursday.
Indeed, vocal support for the designers in Italy has come largely from conservative lawmakers on the right and the Catholic Church. The story has had traction in the Catholic media with reports on Vatican radio and the media branch of the Italian Bishop's Conference.
The widely read Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana called the movement to boycott the designers "absurd," and a witch hunt against "whoever dares to speak freely about the family, paternity, maternity and the rights of children."
For the designers, who have featured traditional Italian families and mothers in their last two runway shows, their brand image is at stake, if not their bottom line. Many chiming in under the #boycottdolcegabbana hashtag acknowledged they couldn't afford Dolce&Gabbana in the first place.
"It has the potential to have quite a significant impact, even if only in certain territories and for a short-term," said Robert Haigh, executive of the Brand Finance consultancy based in London, adding that the boycott call was having particular resonance in Britain. "Elton John is a really well-loved and influential figure, and the fact he is so popular is going to give weight to the boycott campaign. "
A Brand Finance survey shows that the label is fourth most valued Italian fashion brand after Gucci, Prada and Armani, but that its worth has been slipping. It was Italy's 21st most valuable brand worth $1.02 billion in 2014 -- but that was down from 19th place and a $1.2 billion valuation the year earlier.