Federico Bitti, a 39-year-old Italian journalist, is used to telling other people’s stories, not to being at the center of one. But when a homophobic man threatened him with an umbrella pole while he was on the beach with his boyfriend last week, he decided to speak up. His experience -- which ended with the bully leaving the beach, as other beachgoers applauded in support of the gay couple -- went viral, with more than 4,000 shares on Facebook, and made national headlines in Spain.

“To actually see a person hating me without knowing me was amazing -- in a bad way,” Bitti said in an interview.

While homophobia is still widespread, it's surprising that Bitti and his boyfriend, Daniel Blasco, should have experienced it in Spain. A recent Pew research poll revealed that it is the most tolerant country in the world when it comes to accepting homosexuality. Spain has been called “the world’s most LGBT-friendly country” and one with “an open mind and without prejudice,” as the director of tourism once said.  

Spain’s laws reflect this. It was among the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2005. Today, 88 percent of Spanish society supports the gay community, a 6 percent increase from six years prior, the Pew poll indicates.

Bitti, who lives in Rome and works at La Repubblica, Italy’s second-largest daily newspaper, lives in a different reality. His native Italy does not recognize hate crimes where sexual orientation is an aggravating factor, nor has the country legalized same-sex civil unions. Anti-gay bullying in schools is rampant, as is suicide among gay teens. According to the recent Pew report, societal views are shifting, with 74 percent of the country now accepting the LGBT community, up 9 percent from 2007. In the nearly two decades Bitti has been out, he said he had never experienced discrimination -- until last week.

On July 26, the couple’s first day of vacation in Menorca, an island off the coast of Barcelona, they went to the town’s nudist beach. When the children of a family that sat nearby began playing with sand near the couple's towels, Bitti asked them to move.

Within seconds, the children’s father approached, spewing insults.

“You’re disgusting! You were disgusting to me before and now even more,” the man yelled. His wife and children soon left the beach, presumably ashamed. The man’s friend tried to calm him down, but to no avail. He then started throwing sand at Bitti and his boyfriend, and motioned to the couple’s umbrella post, saying, “I’m going to put this in your a-- and kill you.”

Bitti and Blasco did nothing; they were, Bitti said, “paralyzed” in shock. But onlookers, mostly women, began yelling at the man, calling him “shameless,” which caused him to leave.

“At that moment the entire beach erupts in an enormous, spontaneous applause, happy that this mass of senseless intolerance left a space shared until then with the most absolute ease,” Bitti wrote in an article for Spain’s El Mundo about the incident. His story also appeared in his own newspaper, La Repubblica.

“I don’t want to be known as a hero,” Bitti said, regarding the incident. But since then, he has received numerous Facebook messages thanking him for the courage to speak out. For Bitti, the incident offered a rude awakening to the sad reality many in the LGBT community face on a daily basis.

“I felt that way for three minutes that Saturday, but many people feel like that all the time,” Bitti said. He urges others who have been discriminated against to do the same: “Don’t stay a victim. Scream (...) with everything you have.”