Political chatter in Italy has crossed into new territory.

The question of whether the country's first transvestite lawmaker should be allowed to use the ladies' room in Parliament has triggered a full-blown debate among politicians.

The controversy began when a female lawmaker found transvestite Vladimir Luxuria in one of the restrooms in the lower house of parliament.

"I was traumatized," said Elisabetta Gardini, a former actress and now the spokeswoman for Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. "It was violence, sexual violence."

Luxuria wears women's clothes but was born a man, Vladimiro Guadagno, and has not had a sex-change operation. She was elected as a Communist party representative in the center-left coalition that won April elections.

The topic has become the target of political cartoons and sarcastic comments. But it was also seen as potentially damaging for an institution whose credibility has come under fire recently.

Lawmakers have been attacked after a satirical TV show surreptitiously took a drug test on 50 of them and claimed that 16 tested positive. The same show also ambushed the members of parliament with surprise questions on current events, exposing the ignorance of some.

"Already this parliament is like a Barnum circus, it has been ridiculed," said Giorgia Meloni, a member of the right-wing National Alliance party and the deputy speaker of the lower house.

"Let's not open a debate over where Luxuria [goes to bathroom] ... It doesn't seem very important," she said.

Friday afternoon's incident was taken up at a meeting of parliament whips originally scheduled to discuss the budget's passage in parliament. It drew comments from high-ranking officials, including the house speaker, Fausto Bertinotti, who appealed for tolerance.

Bertinotti is a leading member of Luxuria's party.

Some expressed solidarity with Luxuria, saying her dignity had been attacked and condemned Gardini's comment as "homophobic." Others said Gardini was right to raise the problem, and a special bathroom should be designated for Luxuria's use.

Luxuria for her part said she was surprised that the topic caused such a fuss, and took Gardini to task.

"I could not have imagined so much screaming for something like this," Luxuria was quoted as saying by Corriere della Sera. "Evidently, you're born a woman, but you become a lady."