Sunday, 21 December 2008

Independent: The chickens in the coop
21.12.8 by Daphne Caruana Galizia

Is there prejudice against homosexuals in Malta? I would say yes, but not any more than there is against straight women who break with the cultural norms of behaviour, and who are branded as witches, treated with suspicion, taunted, and regarded with hostility. I think that any prejudice is not provoked by homosexuality as such, but by the perceived challenge that this represents. Maltese society is very much one in which anything goes: cocaine traffickers and disgraced judges at smart parties, all kinds of strange interfamilial set-ups, people switching partners and then switching again, all within the same tight circle. But I notice that, despite the debauched behaviour and the overtly laissez-faire attitudes, almost everyone on this merry-go-round is desperately trying to fit in. And that’s why they don’t get it in the neck – because they strive so hard to belong to the group, and set such great store by belonging. The only thing that the group cannot abide is a person who comes across as being able to take it or leave it, and still more a person who rejects it. The group will tolerate and even accept everything else.

Of all the homosexuals I know – men and women – none suffer any prejudice or hostility, and that is because they are careful to conform in every other aspect of their lives, sticking to convention wherever possible, doing their best to belong and showing that they want to integrate with the manners and mores of the heterosexual bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie. I absolutely hate using those terms but I cannot find others more suitable. In other words, they don’t pose a threat or challenge to the dominant crowd because they make it amply clear that they respect their values and seem to suggest that they would share every one of those values, had they not been homosexual. Straight people who come across as not giving a monkey’s cuss about the group suffer far, far more prejudice and hostility than homosexuals who go out of their way to fit in, even if they don’t conceal their sexuality but are quite open about it.

Women who achieve things in the public sphere learn early on that in order to pacify the savage hydra of gossip, fear, bitterness, resentment and hatred, they have to pretend they care, make nice remarks, flatter others, mollify, pacify, smile, talk sweetly and metaphorically bat their eyelashes. Even if they are secretly raising two fingers at everyone else, they have to pretend they are like everyone else and that they share their values, habits, dreams, desires and aspirations. It’s a tough one, but if you can’t be bothered to do it, you end up surrounded by hissing and spitting.

When I was a child, there was a bloodbath in the chicken-coop at the end of the garden. The chickens had rounded on one of their number and pecked and hacked it to death. There was the most terrible frenzy, and blood, guts and feathers everywhere. When I was older, I learned that chickens do this: they gang up on a lone chicken who seems different and get rid of it by pecking it to pieces. Human beings operate in a similar way, beneath the thin veneer of civilisation. Urban life dispels and dissipates the tension by cloaking those who are different in anonymity, making them safe. But a small, tight society like Malta’s is a chicken-coop, and those who refuse to adopt the values (or to pretend to adopt them) of the group are going to be pecked to death.

You can be as gay as a singing sparrow, but if you live like the dull old nine-to-five married heterosexual person next door, even if it is with another man (or another woman) then nobody is going to give a damn or mark you out as different and therefore threatening. The problems begin when you don’t want to live that sort of life. Then you’re in trouble.

Lots of men and women of my generation spent years in the closet fearing the consequences of stepping out of it, only to discover, when they finally couldn’t take it anymore and decided to be true to themselves, that people barely blinked. Older generations had more of a problem – there was real prejudice. Think about it: how many openly gay men and women do you know of who are over 55? The chances are that these few individuals are the sort who have never been able to hide it, because they are effeminate (the men) or butch (the women), while the rest have carefully concealed all the evidence, sometimes even from themselves. And who can blame them?

Now the Gay Rights Movement has surveyed 150 homosexuals in Malta and found that 74 per cent of these say they would emigrate, given the opportunity (but they do have the opportunity, with their EU passport…) because of the discrimination they face here. I find it hard to take these statements at face value, without knowing the individuals who made them and discovering whether perhaps there is not another reason why they meet with antagonism and hostility. Plenty of people of my acquaintance are gay and meet with no discrimination at all in their line of work or socially, but this is because they are careful with their clothes, their behaviour, their general attitude and their respect for the conformist attitudes of others. In other words, they go out of their way to blend in and not to seem offensive or “different”. To put it simply, you can’t turn up at the office wearing something outrageous and then claim that you are being picked on because you’re gay. You’re being picked on because of your clothes, even if the only reason you’re wearing them is to make a statement about your sexuality. A straight person who turned up for work dressed like that would be picked on too.

Interestingly, the survey found that it is women homosexuals who most complained of discrimination and who related stories of harassment and hostility. I can understand this, and I can see why it would happen. Maltese society is extremely misogynistic and male-centric. A lesbian, unless she goes out of her way to conform in every other way possible, is going to meet with the special hatred, fear and resentment that Maltese culture reserves for women who – damn them – insist on doing things their way, coupled with anger at this clear-cut sexual rejection of men, the ultimate in offensiveness. The women surveyed described being spat at, having their hair pulled, being punched and insulted, and my reaction is: it isn’t because you’re a lesbian as such. It’s because you’re a woman who is different, who is a threat. In the past, similar treatment was meted out to “bad” women, adulteresses, women suspected of casting spells and meddling in witchcraft. It’s misogyny, taken to the farthest extreme, and not homophobia. Lesbians in Malta do not provoke hostility because they are homosexual, but because they have rejected men – or at least, that is how it is seen. The only permissible reason to “reject men” in this culture is in favour of God, by becoming a nun or tal-Muzew.

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