Monday, 19 October 2009

MaltaToday: When Daddy president knows best
18.10.9 by Joseph Carmel Chetcuti

When traditionalists speak about marriage and the family, they invariably ignore many significant features of these institutions. To state the obvious, marriage is multi-dimensional: it is, amongst others, a contract, a ceremony, an event and, to some but not all Christians, a sacrament.

Marriage as we know it today in Malta and many European countries has had a varied and chequered history. You would have to be historically naïve and mentally challenged to think that today’s traditional marriages have not undergone significant change. Roman men could dissolve marriage at any time. That was their privilege as men, a privilege not extended to women. Before the Justinian Code (527-565), a simple statement that you were married was the only requirement. Catholic marriage celebrated at a Catholic Church before a priest and two witnesses was enforced in 1563 by the Council of Trent. Across Europe, marriages only became a religious event during the eighteenth century.

But traditionalists have a habit of overlooking what does not fit nicely into their view of the world. They are quite discriminating, taking in only those aspects of history that do not disrupt their take on tradition.

Let’s clear the air. Most gay men and lesbians have nothing against marriage, or the family, or the strengthening of the union between a man and a woman and – where relevant – providing necessary governmental and non-governmental support to the couple’s offspring. Most accept that marriage is an important institution to the individuals, their offspring and society … their admiration for this institution may go some way towards explaining why some gay men and lesbians have a desire to marry. Incidentally, many gay and lesbian activists of the 1970s would have been appalled at such a prospect. Many had been pressured into marrying a person of the opposite gender or forced to resist such pressures. Not a few had been picked on, bullied, violated and persecuted on account of their sexual orientation and within the confines of what some think is a venerable institution.

Traditional marriage is in a constant state of flux. What matters nowadays is what’s in the heart and mind not what one has between the legs. Forget all the nonsense about the father being head of the family. Forget about different roles being assigned to the husband and the wife and talk of the principle of complimentarity. Forget about parents ordering their children how they should lead their lives. Forget about children not having rights. Those days of old have long been cast into the dustbin of history.

So it is with some dismay that I read the opening address of Malta’s President on 6 October, 2009. Why, I wondered, is he taking us for fools?

Marriage and the family

The President set himself the unenviable task of identifying what he called “the exact meaning of marriage”. So I waited with baited breath for this presidential revelation. He spotted the clue in a United Nations document (UN Declaration of Human Rights) which led him to conclude that “marriage does not mean relationships which involve two men or two women or a variety of other possibilities.”

This raises the significant legal problem of how to interpret international documents. Do you adopt an activist approach or stick to a strict construction of the original text? A strictly textual interpretation of any international document that ignores today’s world is unlikely to be of any public benefit. Those who drafted the UN Declaration of Human Rights had no idea of the gains to be attained decades later by gay men and lesbians. Any interpretation of any international document has to be interpreted within today’s context. After all, does not Article 1 of the Declaration state that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights? Should not subsequent provisions in the Declaration be interpreted against the general principles of the preamble?

Even so, I am left wondering what to do with polygamous marriages that are legally recognised, under civil law, in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, The Gambia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Myanmar, Niger, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, UAE, Western Sahara, Yemen, Zambia?

Or how to deal with polygamous marriages that are recognised under customary law as is the case with Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho, Liberia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe?

Or what to make of same-sex marriages that are legally recognised in Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden?

Perhaps the President of Malta knows best and he should discard these unions as not complying with the exact meaning of marriage and the family.

What research?

Other droplets of wisdom are thrown in for good measure. Take, for instance, the President’s claim to which he offers no proof that there is less substance abuse, crime, poverty and welfare dependence among young people in married parent families. Quite undaunted, he goes on to assert that “studies have constantly shown that children raised outside marriage suffer disproportionately from physical and mental illness and that they are more likely to drop out of school, abuse drugs or alcohol, engage in or suffer from violence and less likely to attend higher educational institutions.”

What absolute twaddle! What an insult to single parent Maltese families! What a middle class approach in linking good parenthood with higher education!

Is the President seriously putting forward that the children of a middle-class, educated but single parent are more prone to physical and mental illness than children of a poorly educated and badly disadvantaged heterosexual couple! Where is the evidence, Mr President?

Having two bob each way?

The President makes an astonishing somersault. After embarking on the task of isolating the exact meaning and definition of marriage and the family, he rapidly switches his attention to traditional marriage and the traditional family. How this variety of marriage and the family differ from the “exact meaning” of marriage and the family is not all that clear.
What is intriguing is the President’s apparent conclusion that traditional marriage and the traditional family “no longer exist”. The traditional family in Malta, he points out, goes beyond the nuclear family to take in the extended family. In an effort to dig himself out of a hole, he poses an interesting question: whether the term family should be solely applied to a situation where the parents are “officially married”. But the President is eager to avoid political controversy (as if he has not done a good job of it already). He says he does not wish to pre-empt discussion on the topic because his office of president precludes him from entering into the political foray. I wonder whether the office of president also precludes him from standing up for the rights of minorities in Malta including those of gay men and lesbians!

How we change the law
The prospect of the current Maltese government doing anything about gay and lesbian rights is remote. We are tired of Nationalist Party rhetoric that delivers nothing. Gay marriage in Malta is as remote a prospect as having an atheist installed as Malta’s Catholic archbishop. But Maltese society has changed, is changing and will continue to change. It is a pity that many of Malta’s mediocre parliamentarians are behind the eighth ball. Governments of whatever political persuasion will continue to trail behind public opinion because they are devoid of leadership material. So why not take the law into our hands and devise our marriage tradition? Why not draw up binding legal contracts between same-sex couples? Why not make our commitments public? The State will in due course be forced to catch up.
I have to say I was not as annoyed by the President’s speech as some other Maltese gay and lesbian activists. What really appalled me was that the speech was so illogical, so poorly written, so poorly thought out and so ahistorical. That it was an address to the Cana Movement is no excuse for peddling prejudice under the cover of illusory research. I hope it attracts a limited international audience as otherwise we are all so more poorer.

Chetcuti is the author of Il-Ktieb Roza: Dnub, Dizordni u Delitt? (1997) and Queer Mediterranean Memories: Penetrating the Secret History and Silence of Gay and Lesbian Disguise in the Maltese archipelago (2009).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Chetcuti!