Thursday, 5 November 2009

Times: What gays are owed

Thursday, 5th November 2009 by Ranier Fsadni

It's a funny old world. The Maltese media are rife with stories and commentary about the illiberal nature of state and society. Then, when one of the most senior representatives of the state gives a ground-breaking speech at a pan-European conference on gay rights, what he said is barely reported.

The Speaker of the House, Louis Galea, has long registered a political interest in gay issues. As minister, he participated in Pride marches. In 2002, he addressed a national conference on psychology, education and homosexuality. His speech, reproduced in the conference book, used the values of liberty and equality as its compass.

On strictly educational matters, he was firm that homosexuality, while raising delicate pedagogical issues, had to be taught as a subject that illuminated, not a dark alley, but the whole of human sexuality and friendship.

And, note well, he made sure his audience understood that he was speaking as a convinced Christian Democrat, rather than despite being one.

The general policy direction he indicated was that of understanding sexuality as a language of intimacy, confident fluency in which requires a lifetime's education, and which therefore cannot be taught well only within the confines of the classroom. That policy fell squarely within the understanding of civic emancipation and participation displayed by the Fehmiet Bażiċi (Outline of Basic Policy) published by the Nationalist Party when he was secretary general.

As Speaker of the House, Dr Galea is now no longer a representative of the PN but the speech he gave last Thursday was just as informed by the political philosophy and the passion that drove him during his long partisan career. Indeed, insofar as that philosophy is based on the belief that social dialogue can serve to emancipate not just others but oneself from the prejudices impeding personal growth, then Dr Galea is its shining embodiment: on questions like gay marriage he clearly has strong doubts but also recognises that truth, on this matter of institution-building, is partly to be reached by searching and listening more carefully (something he also expects from gay rights activists).

At least two general aspects of his speech should have made the news. First was his blunt acknowledgment that gay rights are not about requests for additional rights. If they are worth paying attention to at all, it has to be because they are about aspects of human rights being denied to a segment of humanity.

Coming from any MP that would make news. Coming from the lawmakers' president, it is jolting news.

Second, Dr Galea stated that in his experience - a considerable one for a seasoned national campaigner and a former minister with his breadth of portfolios - prejudices of a religious and cultural nature are more sclerotic than political or economic ones. That too is a weighty statement.

I myself doubt it is actually true. Take religion. It may seem predominant because of people's propensity to cloak their political and economic interests with self-righteousness.

But, as Dr Galea himself noted, much of what passes for religion often embodies ignorance of it.

Interviews conducted by the Malta Gay Rights Movement about the suffering undergone by gay people at the hands of the clergy tend to support my view.

The priest who kissed a lesbian on the lips, thinking he could "straighten" her out, was a chauvinist passing off his cultural belief about malleable women as pastoral theology (and, possibly, lying to himself about his lust in the process). While the priest who chased a gay person away from the confessional was a heretic, denying the Christian creed that God is love.

Such instances are worth noting, and discussing, as they highlight something distinctive about Dr Galea's understanding of justice. It would be a mistake to associate his arguments with liberalism.

I am using "liberal" in the relatively narrow, technical sense of an approach to justice that focuses on process and which claims (misleadingly, I would say) neutrality in relation to values. Dr Galea's approach has ultimate values at its heart.

For him, one cannot discuss justice without an idea of what makes for human flourishing in the background. This theme remained implicit in his speech but the latter would not make sense without it. It is why to discuss gay issues is to discuss not just minority rights but all of us - the very identity of our society.

Dr Galea articulated a view of emancipation that states that if people are owed rights, it is not because we are (or ought to be) indifferent to what they do; but rather because we care that they participate in society.

Gay rights, in particular, raise specific questions on a range of issues that require detailed not waffled discussion (another time, another column). But that discussion, as Dr Galea has shown, may well surprise us all in the common ground it discovers.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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