Wednesday, 30 June 2010

MaltaToday: A President's right to express personal views

26.6.10 by Dr Joseph Carmel Chetcuti * BA Hons, MA Hons, LLB Hons, LTH

The president of Malta is appointed by a resolution of the House of Representatives. Like any other citizen, anyone appointed to the position comes with his or her own ‘baggage’; he or she has his or her own personal views on a range of matters. The governing party in Malta in effect appoints the president; more often than not, it appoints a person it considers ‘safe’ not only to the party but to the ruling faction within it. It matters little if that person is drawn from ‘the other side’ of politics. As political scientists have long observed, the majority of political parties are converging to the centre.
Given the recent formation of the Maltese presidency (the country’s first president was appointed in 1974), Malta does not have a wealth of conventions surrounding the office. It is my submission, however, that an unelected president should rise above politics and not become embroiled in it. Significantly, he or she should not discharge the role of a politician. And when I say ‘above politics’, I expect a president to rise above each and every controversy that divides or has the potential of dividing a nation! Taking sides in any political debate demeans a presidency, and, significantly, creates the impression that a president no longer represents a section of the community. You have to be short of a full quid to think that comments made at a national conference on the family can be properly characterised as ‘private’. They were public comments made in a public forum and designed to stall the fight of gay men and lesbians for full equality.
So what is so wrong with a president defining marriage as a union and only a union between a man and a woman, and identifying a family with that which a man and a woman construct?

Let us start at the beginning. A definition of marriage as a union and only a union between a man and a woman is factually wrong. Same sex marriages are now available in a number of countries. Defining family as only that created by a man and a woman is also wrong. There is ample evidence of ‘the law’ recognising same-sex families. The Family Court of Australia, for example, now has jurisdiction (at least in some instances) over same-sex partners. There are also numerous same sex families out and about. A definition of marriage and the family, as suggested by the president, is not descriptive but normative. It is more than that – it is heteronormative. It tells us how marriages and families should be and not how they are. Given the current debate not only in Malta but everywhere else, such a statement is in and of itself political.
Secondly, the institutions of marriage and the family have been constructed by us. They are historical constructs and follow not predate the individual. They are institutions that have undergone significant changes over the centuries. Husbands and fathers are no longer ‘heads’ of the family. Men and women relate to each other on equal terms and are no longer considered chattel. Children enjoy rights. Within the Maltese context, Carmel Cassar and others have written books and articles on this very subject, and the president would be well advised to read them if he has not already done so. In any event, the real heterosexual family is not always the ideal family that many of its defenders present. They see it through rose-coloured glasses. Many gay men and lesbians have had very different and unhappy experiences at the hands of their own (heterosexual) family. Bernard, a dear friend of mine of the mid-1970s, committed suicide because his policeman father forced him into a psychiatric ward in the hope that his son would “become normal”. The policeman father reportedly stated that he did not want a gay son. He lost his son on Valentine’s Day.
Thirdly, governments are well advised to concern themselves less with the institutions of marriage and the family and more with the people within them. I fail to see how same-sex marriage and same-sex families pose any threat to the institutions of marriage and the family. As I see it, the fact that some gay men and lesbians want to join the ranks of marriage and the family suggests that they have high regard towards these institutions. (We, too, may be looking at these institutions through rose-coloured glasses.) Opposition to same sex marriages and support for the heterosexual family are not one and the same. Demonising others provides no support to struggling heterosexual families. Governments that are sincere about the state of the family tackle such problems as the escalating costs of utilities (particularly heating costs during winter), food and house prices not to mention domestic violence. They do not conveniently interpret such increasing costs as a sign of prosperity particularly when their impact on poor families is nothing short of tragic. They also go about providing counselling services to families, and not leave the work to the Church. They do something about parents having to take on two on three jobs simply to keep their family above water.
Fourthly, an expression of a person’s opinion - however one characterises such an opinion - has the effect of advantaging one group over another. Gay men and lesbians have long been victims of persecution and prosecution; they have been made to feel that the love that two men and two women have for each other is somehow inferior to that between a man and a woman. Public utterances against same-sex marriage and recognition of same-sex families may have the effect of gay men and lesbians thinking less of themselves. They certainly do not provide a boost to gay and lesbian young adults. Not to put too fine a point, they are destructive. Genuine respect towards children should include respect towards gay and lesbian children.
Fifthly, and given the current climate both in Malta and overseas, no one can express an opinion on same sex marriages and families without entering the political arena. Dr Joseph Muscat, Leader of the Labour Party, recently called for a secular state. The president’s intervention may be taken as a rebuff of the LP’s resolve to separate Church from State. After all, we all know that it is priestly cruelty and intolerance that is at the core of prejudice against gay men and lesbians. There is also another disturbing feature: why is the president entering the political arena, the domain of politicians, when the Prime Minister seems to distance himself from such a controversy? Such interventions by a president may create the undignified impression that the president has been bought.

A president who does not rise above politics (at least as I see it) has only one honourable course of action open to him or her: resignation.

Let me be quite clear about my position on same-sex marriages. I support the right of gay men and lesbians to marry and form families. My greater concern, however, is that same-sex marriage will go down the way of many heterosexual marriages … divorces and more divorces and even more divorces or, as is the case in Malta, couples living ‘in sin’ (what a lovely expression!). At Victoria’s pride march of 4 February 2010, a placard carried by a young teenager said it all: “Marriage is the problem not the solution.”

*Chetcuti is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria. He is a gay activist, and 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).

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