Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Malta Today: Discrimination kills

Malta Today January 23 2011 by Evarist Bartolo
[This article is not online at Malta Todays's website so far.]

In the first 10 months of last year 28 persons committed suicide in Malta. At least eight of them were young gays driven to suicide by the bullying and violence they have to face in the family, at school and on the place of work. Very little is being done to combat discrimination against gays and transgender persons in Malta. Last October the US Obama administration launched a campaign against homophobic bullying after a spate of reports of bullied lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-students committing suicide during 2010.

President Obama recorded a video for the ‘It Gets Better’ project which consists of a comprehensive guide how civil rights law applies to schools, colleges and university campuses. It also tells teachers and university officials how federal law regards situations of harassment and discrimination, and how institutions should deal with such cases. In his ‘It Gets Better’ video, the president said he was “shocked” and “saddened” by the suicide reports and urged depressed teenagers to seek help.

The project seeks to make teachers understand that in cases of discriminatory bullying, it may not be enough to reprimand perpetrators. Counselling bullies, labelling the incidents as discriminatory and encouraging other students to report incidents are some of the guidelines. We have no similar project in Malta to tackle the pervasive problem of homophobic bullying.

A few days ago a delegation from the Catholic gay and transgender group Drachma met Labour leader Dr Joseph Muscat, Gino Cauchi and I. They shocked us by telling us about the high rate of suicide by young gays. At least 25% of the persons who committed suicide in Malta in 2010 were gays who make up only five per cent of the population. Drachma urged us to put measures to fight discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons at the top of our agenda if we want to really create a more democratic, open and inclusive society.

They want an active state that will work hand in hand with NGOs to make homophobic bullying unacceptable in Malta and sponsor services to help young gays grow into free and happy persons who are treated with respect and dignity like other human beings. Drachma told us that the remit of the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality needs to be widened and include also action to defeat discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation.

Transgender people find it very difficult to find a job, even if they are very qualified. They suffer poverty and social exclusion. They are often humiliated and ridiculed. Many of them have tried to commit suicide, and some of them manage to kill themselves to escape a cruel society that has no place for them. Some have to go abroad to try and build a new life where they can be themselves. Some transgender persons are pushed to drugs, crime and prostitution.

A few days before the meeting with Drachma I saw a letter written by a transgender person who is in prison at Corradino and who “has not yet completed her full female transformation.” She writes: “The officials are making my life hell, insulting me, treating me as dirt and as an inferior human being with all the worst comments that you can imagine.”

She is called “a mistake made by nature” and denied a hair blower, eye liner and make up” and has to shower with men even though she has breasts. “They stop my visits and just fill me up with pills to sleep.”

I am told that there is more than one transgender person who is treated like this in prison. The Malta Gay Rights’ Movement has tried to intervene on their behalf but they have achieved very little as the authorities do not even bother to give them an appointment to meet, let alone to hear about these injustices and address them.

Drachma spoke to us of other injustices against gays outside prison: openly gay persons are not employed by some Church schools or asked to leave if they have a partner or are living with a partner.

We also discussed how the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community can contribute to society. The most successful societies that generate wealth and a high quality of life are those that embrace diversity and creativity where everyone participates in the exchange of ideas and cultural life in a spirit of openness. Such societies have no space for homophobia and celebrate people who are different but treated as equal.

62 years ago, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the Human Rights Commission in its first years, asked, "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

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