Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Independent: Make no mistake: Homophobia is alive and kicking

17 July 2011 by Josanne Cassar

Cyrus Engerer’s decision to resign from the Nationalist Party and join the Labour Party has provoked the expected reactions ranging from jubilation (welcome home!) to downright disgust (good riddance!). As online comments debate whether this was a real ballsy move, or whether he is a crass opportunist, it soon became clear that underlying the negative criticism was a barely concealed thread of homophobia. Yes, sure, the PN is very liberal, and welcomes all sorts of divergent opinions… as long as you keep toeing the party line. If you don’t you will be savaged and torn to shreds as quickly as a hungry wolf tears a hapless deer to shreds.

Personally, I tend to be suspicious of those who switch political allegiances with dramatic flourish from one day to the next – could anyone really take Eileen Montesin seriously for example, when she was seen on the front lines waving the flag for Eddie after years of very public militancy within the Labour Party? There are several examples of high profile switchovers: Marisa Micallef, John Bundy, Marlene Pullicino, Sandro Schembri Adami and they have all come in for their share of scoffing, raised eyebrows and (because we’re so Christian) verbal abuse.

But what I’m seeing happen in the case of Cyrus is not so much political bashing as gay-bashing. His crossing over to the other side has lifted the veil of hypocrisy surrounding gay rights, and has revealed that it was all a veneer. Gays are barely tolerated within the PN, and that much has become starkly obvious.

Reading the insults directed at Cyrus from Nationalist supporters, I was appalled to see derogatory words like racanc (rubbish), imbarazz (junk), zibel (trash) along with snide, completely irrelevant remarks about his unusual name. Apparently, if you don’t have a good, solid macho name like Mario or Raymond, you’re not a real man.

One could argue that these are not necessarily anti-gay remarks but politically-motivated insults (not that it makes it any better), but the violence of the language leads me to think otherwise. There were also very loaded phrases such as “you people”, and one man even went so far as to say that the Labour Party is welcome to “people like Cyrus” because “there is a whole nucleus of them there”. Then there were the offensive sexual innuendoes, some disguised and some quite graphically spelled out.

Not surprisingly, most of these reactions came from men (the good thing about Facebook is that you can check the real identity behind who is making which comment). It is a fact that women are generally more accepting and non-judgmental towards homosexual men, while many straight men get all uptight and uncomfortable because gay men threaten their masculinity.

Now, up until last week – before Cyrus posted a comment saying Gonzi should resign – this young man from Sliema, with his openly gay lifestyle and the courage of his convictions about liberal issues, was being pushed as one of the new upcoming breed of PN politicians. Not that it fooled anyone of course – those who have never for a moment believed the spiel that the PN is a “rainbow party” could see that Cyrus was just the token gay so to speak, being wheeled out to appease the liberal PN voters after the upset for the conservative core in the divorce referendum. It reminded me of the way women are often asked to appear on a panel on TV “because we need to have a woman” and not because choosing the right guests should include women as a matter of course.

In fact, in retrospect, it must have caused a lot of flinching and red-faced embarrassment at Dar Centrali to see Cyrus openly kissing his boyfriend for the cameras at the gay pride march last year. The more pragmatic might have tittered nervously at such an overt expression of what being gay really means, shifting uncomfortably in their seats but choosing to turn a blind eye because the gay vote is an important niche. Anything for votes, right?

However, homophobia had already raised its ugly head back then. A Facebook group set up at the time (which has since been deactivated) specifically targeted Cyrus who was contesting for the post of deputy mayor against Nikki Dimech. One of the most telling comments was, “Is this what our present PN administration supporting?”

In an interview at the time, Sandra Camilleri, another PN councillor for Sliema actually came out with this unbelievable statement: “I don’t think he keeps to the ethics of the party... especially the way he took part in the gay pride parade: a front-liner kissing his partner. I mean, come on, there are gays and gays. There are nice gays but they keep a low profile, they don’t boast about it. In certain positions, I think they have to be careful.”

Nice gays. As opposed to nasty gays, I suppose.

Actually, although I described her statement as unbelievable, in truth it is probably how a lot of people feel but who do not say so publicly for fear of being labelled as bigots. It’s similar to those who pay lip service to the “poor immigrants” but in private will tell you that they can’t stand seeing all these blacks living in Malta.

And there, in a nutshell you have the problem with the Nationalist Party and gay rights (or any other liberal issue). When you peel away the layers of its pseudo liberalism, it is too entrenched in its right-wing ideology to ever really be at ease with a lifestyle choice that goes so blatantly against its core. The nice little old ladies from Sliema might have a soft spot for Cyrus who could be one of their adored grandsons, but I suspect most men are still quite a different kettle of fish. Many of them are old school – they want to knock his block off for daring to be “different”.

That Cyrus’ position within the PN was becoming untenable could be seen from his indignation at the statement by Austin Gatt who spoke of same sex marriages in the same breath as abortion. Then came the breaking point for Cyrus Engerer: when the Prime Minister decided to go ahead and vote No against the divorce bill he was incredulous, although frankly I’m surprised he was so surprised, because Gonzi was making it perfectly clear all along that he would stick to his guns. I guess people didn’t think he had that much of a death wish.

But Gonzi went through with it, and in the end, so did Cyrus.

There are those who are predicting that Engerer’s political career is basically over, but I beg to differ. Along with the idiotic homophobic comments, I have also been seeing a groundswell of support from younger people from both sides of the political spectrum who are showing their grudging admiration. “We vote for the person not for the party”, some were saying.

The truth is Cyrus is in for a tough time and he knows it, but I guess he preferred to take his chances rather than leave politics completely and melt into obscurity in the background.

As one young man succinctly put it: “Wow. Bajd (balls).”

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