http://www.sundaycircle.com/2012/02/a-right-not-a-privilege/ February 2012 When two teenage girls were attacked recently in Ħamrun on the basis of their sexualiy, the clamours from the local community were heard nationwide. Another similar attack by an Arriva bus driver this week has simply added to the outrage. In a country where LGBT individuals enjoy very few rights compared to many of their international counterparts, such incidents simply serve to underscore the urgent need for proper, indiscrimatory legislation in relation to hate crimes in Malta.
Katryna Storace sits with 25-year-old Chris Vella, active member of the student NGO, We Are, to discuss the struggles – collective and personal – against sexual discrimination, bullying and hate crimes...
Photos by madebynoko.com
Chris Vella (left) and Luisa Tolu (right) at the Right To Feel Safe demonstration in Hamrun
“I was shocked, as if it had actually happened to me… It could have been any one of us really,” says Chris, when I ask about his initial reactions to the attack. Although utterly baffled by what would make someone act in such a violent manner, he believes that “what people perceive to be outside their understanding automatically becomes a threat. And to eliminate this threat, they feel they need to act upon their instinct.”
Bullying in the Schoolyard
Chris tells me that despite never having experienced any sort of physical violence in his regard, he has faced his fair share of psychological bullying.
When still at secondary school, he was often taunted by his peers as he walked down the corridor, and the situation did not improve, even after having moved to a different school.
“Kids can be really mean… Especially when they’re bullying you about something you don’t even know about yourself. I came to terms with my sexuality at around 19,” Chris explains. “Before that I never gave it any thought.”
He recounts an incident where, on the final day of school, when everyone participated in writing well-wishing messages on each others’ uniform shirts, his bullies approached him to write on his shirt.
Chris accepted their request as a peace offering: he was soon informed of the message they left by one of his friends. It read the word ‘gay’ in big, bold letters, across the back of the shirt. “I had to throw it away…,” recalls Chris.
I couldn’t stand seeing the word ‘gay’ written so starkly.
Coming to terms with sexuality
Chris’s father passed away toward the end of Secondary School – a loss that affected his personal development. “I was so numb, it
MGRM Co-ordinator Gabi Calleja, addressing protestors in Hamrun
never gave me the time to explore or question anything about myself,” he explains.
It was then, however, that Chris befriended a fellow student who was gay. Chris felt attracted by the freedom with which he expressed himself, and this helped him to slowly reflect on his own life, eventually becoming open to his own sexuality.
Chris decided to confront his mother, telling her he was gay. “Her first reaction was shock – she was not expecting such news,” he says. She expressed her concern that the life of a gay person would be hard, especially when it comes to having your own family, due to our highly rigid legislations.
This soon developed into understanding; however, she encouraged Chris to visit a psychologist, concerned that it may have been just a phase, in some way related to his father’s death.
Chris’s experience with his psychologist turned out to be more traumatic than therapeutic. He tells me how, during his first session, he disclosed his concerns regarding his sexual orientation to her. Her initial reaction was to be incredulous, entirely dismissing the possibility that he could be gay.
Taken aback, Chris explains how she then proceeded to tell him how “all gay people are demonically possessed by the spirit of perversion,” and how she knew a pastor she could refer him to for an exorcism.
“Imagine hearing all this at such a vulnerable stage,” Chris reflects.
And then, if, unlike my situation, your family doesn’t accept you, the church doesn’t accept you, your psychologist tells you you’re possessed… what’s left of that person?
It is here that individuals find the much needed support in organisations like MGRM ,DRACHMA, and We Are.
“Some people don’t understand the damage they do to others,” Chris emphasises.
“If they were to place themselves in the shoes of the other person, and understand the psychological effect it continues to have on them later on in life, I’m sure they’d think twice before acting in a certain way.”
Law, Education and Awareness
In this, he is joined by Luisa Tolu, active member of the student NGO, We Are.
'We need to talk about hate'
How can the situation be improved? “Education and awareness are the basis. If we don’t establish those, we’re going to remain in the same situation,” he replies.
“A lot can be targeted through education – through how homosexuality is viewed,” she agrees.
This, perhaps, was one of the main reasons for the Right To Feel Safe Protest – to raise awareness about the need enforce the LGBT community’s right to live without fear.
Indeed, the Ħamrun incident rekindled the debate on the need for proper legislation against hate crimes against a person’s gender or sexual orientation.
At present, the only legal protection gay people are ensured is against harassment.
What is being demanded, Luisa explains, is a simple amendment to the current law on hate crime, to include the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression alongside the existing ones of “xenophobia”, or racial hatred.
The project, funded through the Voices Foundation, seeks to tackle the problems encountered by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in regard to the identification of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Stand up for your rights
“People shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for a basic human right. If you don’t stand up for your own rights, then who else will?” says Chris.
MGRM poster: Stand up for your rights
People cannot just rely on MGRM. The people out there want statistics, numbers… If it’s only a small group asking, it seems like we’re making a fuss over nothing, as if the outcome will affect only this group of people.
“The fact is, it’s not only an LGBT struggle,” Luisa adds. What upsets her most is the implication that in asking for protection by the law, minority groups are being seen as asking for special treatment. “People think when you’re asking for a right that you’re asking to benefit yourself but it ripples out and affects others.”
As is customary in such issues, it takes a victim or two to really grab the attention of the authorities capable of making a difference. Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts of a motivated group of individuals and their supporters, the government is listening, and has begun the necessary consultation to revise the laws to prevent hate crime.
The amendment to the law would mean placing a much needed emphasis on the human person and his or her dignity before anything else, say Chris – “ultimately, diversity is something beautiful and it enriches society.”
The National Gay Helpline
If at any time you require support or you feel like you would like to express your thoughts freely to a person who will understand you, send an email on firstname.lastname@example.org
You may also call the National Gay Helpline, run by MGRM: Tel: +356 21430006 / +356 99255559