Monday, 15 April 2013

Times: It’s not just about gender boundaries
Sunday, April 14, 2013 by Mark Anthony Falzon

Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli announced last week that there had been an out-of-court settlement with Joanne Cassar. Cassar, who had undergone gender reassignment surgery, is now free to marry (a man). She will also get fair compensation for her troubles at the European Court of Human Rights.

My reactions are twofold. First, that minister Dalli and the Government she’s part of did the right thing in finding an amicable and satisfactory solution. Second, that I wish Joanne Cassar well. Her happiness comes at nobody’s expense and that can only be good.

There is, however, one thing about the whole business that is particularly thought-provoking. It has nothing to do with the implications of the decision or Minister Dalli’s motives. I take the latter to be unimpeachable and the former to be secondary to the main concern, which must be Ms Cassar’s happiness. (In any case the implications are good for transsexuals and harmless for those of us who are not into funding searches for Noah’s Ark.)

I emphasise the disclaimer because I can see how what follows might be read as a tacit accusation of political cynicism and/or expediency. It isn’t.

My point of departure is a piece carried in the March 29 issue of The Times Literary Supplement (TLS). In it Bernice Martin – an old friend of our University as it happens – reviews Andrew Goddard’s recent Rowan Williams: His Legacy.

I quote from the review: “At particular historical junctures, symbolic markers acquire special potency as defining the boundaries dividing one tendency or faction from another. In Williams’s period as Archbishop of Canterbury, sexuality and gender... had acquired this boundary-marking character dividing ‘conservative’ from ‘liberal’ constituencies ...”

Martin’s point is not that sexuality and gender were invented during Archbishop Williams’s tenure. Rather, it is the sociological-historical observation that issues to do with gay priests, women bishops and such, became the key markers of a deeper and essentially political rift between the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ camps of the Anglican Church.

All of which helps us understand why Cassar’s hairdressing salon was one of the first ports of call of the incoming Labour Government.

As part of a general rebranding exercise, Joseph Muscat positioned – very successfully, we now know – Labour as the liberal and progressive party. (His opponents were after all led by the neputi, which helped.)

The objections include Muscat’s own anti-EU membership history, Labour’s hard line on asylum seekers, and the fact that the tangible concessions were actually very limited. There would be no same-sex marriage for example, only ‘civil unions’.

And yet the sleight pulled off. This is precisely were sex and gender come into their own as symbolic markers. The landmark was the divorce referendum. I remember writing sometime around 2009 that the party that backed divorce would win the 2013 election. Openly or not, that party was Labour.

Especially following the referendum, Labour could credibly say (Muscat actually did so on several occasions) that keeping things quiet in the bedroom was not among its plans, indeed that it would keep away from that room altogether. LGBT became a household acronym and Cyrus Engerer and Cassar the talk of the island. Albert Gauci Cunningham even made it big on the roundabouts.

I repeat, the point is not that some people are prudes and others aren’t. Nor would it be tremendously accurate to say that Labour are liberal and the Nationalists conservative.

What I’m saying is that a certain type of (lip, mostly) service to sex and gender came to represent liberal politics, and that Labour navigated that junction much more skilfully than the opposition did.

To paraphrase Martin, Labour came to resemble the liberal Western provinces of Anglicanism. The Nationalists on the other hand had to make do with the conservative postcolonial ones.

It’s not the first time in recent Maltese history that this coupling has occurred. When Labour came to power in 1971 it swifly moved into sexuality and gender territory. The agenda included the decriminalisation of adultery and sodomy (read ‘homosexuality’, for that was the real target of the old laws), the introduction of civil marriage, and over-the-counter contraceptives.

The move was deliberate and telling. The political tensions of the 1960s had found their most popularly-revealing expressions in iz-ziju’s almighty rucks over things like miniskirts and bikinis. ‘Il-korruzzjoni’ (as in corruption of the mind) was the Church’s ultimate bugbear. Never mind the much deeper and broader power struggles, it was the smut and moral depravity that fired up people’s imagination.

Fifty years on, one still comes across stories (apocryphal or not doesn’t matter) of priests marching up to sunbathing ‘Ingliżi’ at Għadira and asking them to cover up or go home. One tale tells of a priest who grabbed a mini-wearing girl by the hair and dragged her off a bus in Valletta.

Like I said, stories are stories. Nor was (or is) there anything monolithic about ‘the Church’. The Cana Movement, for example, was a fairly liberal initiative by the standards of the day. The idea was to steer clear of the bikini-bashing and come up with a prescriptive rather than a prohibitive formula. Contraception did not necessarily lead straight to Satan’s trident for example. The trick was to stick to glass and poisonous metal and avoid latex at all times.

Tellingly, Muscat made it a point to appropriate and connect to that storyline. He did so partly by going on cherry-picking outings into the half-remembered past. Just as Mintoff had ‘liberated gays and women’, he would usher in a new liberal and progressive Malta. And so on.

According to a newspaper report, one of the first things that Cassar did to celebrate her victory was to go on Facebook: “I’m overjoyed... I’m grateful to the Maltese because Malta is really tagħna lkoll... I’m so excited” (my translation). It will take more than a new leader to take the politics out of that.

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