Tuesday, 23 December 2014

It Gets Better: There's just one story to be told: An interview with Maltese LGBT Activist Romina Tolu


Romina (or Mina) Tolu is one of the founding members of WE ARE, an LGBTQQI youth and student organization in Malta, a small island country in the Mediterranean Sea. She is currently serving as the communications officer on the executive board of the INTERNATIONAL LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, TRANSGENDER AND QUEER YOUTH AND STUDENT ORGANIZATION (IGLYO), a European-based organization that aims to empower and enable the representation of LGBTQ youth and student issues around the world.

IGBP: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Romina Tolu: I’m 23 and I’ve been involved in LGBT activism since I was about 19, when I got involved at University. My sister’s girlfriend at the time and her friends were trying to start a group at University. It was going to be the first proper LGBT group at the University of Malta, which is the only university we have in Malta and it caters to over ten thousand students. They tried to rope me into it and at first I was quite shy and I was like, “No, no, no. I’ll support you but I’ll be distant”. But then my sister tried to convince me by buttering me up and saying, “You know we need your skills! Your face doesn’t need to be shown anywhere. We just need you to design a few posters, write a few blog posts and that’s it”. So I told her, “Ok in that case I’ll consider it”, and I went along to the first meeting. Then, once the group was officially set up and we had to do our statutes, we needed a certain amount of people on the board. That’s when I was roped into being communications officer for the organization because there was no one else to fill in that role. In the end my sister managed to convince me. So that’s how I got involved in LGBT activism. It was almost “sister coercion”, which is great actually. I am very grateful that it happened because it has brought me to where I am today.

For the first few years at University I tried to keep behind the scenes: blog posts, working on social media and everything else. It was increasingly apparent that we needed more people to be actually showing their faces and being more vocalized. Malta is an interesting society because we’re bilingual. English is one of our official languages, but we also have Maltese, which is our national language, so if you’re going on TV you have to speak Maltese. Within the board of the University group there weren’t very many that felt comfortable speaking Maltese enough to go and speak out on TV about their experiences as LGBT youth. That’s how I got involved with being more at the forefront of it because I thought I could also lend my voice to it; it was just matters of circumstance that kept pushing me out there a bit more.

I’ve always been involved in organizations, though. I’ve led sports organizations when I was much younger. When I was 15 till when I was 18, I was actually involved in a Christian youth group. Roman Catholicism is very strong in Malta and I was very involved. I was took care of their website for them and I was the head of the web administration team. I think that experience slowed down my coming out process, but it I learned so many skilled in communications. It’s good that I learned all these skills within this group (which was so hostile to one part of me at the time) because I managed to use them in my LGBT activism. So that was very useful.

IGBP: What was it like growing up for you in Malta (as someone who is LGBT)?

Romina: Things are changing really quickly. We’ve just legalized civil unions in April and we’re currently discussing a bill called the ‘Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sexual Characteristics Act’. It’s only been through the first reading (so there’s another two readings that have to happen in Parliament), but if it goes through it will be the best bill for trans and intersex people around the world. If that happens, it will be amazing. So things are changing fast.

When I was coming out six years ago I couldn’t see this happening anytime soon. We had a change in government two years ago and this brought about big social change. A lot of people say, “Ah well, the civil unions don’t mean anything to me. How does that affect young people?” I was one of those people who would think, “Why are we focusing on civil unions when there’s so much to work to do in education first? Civil unions only touch a certain part of the community, people who have already gone through some very hard processes in their life, who have settled, who probably live with their partners, who have jobs and can maintain themselves, and can then start thinking about getting together and having a civil union. It doesn’t affect young people.” But thankfully I was a little mistaken. When we started discussing civil unions, and because it became such a massive issue, a lot of people started discussing LGBT rights in general in Malta. LGBT issues were some of the main things you’d see in the newspapers, hear on the radio, or watch on TV. It was what everyone was talking about.

This actually helped some young people to come out to their parents. Finally their parents or their families were given an opportunity to talk about these issues, whereas when I was younger, they never spoke about these issues because it wasn’t on the agenda. I would never hear my parents talking about LGBT issues, so I never knew if they were comfortable or not. But having it on the agenda and it being all over the place made it so that suddenly families are talking about it and so people can be more aware of it. Some young people didn’t use to not know whether it was safe or not for them to come out, but that’s changing. There was a friend of mine who was worried about coming out to her Mom, but the day the civil unions bill passed, we had a massive party in the capital city in Valletta. My friend’s Mom told her, “I’m going to the party tonight, do you want to join me?” Her daughter was like, “Well, why are you going to the party?” And she was like, “I have a lot of gay friends and I want to support them with this really important step for them.” In that moment, her daughter realized her Mom is completely fine with LGBT people and that gave her the courage to come out to her. So, just talking about these issues has trickled down and made awareness grow. We’re no longer invisible.

IGBP: You mentioned how the Gender Identity Act is moving forward in Malta. How are these progressive issues being discussed in schools?

Romina: Finally, we’re giving more issues more importance here in Malta. We’re starting to discuss how to address bullying in schools, especially on bullying on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. There are efforts moving forward to educate teachers and train police officers, as well. It’s a lot of work but it’s being given more importance. One thing that’s helping this happen is that the government has set up a council, and on the council there are representatives from different LGBT NGOs, as well as independent activists. The members of the council meet up and discuss the different LGBT issues and the changes we want to see take place. We then go, for example, to the Minister for Home Affairs who is in charge of the police and we highlight the issues that police should know when dealing with certain cases. Similarly, we try to meet with the Minister for Education, the President, and others like the Minister of Justice to push forward the discussions on the treatment of LGBT people. It does not stop at getting laws passed; it goes much deeper than that.

IGBP: When did LGBT and human rights issues become such a personal passion for you?

Romina: My sister came out to my mom a year before I came out to my mom. Actually, I never came out to my mom, she asked me (she always asked things, which was great). But my sister and I had not come out to our dad yet. We realized once we were starting the LGBT organization at University that, one way or another, our dad was going to find out! So we decided to come out to him together. Basically we were at dinner and we were like, “Oh we’re starting an organization at University,” He just said, “That’s good, that’s good,” because he enjoyed the fact that we were so active and doing things beyond our studies. So he was really excited and he was like, “What’s it about? What will you be doing?” We said, “It’s an LGBT organization,” and he was like, “What does that even mean?” So we explained it to him and he simply said, “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy for you.” This was a very, very big weight lifted off my shoulders! Once I realized all my immediate family knew -- and they clearly didn’t mind -- then I became more comfortable with myself. I started making friends who were comfortable with me being me, and that included me being gay. For the firstyear, I was just getting used to the fact that, yes, I’m gay, and yes, I can do something with this, with my experiences, to try and change things. I knew I wanted to try and make people realize what needs to be done for change to happen and how hard it is. I’d say it took around a year for me to overcome some really bad internalized homophobia.

IGBP: Do you think a lot of young people in Malta have similarly positive coming out experiences as you did?

Romina: It’s very subjective. I mean, I know some people who would come out to their parents and their parents would take it quite negatively. But I’d say the fact that we’re such a small country (just to put you in the picture, there’s only 400,000 people in Malta, so we’re tiny) and I think this really helps. It’s very easy to access the capital city for youth. For example, where there are services like a drop-in center, it’s easy to access them just by catching a bus. Whereas, if you look at other countries in Europe (even the one that’s closest, Italy), when you’re in an area which is really in the middle of nowhere, then these support services are more distant and it’s so much harder to access them. To find these spaces you need to go to a major city; you have to actually get on a train or a long bus ride to get to these services. So it’s much harder to come out in places like Italy and to find the services that you need.

The fact that we’re talking about LGBT issues in Malta it is helping people to come out. People are more aware of the support services available. The coming out age is getting younger and younger; I came out when I was eighteen, but a lot of my friends my same age came out when they were sixteen to eighteen. Now I visit a drop-in center where there are kids there who are coming out at fourteen, fifteen, or even younger. It’s clear that there is a shift, which is really, really positive and there are more support services, too. But it’s not always so good. There are still some people who are going to come up against some big obstacles, and this is because there are still some families that are very religious and that doesn’t help. There’s a parent’s group, which is like a prayer group, where those from a very Catholic background can attend and speak to other parents who have managed to keep their faith and still accept their children. It’s getting better.

IGBP: Can you explain to us a little bit about your personal role at IGLYO and your role in LGBT activism in your country?

Romina: IGLYO is something that has really helped my home organization, We Are, to grow. During We Are’s first year, we signed up to be a part of IGLYO’s network of organizations. We knew we could learn so much from being a part of IGLYO, such as how to build our capacity and understanding, how we can do certain things, what we should focus on, and how we could reach out to youth in our country. IGLYO has helped us attend study sessions in Strasbourg, Budapest, and Brussels, participate in conferences across Europe, and network with some really awesome European and pan-European activists. These activists have really inspired me in my activism in Malta, so when there was the opportunity to join IGLYO’s board, I was like, “Yeah!” I want to be able to do for other countries and other small organizations what those former board members did for us. I’ve now been on the board since June as the communications officer. I’ve really wanted to be able to help small organizations, or organizations that are just starting up, in countries where it’s so much harder to set up organizations for LGBT youth issues. It’s so important to have these young youth organizations in different countries to try and affect change.

My role as communications officer is basically in social media and the website, as well as in writing statements on different situations around the world. For example, Kyrgyzstan introduced a homophobic bill into parliament, so we wrote a statement on that. We also write statements with other international organizations on a cross-section of issues. It’s so important to remember that LGBT youths are not just LGBT youths; there are so many issues beyond sexuality or gender identity that affect us. For example, there are LGBT asylum seekers, LGBT people with disabilities, and LGBT people from migrant backgrounds and from different countries around Europe. These are different factors that all come together to form a person’s identity. We cannot isolate these issues; we cannot only think about the LGBT issues. We have to think about how everything affects everything else and how, by isolating a person and just looking at one aspect of their identity, we’re not thinking about the individual as a whole. Our organization is LGBTQ focused, other organizations are disability focused, others are women focused, and others focus on migrants and asylum seekers. We face so many challenges in common and by joining together, we can help each other overcome the challenges that we’ve gone through in the past. We must recognize the multiple identities of people.

IGBP: What is We Are’s role as an organization within the Maltese LGBT community?

Romina: We Are is a university youth and student organization, so its main focus is at the University of Malta, but it also tries to help its efforts trickle down into colleges and sixth forms (college preparatory schools). The people who are at the forefront of LGBT activism in Malta are a bit older, and it’s harder to identify with them if you are a young person. That was one issue that I faced when I was younger -- I couldn’t see a person like me among them. If there was a LGBT person on TV, they were much older than me and I couldn’t identify with them. We Are helps to change that. The young leaders of the organization hold library sessions and informal spaces in schools to discuss with young people about their own personal experiences. We share funny stories and some sad stories, but we just try to get to know people and to show people that, “Hey, now you know a gay person. Was that so bad? Nope! Moving on! We’re just like you, you’re just like us; we’re all the same! We all have similar stories but just in different contexts.”

I am no longer in this organization since I graduated from the University this year, but I still support the organization. It’s very positive to see that the organization can continue living without its founding members and that these new people – the second year students at University – are getting involved, which helps the message get to so many more people. There is no limit to how far our reach could get! After giving so much to the organization for four years, it was wonderful to step back and see it grow in another direction. I’m still available to offer my skills and to volunteer, but I’m no longer one of the main people in the organization. I find that organizations are not only about what an individual can give to the organization but what the individual can get from such an experience. I know that my years at University were clearly marked by my input and volunteer work in the organization, and they helped me develop skills that would have been impossible to develop as just a regular student. Seeing younger people have that experience, and knowing that they are going to develop so many useful and important skills that will help them with their future lives, is a great thing. It helps them put into practice what they’re learning at university: teambuilding, teamwork, opportunities to travel abroad and meet international activists, learning about finances and how to deal with small budgets for small projects (and making sure they’re done on time), communications on Facebook, writing articles, dealing with other organizations, and being on the council to the government. I mean, we’ve got 20 year olds on the council to the government, which I think is very positive! It’s so great to step back and see that still working and still happening and it feels that what me, my sister, and my friend did in the first years of the organization is still there.

IGBP: Are there organizations like We Are that are being started in other universities, colleges, and secondary schools at this time?

Romina: Some colleges are trying to start diversity groups. It’s good, it’s positive because it’s bringing more to the forefront this idea of intersectionality, that we’re not only about one identity, we’re multiple identities. So in colleges they’re trying to start discussions about identity, whereas in secondary schools I’m not too sure. It’s a bit harder to access secondary schools but it’s slowly happening, especially with these changes that are happening and with more focus on education and bullying. I’m sure that these things will start happening.

IGBP: What are your future plans within the realm of LGBT activism?

Romina: I know I will never leave LGBT activism. There is always something to do. Recently I was at University and someone came up to me and said, “You’re no longer on the board of We Are” and I was like, “No, no I’m not.” He responded, “Well it’s obvious we don’t really need these organizations anymore now that there’s civil unions.” I was like, “that’s absolutely incorrect!” There is so much need for these organizations, it’s insane. People don’t realize that it goes beyond legislation; there are countries that have a lot of legal protection for LGBT people, but still there is so much need for education and awareness. In the UK, they’ve got a lot of laws in place but there is so much work that needs to be done beyond that. So I would never leave LGBT activism, but for now I’ll keep working at an international level. I am open to new opportunities here in Malta as well because I love to contribute to the Maltese landscape of activism. We’re such a very small group of core LGBT activists so it’s very easy to remain involved, in the Maltese gay rights movement. Maybe I’ll start to volunteer for them a bit more actively but always involved in the background for now, maybe taking a bit of a breather after four years in the organization. We’ll see! It depends where I am and what else I’m doing.

IGBP: Do you see the it gets better message playing a role in Maltese LGBT movement?

Romina: The United States Embassy in Malta filmed two it gets better videos and one was with LGBT people and one was with families and friends of LGBT youth. I think that’s as far as the It Gets Better Project has gotten in Malta, although there was a lot of attention to it on social media here. Obviously some videos have had more of an impact than others.

There are some problems around the discourse of saying it gets better, though. For one, I think sometimes it is better already, or there’s no need to look forward to it improving even more because it’s already really, good. It’s important to highlight how things are already quite good. At the same time, just having people talking about their experiences just normalizes and brings it to a level that everyone understands. When you hear other people talk about their experiences as part of a particular minority group, it really helps you to understand where that person is coming from. But it is always so important to realize that there’s not just one story to be told. It’s important to say how it can get better and not just let it be an empty promise. Things get better because you meet new people, you make friends in certain areas, you even go to university and find certain groups and come out of your shell a bit. It’s not just it gets better, it’s how it’s getting better. I think it is important to focus on this. It’s not just about saying, “Yeah, I’m gay and it’s OK for me so I’m going to make this video and make a pledge to the It Gets Better Project.” It’s about hoping that those people who say it gets better go beyond that and offer some kind of support to make sure it can get better. Having LGBT activists involved in the It Gets Better Project is good because we can say, “It gets better and we’re going to help to make it better in these ways, in tangible ways, like going into schools and everything.” There’s a lot more to it, but at the end of the day, it is still very important to see other people, older people, people from so many different backgrounds, saying they’re gay. It’s very positive because it helps you realize you’re not alone in the world.

IGBP: How do you see LGBT youth participating or being actively involved in making these changes happen in your country?

Romina: In Malta, youth can participate in the consultative council and actually being a voice for legal change, which I don’t think happens in many countries. We actually have young people at the same table as lawyers discussing laws and how they affect us. We’ve also got volunteers at youth drop-in centers where young people can come by and talk about their experiences. Sometimes they just need to chat, or maybe they just want to play a board game or play on the Xbox and just hang out. That’s the way young people are getting involved. Also, LGB youth can participate in campaigns being put up by organizations like We Are. We had an IDAHOT campaign this year at which over one hundred university students, lecturers, parents of LGBT people, straight people, gay people, lesbian people, bi people, trans people were taking part in, with a personalized message on posters which were then shared on social media. It’s awesome to see a straight guy in a poster and then find out that he’s doing that because he has a gay brother. Having his photo up on social media for a gay organization is probably going to get him into a lot of shit with some of his friends, but it’s really empowering to for his brother to know that his older brother supports him. Things like that – small actions for some people and big actions for others, but there’s a lot of ways to get involved. I think similarly around Europe we’ve got this network (IGLYO) of more than 80 organizations, and youth are getting involved in many different ways. Sometimes it’s just starting things like flash mobs or street actions, but many youth can also appear on TV and write articles which allows them to share their experiences with other people in some very hostile environments. Being leaders for change in one’s own countries, and meeting with politicians and lobbying for LGBT rights, is a big support to the LGBT movement that’s helping change happen.

IGBP: Would you mind sharing with us either a story of hope from your country?

Romina: My area of studies at University was communications. Everyone at University that knew me knew I was involved in LGBT activism. When it came time to do my thesis, I approached one of my lecturers to ask him to be my supervisor. Without me mentioning anything LGBT related, the first thing he told me was like, “Oh you’re going to do something LGBT related right? That’s going to be really exciting. I’m really looking forward to this one!” I hadn’t planned on it, but I ended up doing an LGBT comic for my thesis. It’s actually a coming out story which is inspired by the stories of so many youth I’ve heard in the past year that have been working for LGBT issues here in Malta. It’s so exciting to see people beyond my friends supporting the work I was doing and that it was not just work on the side. LGBT activism and the work for my organization was about experiences and stories that inspired my studies and my academic life. That inspired others as well, beyond students but actual lecturers.

IGBP: What word of advice would you like to leave for LGBT youths reading this interview?

Romina: It’s so hard to give advice because there are so many different contexts LGBT youth are living in, but I think the best thing that happened to me when I came out was realizing that there were no other obstacles for me to face. Once I came out, I didn’t fear what people thought about me or about other aspects of my life. I was able to live my dreams in other areas of my life as well. Whether that’s just coming out to yourself or to a sibling or a friend, or to your family or to a wider community, you reach a level of honesty which you weren’t at before. When you reach that level of honesty and you’re not hidden anymore, then you realize that you can fulfill your dreams in other areas of life as well. That can mean changing course completely, changing from studying sciences to studying arts because you no longer need to live up to the expectations of society, or just needing to live up to your own expectations. You no longer need to live up to the expectations of society that you need to be straight, normative, cisgender, or whatever. As soon as you accept yourself as being gay or trans or queer, then you can accept yourself to not need to live up to your parent’s expectations to study engineering, but maybe you want to write! The honesty that you reach at that level, even within yourself, helps you realize that nothing can stop you.

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