The landmark civil union and gender identity bills have been hailed as revolutionary, and welcome, human rights breakthroughs for Malta by many. But how curious is it that there hasn’t been a concerted backlash to these key developments from conservative quarters, TEODOR RELJIC asks?
26 June 2015, 8:00am by Teodor Reljic
It seems as though Malta has become a progressive gender-equality mecca over the last couple of years. At least that’s what recent key LGBTIQ developments would have you believe. The passing of the civil unions bill, celebrated to colourful fanfare at St George’s Square in the spring of 2014, was seen by its supporters as a step towards ensuring Malta is in line with the ‘rest of the modern world’ – overly flexible as that term may be – and it had something of an edge to it since it also included adoption within its remit.
But the more recent passing of the Gender Identity Bill – which safeguards the rights of people under the trans* spectrum while also allowing them to change gender without the barriers of intrusive bureaucracy – proved to be an even bigger coup, grabbing headlines around the world due to its inclusive, and in many ways unprecedented, approach to gender rights.
In terms of sheer ‘national pride marketing’, it was refreshing. For once, this outwardly Catholic-across-the-board country, which had only introduced divorce in 2011 and underwent an embarrassing censorship saga not too long before that, was suddenly looked upon in admiration. In certain quarters of the international sphere, Malta was not just about sun and sea anymore, but – astonishingly – about progressive gender legislation too.
Of course, such wide-ranging developments don’t just occur overnight, and more often than not arise as a result of long, hard work behind the scenes by concerned lobby groups.
But the fact that neither the civil unions bill nor its gender identity counterpart arrived on the scene with little to no criticism from conservative quarters perhaps marks an interesting development for Malta’s socio-cultural fabric. Is it really the case that the Maltese population was ready to receive such groundbreaking legislation with open arms? Or is it a case of the more conservative opting to be silent, for whatever reason?
Silvan Agius, Policy coordinator for Human Rights within the Ministry for Civil Liberties and one of the driving forces behind the gender identity bill, cautioned against assuming that full equality has been already achieved, while outlining the important progress that has taken place.
“Amongst others, government set up an LGBTIQ consultative council, introduced the civil unions law, amended the Constitution to introduce protection on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and introduced an act regarding gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics,” Agius explained, highlighting that all of this in a relatively short period of time, “catapulting Malta to the 3rd spot on ILGA-Europe’s rainbow index, up from the 18th position in 2013”.
Asked to explain how a country could ‘catapult’ forward in this way, Agius suggests that political will has a lot to do with it – flagging up other European countries as an example and, most notably, the recent Irish referendum on same-sex marriage.
“Such fast progress is possible when there is political will on the part of government. Spain was not considered progressive on LGBTIQ equality until the Zapatero government implemented a string of changes. The same can be said about Portugal’s slow progress until Socrates’ socialist government took office. Both of these countries are considered mainly Catholic, as is Ireland, which a few weeks ago has seen a 62% vote in favour or marriage equality,” Agius said, adding that the case of Ireland in particular points to the fact that, “the presumption that Catholics are automatically against LGBTIQ equality is false, and that the reality is more nuanced than that”.
Long-time gay activist and Barrister at the State of Victoria, Australia Joseph Carmel Chetcuti expressed a similar opinion, stating that the religious and conservative facets of society shouldn’t be viewed as a “monolithic block”.
“There are some if not many ‘conservatives’ and members of the clergy that support equal marriage,” Chetcuti said, pointing out that this ambivalence can even be found within the LGBTQI community, the focus of some activists being “more on equal rights than on being part of an archaic and anachronistic institution”.
Another contributing factor, according to Chetcuti, is the fact the Church “no longer occupies the moral high ground”, in the wake of a number of cases of abuse by priests coming to light, along with “the failure of the Church to pay adequate financial compensation” for these
He adds that Malta’s struggle for gay rights has been “somewhat overdue”, adding that “members of the LGBTIQ communities must shoulder much of the blame for this because of their failure to come out”.
“Those of them who were wealthy and well-connected enjoyed a lifestyle that was denied to many others.”
Carmel Chetcuti opined that the LGBTIQ movement in Malta has also been “extremely conservative,” in that it always strived to appear ‘respectable’ to the mainstream of society. He said that this runs in direct opposition to his own experience as an activist in Sydney in the 1970s.
“Had that been one of our goals, we would have got nowhere. We took pride in not being respectable. We wanted more than rights. We wanted a sexual revolution. We did not want to mimic ‘straights’ in any way, shape or form.”
Drawing another comparison between Malta and Australia, Chetcuti explained how Malta’s Civil Union Bill could not have been introduced in any of Australia’s parliaments.
“Australia is a federation and no one parliament has a right to legislate with respect to all matters. Fights had to be fought not only at a federal level but also in each of the States and Territories.”
Chetcuti adds that with hindsight, this was at the Australian activists’ advantage, because they were able to “educate the public” in the meantime.
“Malta was different. Mintoff might have decriminalised homosexual acts but little was done by way of educating the public. The education of the public is as important, if not more so than changes in the law.”
Speaking of the work that still needs to be done, Silvan Agius said that, “While it is true that in today’s Malta discriminatory statements against LGBTIQ people are increasingly unacceptable, the reality is that many LGBTIQ people continue to fear reprisal and are hence not out in their families, workplaces and social circles. That is in itself very telling about the long-term effects of discrimination, as well as current level of hostility against LGBTIQ people.”
Marcelline Naudi, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at the University of Malta, pinpointed the outcome of the divorce referendum as being instrumental to the social changes that paved the way to these LGBTIQ developments.
Stressing that she’s speaking in her own personal capacity, Naudi speculated that the Church was hesitant to actively campaign against the LGBTIQ developments because of the damage it sustained during the divorce referendum campaign. Naudi also believes that Catholic-oriented LGBTIQ outreach groups like Drachma and Drachma Parents have gone some way to bridging the divide – real or apparent – between LGBTIQ individuals and the Church.
“I have always felt that one of the most cruel situations is to be in a position where you truly believe that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and that it is sinful to practice homosexuality, and to have a son or a daughter whom you love dearly, and whom you want to be happy, and yet who you know is destined for the eternal flames of hell,” Naudi said, adding that groups like the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM) have also played a crucial part in “raising awareness generally around human rights and keeping the subject ticking over in the public consciousness”.
Naudi added that above all, “Maltese society is changing” in a way that puts the focus on human rights and that questions all forms of discrimination.
However, Klaus Vella Bardon, a member of the Catholic think-tank The Life Network, remained an outspoken critic of these developments. Bardon said that the relative silence from conservative quarters on this issue wasn’t down to fear or embarrassment, but the fact that those who disagreed with these developments, and how they were introduced, were left “stunned by the crass disregard for principles and honesty in the political process”.
Claiming that “the LGBTIQ lobby is well organised, well placed in positions of power and apparently well financed,” Vella Bardon said that the political expediency of both parties – and not any concerns over “principles and ideology” – is what helped pave the way for these developments, along with what he views as a generally lax moral environment.
“Until recently, as a Catholic country, sexuality was thought of only within the context of marriage. However, over the past 50 years, society has undergone dramatic changes, especially with the increased use of contraception. Fornication and adultery, which had previously been socially frowned upon and strongly discouraged, have now become flagrantly rampant,” Vella Bardon said, adding that this contributed to undermine the institution of marriage. He also agreed that the divorce referendum was a key step in all this, and that the victory of the ‘Yes’ campaign in 2011 served as “the last nail in the coffin”.
“The LGBTIQ lobby were well aware that this was the first hurdle to be overcome and they lobbied strongly in favour of divorce,” Vella Bardon said, adding that due to the exponential rise in cohabitation and the reality of homosexual relationships, the previous government fashioned a law on Cohabitation (which never reached parliament), to give some form of legal structure, rights and protection to such situations”.
However, Vella Bardon contends that following the Labour Party’s landslide victory at the 2013 general elections, “it is all out to promote the LGBTIQ agenda”, saying that while many social groups raised their voices in protest to the subsequent developments, “our liberal media chose to deliberately ignore these submissions, and promoted an anti-family ideology instead”.
“These issues have been sprung on the Maltese as very few are aware of the virulence and aggressiveness of the LGBTIQ that seek rights that are not theirs and this will have long term negative consequences on our society,” Vella Bardon added.
Also speaking about the future, Silvan Agius said that “on the political front, we are still to see what the different party stances will be with regard to the next steps in LGBTIQ legislation aimed at taking the legal framework from a de jure to a de facto equality.
“Only then will be able to say that that the apparent acceptance of these developments is genuine”.