Opinion piece by Clayton Mercieca
The International Lesbian & Gay Association, the world's largest LGBTQ+ association, has just published a report entitled "State-Sponsored Homophobia Report" which compiles data on laws that affect people on the basis of their sexual orientation.
To no surprise, Malta made it on top of the list as the most LGBTIQ inclusive country in the world, having been the only country to satisfy all criteria, including those related to constitutional rights, employment laws, the protection from discrimination and hate, civil union and adoption of children.
This ranking was achieved thanks to the political will of the Government and the expertise and experience of Civil Society which brought about these changes in such a short period of time. Without a doubt, equal rights for this minority were long overdue and many members of our community are grateful for such progress.
Headlines have been all over the Nation's newspapers and TV broadcasts in the past couple of days and I'm sure a big percentage of Maltese households got the news. People can now say they're living in the world's LGBTQ+ friendliest country. Is it though? Does this mean that LGBTQ+ NGOs in Malta have achieved their aims and can close shop?
As a representative of one of these NGOs, my answer is a big fat NO! Our work has only just begun and to be honest, the way the headlines are being spun, is of concern. National laws and what happens in real life are two parallel realities and no matter how much the law is in one's favour, attitudes and societal changes are far from ideal. Allow me to use real life case examples based on the work we do in the community:
1) People are still afraid to be openly comfortable with their sexual orientation
In a Utopia-like scenario, people don't have to go through the process of 'coming out'. Teenagers would be simply gushing on their crushes with their class mates, irrelevant of their gender, and no one gets bullied, or made fun of, for it. Children would be introducing their romantic same-sex partner to their parents without first having to go through the ordeal of coming out to them and enduring months and months of awkward family dynamics before they finally accept it, (if they do in the end).
In 2019, people in Malta are still getting married against their sexual desire, just to keep the peace in the family or because they have suppressed their true sexual orientation. In brief, we are still afraid because rejection is a real possibility! We know for a fact that LGBTQ+ people in Malta are still risking homelessness or domestic violence.
2) We are the scapegoats of religious zealots.
Whether it's River of Love or some factions within the Catholic Church, we are still considered perverse, sinners, disordered or in need of fixing. They blame every worldly problem on the gays and their ways, and we get so much hate for it in sugar-coated 'God Loves you But...' nonsense. Unfortunately, some people have a tendency to believe these people and I'm not seeing their following decreasing any time soon and the local media just loves giving them airtime to increase viewership.
3) What are we offering to LGBTQ+ travellers?
The Tourism Ministry seems to be riding on the 'Best LGBTQ+ rights in the world' lingo to promote Malta as an LGBTQ+ friendly country. The international queer community is indeed putting our Islands on their travel map and one must not ignore such lucrative market. However I feel that the best we can offer right now is the equivalence of a pity-fuck.
I don't see any strategy set-out by the said Ministry or the Tourism Authority as to how we are going to lure in this market and make them want to come over and over again. We get a considerable number of queries by LGBTQ+ travellers asking us what is there to do here beside the sightseeing that is actually gay. They ask if there are gay cafes, dedicated spas/saunas, gay beaches, entertainment. If they are lucky enough to be visiting during a gay party or some other LGBTQ+ event we oblige in sharing the information. Unfortunately, just one gay bar in Malta, doesn't make the cut.
In addition, is the hospitality industry being trained to handle LGBTQ+ guests? I doubt it.
4) Schools are unwilling to introduce LGBTQ+ education
When a set of books comprising of 2 male penguins raising a little penguin and other stories were about to be distributed in Maltese schools, parents raised all the alarms at hand to the point that the Education Ministry retracted the decision and placed these books in the public library.
In addition, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity as part of the Personal & Social Development classes is only discussed at the teacher's discretion and their capacity to know these things. In most cases, this means the knowledge is very limited and as a result, teenagers are left to resort to the internet to check things out.
We also know for a fact that a Trans student at post-secondary level was not being called by their chosen name but by their ID Card number by their teachers! The student ended up quitting their education as they could not endure this type of bullying.
5) HIV is still a huge social stigma in Malta and the treatment offered in Malta is horribly outdated.
It is no secret that a larger portion of those people in Malta living with HIV are gay men. In the past weeks and with the courage of Chris Vincent, a lot of uncovering has been done that made us realise how far back we are in treating HIV+ persons with dignity. The current treatment offered by National Health Service is outdated by over a decade and the side effects limit the person in having a decent life. In addition, availability of PrEP is still very limited and PEP is billed at around €550. This situation is making people reconsider their job opportunity being offered in Malta. Meanwhile, locals affected with the virus are making sure they don't disclose their status publicly because the stigma within and outside the gay community is still bad.
6) Elderly LGBTQ+ people are going back in the closet
The Baby boomer generation (aged 55+) have gone through some tough shit growing up as queer people. Most felt exiled by this country or went into hiding by getting married in a heterosexual relationship or enter into priesthood. For those who had the courage to come out, faced a lot of backlash. Now that they are facing the prospect of old age, the future for them seems pessimistic. If they come to the point of needing residential care, will they continue to live their lives as openly queer people? How will their straight counterparts react knowing the prejudice they have carried all their lives. Are the health care professionals within these elderly services trained to handle this minority? Many would like to live their senior years in an LGBTQ+ friendly community and so far, none is available.
Clayton Mercieca is the Co-ordinator and Community Manager for Allied Rainbow Communities.