The proposed legislation on civil unions is a historic leap forward in Maltese society. Following the introduction of divorce some years ago, it was becoming clearer that the introduction of other civil rights would be on the political agenda for the years to come.
I am sure that activists in the LGBT movement, including MGRM and Green activists and some who since then joined the Labour Party, are proud of their contribution to the current debate. Likewise, on a personal note, I am proud that when I chaired the Green Party, I was both a co-founder of Malta's 'yes' movement in the divorce referendum campaign, and also to be the first party leader in Malta who spoke for the introduction of full equality on LGBT rights including marriage.
I congratulate the Labour government for having the courage to propose legislation which practically introduces same-sex marriage in all but name. Sure, the symbolic importance of marriage for same-sex couples who want to celebrate their companionship in the same way as others will not be there. But otherwise, full equality is being proposed.
I can imagine that within Labour, progressives such as Helena Dalli, Evarist Bartolo and Owen Bonnici have to negotiate with more conservative factions in the party, some of whom actually opposed divorce in the recent past.
Even in the more progressive Green Party, which is for same-sex marriage (and divorce, for the matter) - there were different opinions on LGBT issues such as marriage - at least that was the case when I chaired the party. Such diversity of opinions only strengthens the debate in a democratic context.
As regards the Nationalist Party. I welcome Simon Busuttil's declaration that the party will vote in favour of the bill, despite putting forward some amendments (which we still have to see). One has to remember that in the Nationalist Party, for every Mario Demarco there is an Edwin Vassallo, though the message sent by the latter's failure to be elected in parliament is not to be underestimated by the party.
The proposed 'Helena Dalli' legislation clearly recognizes the signs of the times, particularly that families can take various forms. Despite the socio-biological rhetoric of the so-called 'natural' family, the truth is that families have been taking different forms across time and space.
It is for this reason that contemporary sociologists such as Janet Finch refer to the term 'display' to understand what families do, in their diverse forms - rather than focusing on monolithic definitions which basically consider certain groups, such as same-sex couples, as not constituting families. The new sociological emphasis is on family practices and how people interpret and reflect on what family means to their particular situations.
In this regard, sociologists such as Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim and Anthony Giddens explore the way how people actively create their own understanding of intimacy and love and what they consider to be their ideal form of relationship. Here one can note that the call for same-sex marriage or civil unions indicates that, rather than families in crisis, we should speak of the success of belief in marriage and companionship across different identities.
One issue which will probably raise controversy in the civil unions parliamentary debate is the adoption question. I fully agree that prime emphasis should be given to the rights of the child, indeed, this issue is likely to dominate all debates on family life with respect to social policy, irrespective of the identity of parents. And it is precisely for this reason that policy-makers should not exclude same-sex couples or others such as singletons, for that matter, from applying for the facility to adopt. Once the emphasis is on the rights of the child, proper evaluation can be made as to whether applicants are fit to adopt the child in question. Prejudice on sexual identity should not cloud other considerations.
Here it is interesting to note that according to research by sociologist Tor Folgero, in LGBT families, same-sex parents both transgress as well as reproduce traditional patterns and values of family life. But one can argue that this is the case even in other families which exist in society, for example when traditional roles of male breadwinner and female housewife are deconstructed to give way to more overlapping roles. Indeed, we should celebrate those men who take increasingly caring roles, and those women who liberate themselves from oppressive patriarchal situations, in line with the concept of 'universal caregivers' - as dubbed by Nancy Fraser. In the final instance, love is the great signifier for children brought up in different family forms.
The historic leap forward in the LGBT debate should not make us forget other challenges ahead in family policy. For example class inequality, precariousness, gender inequalities and other minority issues remain key policy challenges of our times.
This blog appeared on Malta Today, 26th October 2013 - link: http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/en/blogsdetails/blogs/The-LGBT-historic-leap-forward-20131026
Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002): Reinventing the Family. In Search of New Lifestyles. Oxford: Polity
Cheal, D. (2002): Sociology of Family Life Hampshire: Palgrave.
Folgero, T. (2008). Queer Nuclear Families? Reproducing and Transgressing Hetronormativity. Journal of Homosexuality 54 (1).
Fraser, N. (1997): Justice Interruptus. London: Routledge.
Giddens, A. (1991): Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity.
Steel, L., Kidd, W., Brown, A (2012): The Family. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Finch, J. (2007): Displaying Families. Sociology 41(1)