Sociologist, local councillor, activist from Malta

Monday, June 20, 2016

Rainbows and the dark


Just as gay pride was being celebrated in many countries around the world, terrible news of the terrorist attack in Orlando hit the global news headlines. The horrific mass murder of 49 persons in the gay nightclub reminded us that the achievements of the LGBTIQ movement around the world remain uneven.
An increasing number of countries, ranging from Malta to Belgium, from Argentina to Canada and from South Africa to Sweden, have been introducing policy reforms which legalise equality in various areas, from employment to family life.
Others, such as Russia and Uganda, have restrictive and oppressive policies, while some – such as Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia - can even resort to the death penalty to punish LGBTIQ persons.
Besides, as the US example has shown, in countries with progressive legislation homophobia is still present even when policies state otherwise.
Therefore, the call for equality from the gay rights movement remains vital, though applied differently in different contexts.
In this regard, Malta provides a very interesting case study about the impacts of its own gay rights movement. Suffice to say that from a European laggard, Malta has now become a European (and world) leader on LGBTIQ rights in a matter of few years.
How did this happen?
From a socio-cultural perspective, globalisation, Malta’s EU accession and cultural modernisation have made LGBTIQ issues more visible and acceptable to an increasingly reflexive and discerning public.
At the same time, however, the call for equality was spearheaded by the Malta Gay Rights Movement, which was established in 1999 and which has now become a major player in Maltese social and family policy.
It was not the only player in the field. The Green Party, for example, supported MGRM and prior to the 2013 general elections proposed same-sex marriage.
MGRM also wanted same-sex marriage but campaigned for civil unions, knowing that this would more likely be accepted by major political parties. Hence they produced a more consensual and moderate discourse to have political impact.
Globalisation, Malta’s EU accession and cultural modernisation have made LGBTIQ issues more visible and acceptable
Still, without the Green call for same-sex marriage there would have been much less of an electoral ‘threat’ for big parties to take up the matter. Yet, Gonzi’s Nationalist Party did not follow suit, but Muscat’s Labour successfully occupied a vacuum and progressively updated its policies along the way, with politicians such as Evarist Bartolo consistently supporting MGRM.
In the meantime, as LGBTIQ organisations such as Drachma and Gender Liberation proliferated, others such as Moviment Graffitti supported the cause. The independent press and various liberal and progressive voices in academia also gave legitimacy to such claims.
It would be far-fetched to say that Labour won the 2013 general election because of LGBTIQ issues. But this was surely part of Labour’s ‘moderate and progressive’ package which aimed to reconcile different – and at times contradictory – interests.
Subsequently, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appointed Helena Dalli – a progressive sociologist – as minister responsible for such matters, and in turn, experts such as Silvan Agius – a former Green candidate and policy officer of the International Lesbian and Gay Association – helped formulate Malta’s forward-looking legislation in the field.
The current situation is now characterised by a situation where political parties simply have no choice but to support LGBTIQ equality, unless they want to miss out on voters who prioritise such issues.
Simon Busuttil’s presence in the recent Gay Pride is very symbolic in this regard. Gay Pride has transformed itself from a curious fringe event to a mainstream celebration. The President of Malta is also increasing legitimacy to the whole issue.
Is this to say that in Malta there is no longer room to discuss LGBTIQ issues? I disagree. To begin with, not everyone agrees with all policies in the field. Besides, one may agree with the ideological thrust of policies but favours more social dialogue to ensure greater consensus and that rights are matched with responsibilities in all areas.
Besides, cultural and legal changes do not mean that homophobia has sud-denly disappeared.
The above also does not mean Malta is now a progressive utopia. When it comes to good governance, development of land, low wages and precarious employment, the Labour government has a strong relationship - this time with big business - at the expense of the common good.

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