Equality is a principle that hardly anybody declares to be in disagreement with. How can one not be in favour of fairness and justice? That is, while the principle remains abstract and does not challenge our deeply held assumptions, stereotypes or dislikes. It is thus not by coincidence that the part of my portfolio that generates the most vibrant discussion relates to equality, non-discrimination and migrant integration.
Shortly after taking office as a minister, I set up the LGBTIQ Consultative Council to set the ball rolling on work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and genderqueer equality. This is because I strongly believe that this area of policy was neglected for too long.
Around the same time, I also initiated a process to rectify the gross discrimination that trans persons underwent as the result of a law banning their access to the right to marry even after they rectified the gender on their birth certificate.
This discrimination saw Joanne Cassar fight for her rights all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
In April of 2014, thanks to the support of my parliamentary colleagues, Parliament adopted an Act introducing civil unions for same-sex and different-sex couples on par with marriage. In spite of it being a widely promoted electoral pledge, some quarters in our society called the Bill divisive and even attacked it under the claim that it went too far. Others even called for a social impact assessment prior to the adoption of the Bill, which would have effectively meant that it would still not be law by now while the country wasted resources on an unnecessary – in this particular case – study.
Much work still needs to be done on a policy level to ensure full equality in practice
Two years on, I am pleased that the adoption of that Act has meant greater social acceptance and inclusion of LGBTIQ people in Maltese society. Additionally, as a result of that Act, 92 couples in Malta and Gozo registered their civil unions domestically. Another 14 same-sex couples who had married abroad registered their unions in Malta, bringing the number of those who benefited from the law up to 106 couples.
On the same day of the adoption of the Civil Unions Act, Parliament also amended the Constitution to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the anti-discrimination provision, effectively laying the ground for full LGBTIQ equality across the Maltese legal framework.
Building on this, last year, Malta adopted the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act with cross-party support.
In itself the quality of the discussion and the final vote showed how much we have moved on as a country in this area, especially since that Act is considered the best practice in the field by international human rights institutions and civil society organisations.
Through it, the realities of trans and genderqueer people are validated, while intersex people are protected against unnecessary interventions that serve no purpose other than to further en-trench social and cultural stereotypes. While in the 15 or so years prior to the enactment of the law, only 21 trans persons managed to rectify their birth certificate to match their gender following sex reassignment surgery and lengthy court proceedings, in this last year alone, 45 persons were able to do so on all their civil status documents, thanks to the procedure introduced by this Act.
The government’s resolve to ensure full LGBTIQ equality in practice saw Malta take the top placing on ILGA-Europe’s index measuring the legal and policy framework before October 2015. That same month, the Eurobarometer on discrimination issues by the European Commission proved that in this case, legislative leadership has informed society. Gladly, today we are a much more open and inclusive society than we were a few years ago.
Does this mean that the struggle for LGBTIQ equality is over? Not quite. Much work remains on a policy level to ensure full equality in practice. Nonetheless, as we celebrate the anniversaries of the Acts that have been adopted in the past three years, it is good to reflect on how far we have come as a society and how much equality improves the quality of life of our family, colleagues, schoolmates and friends who happen to be LGBTIQ.
If we agree with equality as a core value, we must all contribute.
As rock star Bruce Springsteen stated when he cancelled his concert in North Carolina last Sunday because of a law which attacks the rights of LGBTIQ citizens to sue when their human rights are violated: “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry – which is happening as I write – is one of them.
“It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forward.”
Helena Dalli is Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties.