Malta tops the gay rights league but daily life can still be a struggle for some

Malta has retained its first placing in Europe’s gay rights league table for the third consecutive year, but is this change truly reflected in everyday life and attitudes?

Malta’s meteoric rise to the top of Europe’s ‘rainbow index’ is a stark reminder of the blitzkrieg of LGBTIQ-friendly laws Labour introduced since being elected to power in 2013.

Then Malta languished at the 18th spot in the International Lesbian Gay Association’s ranking. Five years on, same-sex couples can marry and adopt children, transgender people can freely change their gender identity, and same-sex couples are on the cusp of being granted access to IVF services.

And the change in social attitudes has been a marked one, even noted by the United States’ annual crime and safety report issued by the Department of State for American travellers’ safety: “much of society has quickly adopted the same progressive attitude, breaking from a long history of social conservatism.”

“It’s been an epochal change that would not have occurred without a previous change in social attitude… and the media had a huge role in this change,” says Colette Farrugia Bennett, a social worker and today coordinator of the Malta Gay Rights Movement.

But it’s been the legal changes that have themselves triggered further social changes by empowering LGBTIQ people. “The change has been in the offing for some time, but the change in laws ensured that this change continued… These laws gave us a great sense of empowerment.”

“The ‘coming out’ process was often framed as an act of courage and a leap in the dark, rather than the process of self-affirmation it has become now” 

As a social worker, Farrugia Bennett says these changes impacted on how parents react to their children coming out. “Difficulties persist but this experience is not any longer perceived in a completely negative way. While in the past acceptance was the exception to the norm, now there is a greater sense of acceptance.”

Silvan Agius, formerly ILGA-Europe’s policy director before taking up the post of director of Malta’s human rights and integration directorate, acknowledges this change in the “coming out” process.

“Only a few years ago, Maltese LGBTIQ people suffered from a lot of stigma and social exclusion. Indeed, the ‘coming out’ process was often framed as an act of courage and a leap in the dark, rather than the process of self-affirmation it has become now. While a number of LGBTIQ youth still suffer from anxiety and stress during this process today, their visibility in Maltese society is an indication of Malta’s new found openness on the matter, as well as community empowerment.”

Farrugia Bennett says that even professionals like teachers show greater interest in training opportunities on how to tackle diversity in classrooms.

“In the past issues related to the presence of LGBTIQ persons in these contexts were simply overlooked or ignored. Now people want to learn more. This is because LGBTIQ people are no longer rendered invisible. They are on the agenda and contributing to setting that agenda.”

One reason for this change is how political leadership set the example for greater social inclusion. “In my view, we can speak about the growing normalisation of LGBTIQ issues in the country, and that is thanks to the work of LGBTIQ civil society and political leadership on the part of government all the way to the Prime Minister’s office,” Agius says.

Despite the great leap forward, young people face harsh financial realities, and the chore of families’ and friends’ acceptance 

Statistical evidence confirms the way this change in political direction resulted in substantial change in social perceptions and attitudes. In October 2015, a Eurobarometer survey on discrimination mapped Malta’s metamorphosis in gay rights: in terms of trans persons’ acceptance, Malta was the fastest climber with an increase of 17% of the population who said they were ‘totally comfortable’ with trans persons, compared to 2012; while the percentage of the population saying it was ‘totally uncomfortable’ dropped by 20%.

“I attribute this to the awareness raised by the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act that was adopted six months prior: that parliamentary debate, the discussion that ensued, [and] an increased visibility of trans in the media and other public spaces,” said Agius, who had a leading role in drafting LGBTIQ laws in Malta.

‘People want to know more’

Another indicator of change has been the level attendance in Gay Pride celebrations. When the first Gay Pride marches were organised by MGRM in the early noughties, straight people from political parties and NGOs would outnumber openly gay people. This is no longer the case and LGBTIQ people are no longer invisible. Agius says the Pride celebrations grew from around 300 participants to over 2,500 in 2017.

Alex Caruana, a transgender person and longstanding social and political activist, confirms how legal changes not only made his own life easier, but brought about more supportive attitudes in society at large.

“As a child, I have always felt more comfortable in the company of boys and years later, during my teens, I found himself wearing men’s clothing,” Caruana said.

The Gender Identity bill approved in 2015 removed the need to undergo sex reassignment surgery before official documents – such as an ID card or passport – are changed to reflect the holder’s gender identity. “In the beginning, I found it very difficult to accept myself. I felt that it was a huge issue which at times was too much to bear.”

With the help of MGRM’s free Rainbow Support Service, Caruana found the courage he needed to accept his situation and work on it. The next biggest challenge was to tell his family – who were surprisingly all very supportive, especially his niece and nephew. “Gradually, I started opening up to more people and I always found very supportive attitudes,” Caruana said.

“People are now more likely to ask questions about my transition because they want to know more, they want to understand.”

Still, job interviews and opening up to new colleagues remains a challenge for Alex Caruana. “At the back of my mind I still have insecurities based on the fact that the interviewer might recognise me and deny me the job… in Malta everyone knows everyone and it is not easy to hide one’s past.”

Indeed, some problems persist despite the great leaps of the past few years. Malta might have stopped treating trans identities as medically abnormal, but Caruana says it is still the practice of endocrinologists to ask for psychiatric reports before prescribing Hormone Replacement Therapy to patients.

“I hope that this won’t be the procedure at the Gender Clinic as this goes against Maltese laws and against the principle of self-determination. Changing the attitude of professionals working with trans people is an important issue,” Caruana said.

Plans are currently underway to introduce free gender reassignment treatment and to set up a gender clinic to offer a focal point to transgender, intersex and queer persons. Despite the great leap forward, Caruana still meets a lot of young people facing harsh realities, both financially – given that, up to now, all services are against payment – and socially, as one must face problems involving families’ and friends’ acceptance.

“For me, education is the key to ensure that these legal changes are safeguarded in the future… regardless of whoever is in government.”