One of the first websites which pops up on one’s web searcher when looking up “Gay rights in Malta” is the Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement, better known as MGRM. For the past 18 years MGRM has been behind the biggest LGBTQ+ achievements on the local scene, and although the NGO is still in its teen years, it has seen many battles, losses and achievements; from the launch of the first National Gay Helpline, the first Pride March in 2004 and in most recent years Marriage Equality. COLETTE FARRUGIA BENNETT is one of the first committee members of MGRM and till this day is working towards educating society on issues and challenges the LGBTQ+ community face, in hope to make life easier not just for the community but everyone else.
COLETTE FARRUGIA BENNETT
We were scared no one would show up: 2004 first Malta Pride
Today, Pride March is celebrated among thousands – people from the LGBTQ+ community, allies, politicians and activists all come together to march for the political reasons and party to celebrate the achievements of the community. Yet, it was not always this way. Colette reflects back to when the MGRM committee first started thinking about hosting a Pride March in Malta. “Back in 2001, Pride March was a big thing abroad, but we were not sure whether the Maltese society was ready for a public demonstration of homosexuality!” She explained that in 2002 and 2003, while there was no Pride March, MGRM organised Diversity Week, a number of events to bring people together and promote more awareness on the community. “We were a group of people with a lot of energy and very little experience but were good fun. We had also organised a ShOUT festival, which was an open air performance on stage with a variety of performances.”ADVERTISEMENT
In 2004, Colette and other committee members decided to plan the first Pride March. “We put up posters around Malta in the middle of the night! I remember on the day there were quite a few police, as they did not know what to expect on the day; both from our side and the public.” She explained that they initially wanted to make a statement; apart from carrying a rainbow flag made out of balloons they also marched with a banner which read Gay Rights equals Human Rights. Collette remembered feeling anxious and nervous on the day, not knowing what to expect from society.
“There were important people there who put their face out and stood by us, Minister Evarist Bartolo, Louise Galea, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Alternattiva Demokratika and Moviment Graffiti. There were more allies than the LGBT community itself and at times that was the running joke for the first few Pride marches. It was a frustrating feeling, although you would invite other LGBTQ+ people they would come up with an excuse, it was frustrating to always put your face out there and very few would follow us. Today the situation is very different and Pride is a much bigger event, yet at times it has become more commercial, which can at times be problematic when highlighting the issues we are fighting for.” She explained that the political message of Pride needs to remain present, that although Malta has advanced in laws and has become more accepting in the past few years, there are a number of countries where it is still a criminal offence to be homosexual and transgender.
“Our message for Pride would be to continue educating society and raising awareness; making life easier for those people facing a challenge with homophobia and transphobia. Secondly, we want to raise awareness of HIV transmissions and the importance of medical and psychological care for those people living with HIV. The reality of living with HIV is very different to what it was in the 90s but it is still important to understand the transmission of HIV and STI’s.”
MGRM has helped me become an activist who is always keen to learn more about people
Collette joined MGRM in 2001, when she was still a first year student at University reading a degree in social work. She remembers that before joining the NGO she recalls the birth of another organisation, Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Movement. “I remember sitting in front of the TV watching the press conference and thinking finally people are coming together to speak about the LGBTQ+ movement!” Although the group was short-lived, some members came together to create MGRM.
“I started volunteering and I became part of this organisation. Before MGRM, my life was very different. I was a passive teenager who wasn’t involved in activism. Joining MGRM and volunteering in the national Gay helpline, I became more active and keen on learning more about the situation both on a local scale and also on what is happening abroad. Nowadays this information is my bread and butter and the knowledge is ingrained in me now.” She explained that she feels privileged to have learnt so much about the community and to have had the chance to travel and learn more by attending numerous forums, trainings and conferences.
She explained that her own studies and research also looked into the LGBTQ+ community. Her first dissertation was about the visibility of bisexuals and lesbians in terms of how social workers view such populations and she explained that the eight-year gap between her first dissertation and her masters shows that there was an improvement in the attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in society. “Over the years, many people have come to the MGRM offices to seek out support. We have seen so many people sit in this counselling space, young people telling us that their parents have been abusive or unsupportive. Now, the situation has changed; not that we do not have these people seeking support, but now we have parents seeking advice on how to support their son or daughter who just came out. They come to us for support and a safe place to discuss what they are feeling.” She said that while society has changed drastically, there are still many other changes to be done. There is still homophobia and transphobia which is still being worked on. Yet there is hope for the future. “We have had information sessions with Education Minister Evarist Bartolo and trans young people, alongside numerous meetings with schools from different backgrounds to highlight more awareness on LGBTQ+ youths. We also had the opportunity to train the psycho-social teams of Catholic schools; we don’t expect people to become experts but to know that if someone out there needs more support outside of the schools, we are here.”
Pride is showing solidarity among one another regardless of our gender and sexual orientation
Colette explained that the meaning of Pride goes way back to 2004; although times have changed, they still march for the same reasons. “We wanted to be heard, counted and considered as equal citizens. As much as equality has improved, there are still inequalities and injustices taking place. Yes, we should celebrate, celebrate diversity, complement one another and come together regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Source: Malta Independent