Back
Register for SMS Alerts
or enter your details manually below...
First Name:
Last Name:
Email:
Password:
Hometown:
Birthday:
Sorry, we couldn't find that email.
Existing users
Email
Password
Sorry, we couldn't find those details.
Enter Email
Sorry, we couldn't find that email.

Malta: From a bastion of Catholicism to leader in gay rights

Malta has always been viewed as a staunchly Roman Catholic island, but its conservatism is being replaced with a progressive cape. In a span of a few years Malta introduced divorce and made huge strides forward in civil rights and liberties. MaltaToday takes a look at the moments that marked Malta’s civil rights revolution

miriam
Miriam Dalli
22 July 2017, 7:30am
Silvan Agius, director human rights and integration directorate at the Ministry for Equality, describes the equal treatment as an important milestone for the gay community in Malta
Silvan Agius, director human rights and integration directorate at the Ministry for Equality, describes the equal treatment as an important milestone for the gay community in Malta
29 January 1973: Parliament approves decriminalisation of homosexuality, with 28 votes in favour and 26 against

Decriminalisation of homosexuality came into force in early 1973, when parliament voted in favour of proposed changes to the Criminal Code, repealing a section of the Code which made “unnatural carnal connection, without the circumstance of violence” a criminal act. Under Labour Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, sodomy was no longer illegal.

The amendments also include the equalisation of the age of consent at 18 for all sexual orientations.

But in his book ‘Queer Mediterranean Memories’, author Joseph Carmel Chetcuti writes that then justice minister Anton Buttigieg reassured the Nationalist opposition that homosexual acts between consenting adults in public would not be decriminalised. 

A recollection of the parliamentary debate at the time shows MPs, of the likes of Guido de Marco, George Hyzler and Eddie Fenech Adami, claiming that homosexuality was something that belonged to Northern Europe, mixing transvestites with prostitutes and warning of threats to the heterosexual family.

Despite having been the one to table the amendments in parliament, Buttigieg himself was no liberal flag bearer. Chetcuti writes that Buttigieg depicted homosexual persons “as predators and accused us of flaunting our sexuality”.

A 2004 legal notice banned discrimination against gays at the place of work
A 2004 legal notice banned discrimination against gays at the place of work
2004: Following pressure by the European Union, the PN government introduces sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination at the place of work

It took months of pressure to convince the Nationalist government to introduce sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination at the place of work. Despite being a requirement by Malta during its accession to the European Union, the government stood its ground and refused to add the words “sexual orientation” insisting that there was no such need.

Lawrence Gonzi, then social policy minister, argued that existing legislation was enough to ban discrimination against gays at the place of work. 

“The issue that has been discussed is whether we need to mention these areas specifically. The opinion of legal experts given to us here in Malta is that we do not need to be specific; the clause mentions some areas as examples but it does not exclude all the other areas,” Gonzi had argued.

But during a visit to Malta, the then head of the European Commission Employment and Social Affairs Directorate General, Odile Quintin, insisted that all grounds covered by the directive must be “spelt out specifically in Maltese law”.

Malta’s position was forcing the European Commission’s hand in initiating proceedings against the country. Then, in 2004, Gonzi issued a sneaky legal notice, LN 297, which introduced sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination at the workplace.

Silvan Agius, director human rights and integration directorate at the Ministry for Equality, describes the equal treatment as an important milestone for the gay community in Malta.

“While this legal notice may seem very small next to other more important law, it was one of the biggest wins of MGRM in the early years,” he says.

The bill also amended the Press Act provisions on the publication of hate speech
The bill also amended the Press Act provisions on the publication of hate speech
2012: Protection against hate crime and hate speech introduced on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity

It’s 13 January, 2012, the time reads 7.30pm and a young lesbian couple is sitting on a bench at the Hamrun square. One of the girls is just 16 years old. They are with two other friends. 

Two young brothers, 17 and 19, stand on the balcony and start hurling insults. The girls answer back. Suddenly, the boys are in the square, attacking the girl, punching her and dragging her by the hair. The reason? Her sexual orientation. 

The teenager suffered a fractured nose, grazes to her face and bruises on her breasts. Her girlfriend was pushed to the group, causing a bruise to her head and scratches on her wrists.

The incident sent shockwaves through society, prompting Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to announce a review of hate crimes. The amendments introduced offences in relation to gender, as well as gender identity and sexual orientation, and to increase the punishment meted out for such offences.

The bill also amended the Press Act provisions on the publication of hate speech.

Joanne Cassar's legal battle paves the way for trangenders' right to marry
Joanne Cassar's legal battle paves the way for trangenders' right to marry
2013: Joanne Cassar wins right to marry

After a nine-year legal battle, with a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights, transgender Joanne Cassar is granted the right to marry. It was the first decision, in the civil liberties camp, taken by the Labour Party in its first few weeks in government in 2013. 

The government dropped its objection to Cassar’s claim to the right to marry and amended the Civil Code to reflect the recognition of transgender persons as individuals of the acquired sex with full rights, including the right to marry.

A year later, thanks to Cassar’s battle, a 45-year-old hairdresser married her partner of 13 years in a landmark moment that witnessed Malta’s first transgender wedding.

Cassar herself got married in 2015.

Celebrating in Valletta on the night civil unions were made law in Malta
Celebrating in Valletta on the night civil unions were made law in Malta
14-04-2014: A historic moment for social justice and equality: the introduction of civil unions 

The giant leap forward, considered momentous, was the introduction of civil unions at par with marriage, which also gave gay couples the right to adopt. 

With a vote that came nearly three years after Malta legalised divorce, the world stared at Malta with foreign news agencies pointing out that the island was “staunchly Catholic”.

On 14 April, 2014, same-sex unions and gay adoption were legalised in a 37-0 vote, when the opposition abstained due to reservations it had on gay adoptions.

Crowds flocked to St George’s Square to celebrate the dawn of a new beginning for gay couples who wanted their love to be recognised and treated equally. 

But on that night, Malta also became the first European state to have gender identity in its constitution.

Through a private member’s bill, PN MP Claudette Buttigieg had called for sexual orientation to be listed as protected ground. Then Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli, today Equality Minister, went on to propose that gender identity should also be named in the Constitution.

2015: Malta passes Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act

A Gender Identity Bill was first proposed by the Malta Gay Rights Movement in 2010 but only came into being in 2015. The law essentially allows gender recognition without invasive and humiliating procedures. 

The law allows transgender people to change their official documentation to match the gender with which they identify. Once a change is effected to the birth certificate, all other documentation, including ID Cards, passports, driving licences and academic certificates will change accordingly.  

The law also makes it possible for ‘X’ to be an option, alongside ‘male’ and ‘female’ on passports and identity cards.

Transgender people no longer need to go through gender reassignment surgery to change their birth certificate. Instead, a request may be submitted to the Director of Public Registry through a notarial deed, including a clear and unequivocal declaration by the applicant that one’s gender identity does not correspond to the assigned sex in the act of birth. 

The act provides parents with the possibility to postpone the entry of a gender marker on their children’s birth certificate. Significantly, it invests people with the right to choose the gender with which they identify, removing the decision from the medical profession. 

Ben was the first baby to be adopted by a same-sex couple
Ben was the first baby to be adopted by a same-sex couple
2016: Malta’s first child adopted by a gay couple

Toddler Ben has gone down in history as the first baby to be adopted by a same-sex couple. In July 2016, the Family Court green-lit the adoption of baby Ben by two men and the news was posted on social media by one of his parents, Kris Grima.

In a touching Facebook post, Grima had written: “Today we may formally introduce our beautiful son; because we are forever grateful for the moment and to be living out our dream as parents and Ben’s dream of having a loving family.”

December 2016: Malta outlaws gay conversion therapy

With the passing of the Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Bill, Malta became the first country in Europe to ban gay conversion.

The law makes conversion practices illegal and categorises them as a deceptive and harmful act. 

Under the Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Bill, conversion practices, and their advertising, will be met with fines and potentially a prison sentence. 

The changes to the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act lower the age at which persons may request a change in gender. The amendments allow anyone who is 16 years or older to have their gender changed without needing to file an application in Court and will not require parental approval.

April 2017 : Cohabitation rights for all couples introduced

In April 2017, parliament approved the long-overdue Cohabitation Act, aimed at protecting the most vulnerable from abuse. 

The new law caters for three types of arrangements. The first, ‘de facto cohabitation’, will automatically come into force when two individuals in a relationship are living together. This arrangement offers couples limited rights including the recognition of a partner as one’s next of kin, the right to take decisions of a medical nature. Couples will also have the right not to testify against each other in court under this arrangement. 

The second type of arrangement will see couples entering into a contract of their own choosing, signed by a notary, that defines the legal terms of their relationship; the third arrangement can be entered into unilaterally, and is intended for people who are living in a state of abuse, in order for their relationship to be recognised by the state.

Malta votes in favour of gay marriage
Malta votes in favour of gay marriage
July 2017: Malta becomes 24th country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage

Finally, last Wednesday, the Maltese parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage with 66 votes in favour, and one against. 

It was a debate that saw conservatives criticising the use of gender-neutral terms, with some going at length to state that this could spell the end of “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day”.

“I think this is an historic vote. It shows that our democracy and our society are maturing ... It is a society where we can all say we are equal,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said, just after the vote was taken and before he joined the jubilant crowds gathered outside Auberge de Castille.

PN MP Edwin Vassallo was the only member of parliament to vote against the Bill, despite not being the only opposition MP to object to the Bill. The rest of the PN MPs toed the party line – whilst Mario Galea, Claudio Grech and Carm Mifsud Bonnici were not present for the vote.

miriam
Miriam Dalli joined MaltaToday.com.mt in 2010 and was assistant editor fr...