Gay, lesbian and out as a university student: the effect of policy and legislative changes | Damian Spiteri

In Foucault’s terms, ‘sexuality’ is not an empirical reality manifest in what people do and the identities they adopt, but rather positioned alongside ‘health’, ‘sanity’, and ‘criminality’ and thereby producing governable subjects through the deployment of discourses

Dr Damian Spiteri, Department of Social, Policy and Social Work

This feature is being written during a period when several important policy and legislative changes are taking place, certainly far too many to squeeze into a few lines. The three points that are discussed here reflect those given prominence in recent studies published by the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (1).

The first point relates to discrimination in the context of sexuality. A key marker among the measures that are being introduced came about in 2014, when Malta became the first country in the world to include gender identity as grounds of protection. At that point, its Constitution was amended to include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for discrimination. The proposed Malta’s Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill (2019) and the Equality Bill (2019) lay down that any person who enables (or, in any way, makes it possible) for such discrimination to take place would also have committed such discrimination. This is aligned to Chapter IV of the Constitution of Malta which lays down that “every person in Malta is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, that is to say, the right, whatever his race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex… [provided that this] does not prejudice the rights and freedoms of others or the public interest”. The implications of this are that university students who are open about being gay or lesbian can do so with their mind relatively at rest. This contrasts with past times when people were more reluctant to disclose their sexuality for reasons of fear of retribution of some form.

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The second point relates to the positioning of gay or lesbian people in wider society, in terms of how the legislation made it possible for same-sex couples to have the same rights as heterosexual couples do. In April 2014, Parliament approved the Civil Unions Act which meant all rights under the Marriage Act applied to civil partners (with the sole exclusion of religious weddings). Foreign same-sex registered partners were recognized as civil partners, and adoptions by civil-union partners were also regulated the same way as those by spouses. The enactment of the Chapter 530 of the Laws of Malta, Civil Unions Act, 2014 grants civil unions the same rights, responsibilities, and obligations as marriage, including the right of joint adoption.

The third point relates to concern for non-Maltese European Union (EU) nationals in Malta. This point is particularly relevant in a university context where some of the students are not Maltese nationals and quite a number come from different parts of the EU. Malta’s Human Rights framework includes the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union which is directed at promoting respect for the upholding of human rights and complements the European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR). The message that is being brought across is that the EU recognises that persons who identify as LGBTIQ+ in the EU should have the freedom to live and publicly be themselves without living in fear. This implies that the concern for non-Maltese nationals from EU countries (and possibly also from elsewhere) may be justified, or, in some cases, can be seen readily as clearly justified.

As a further note, the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2022 acknowledges the need to make visible Malta’s welcome towards LGBTIQ tourists in international publicity campaigns and in domestic services catering for tourists; and it suggests the need to launch a campaign for LGBTIQ-welcoming businesses to externalise their inclusion through #Welcome commitments and stickers and to support initiatives that provide visibility to the LGBTIQ community’s contribution to Malta over the years.

The three points above can be expanded upon further, by referring to the works of Foucault. They all refer to transitions in thinking and acting, be they on a personal level, on a relationships level, or on a societal and EU level. In Foucault’s terms, ‘sexuality’ is not an empirical reality manifest in what people do and the identities they adopt, but rather positioned alongside ‘health’, ‘sanity’, and ‘criminality’ and thereby producing governable subjects through the deployment of discourses.

Putting this in other words, following Foucault, the transition from the use of such terms as sodomites to that of people with gay and lesbian identities is not simply a matter of using new labels to describe a reality, but rather, a matter that the changed labels point to a changed reality (2). Applying Foucault’s reasoning further, however, if the recent change in legislation reflects changes in underlying thinking, what was it that made all these changes possible? For instance, how did same-sex marriages ‘earn’ their place in legislation (and in wider society) in a Maltese context? After all same-sex marriage was something which, in previous years, was taboo.

Was the underlying change in outlook the result of the tireless and relentless effort of the NGOs in Malta; was it the work and public appearances of high profile politicians; was it the result of Malta’s accession to the EU which implied that Malta had to toe the line in relation to at least some of its policies; was it the widespread access and use of the internet and social media; was it a wider appreciation of the needs and rights of people identifying as gay or lesbian through schools and education channels; was it something that arose as a result of the liberalisation of the economy; or was it simply a marker of political expediency, and therefore a vote-catching exercise that somehow worked out for both the politicians and for people identifying as gay or lesbian (or people who otherwise formed part of the LGBTIQ+ community)?

None of these questions deserve a simple answer. Rather, each has the potential to promote much reflection and discussion.


1. National Commission for the Promotion of Equality. (n.d.). Research published by the NCPE

2. Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality. Volume I: The will to knowledge. Penguin Books