Edwin Vassallo may be a ‘dinosaur’… but he is not quite ‘extinct’ yet

Perhaps we should thank the likes of Edwin Vassallo for so graphically reminding us that the ‘struggle for equality’ is actually very far from over in this country

Unlike Edwin Vassallo – Tonio Borg wasn’t exactly ‘chastised’ by his own party for making such blatantly homophobic remarks, at the time. Still less did his party leader ‘dissociate himself’ from those sentiments
Unlike Edwin Vassallo – Tonio Borg wasn’t exactly ‘chastised’ by his own party for making such blatantly homophobic remarks, at the time. Still less did his party leader ‘dissociate himself’ from those sentiments

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Hardly surprising that the makers of ‘Jurassic World III’ – a film about genetically-engineered dinosaurs, wreaking havoc and destruction in the 21st century – would choose precisely Malta as a movie location.

If nothing else, the special effects department alone is probably saving itself a small fortune on CGI. No need for any blue-screen, or ‘Adobe After Effects’, or expensive digital enhancements at post-production stage; no, all they have to is set up a camera inside the House of Parliament, as it debates the Equality Bill; and… um… that’s it, really.

Short of actually inventing a Time Machine, and setting the dial for 65 million years ago… it’s the closest you’ll ever get to a living, breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Then again, however, I fear that it is altogether too easy to dismiss people like Edwin Vassallo – whose latest outburst equates Europe’s current drive towards equality with some kind of ‘totalitarian Marxist plot’ – as ‘dinosaurs’.

Too easy… and also just a little unfair on the poor creatures themselves. Let me put it this way: I would have thought it was bad enough they all got wiped off the face of the planet by an asteroid impact, all that time ago… but to also get themselves compared to Edwin Vassallo, 65 million years later?

I mean, come on: that’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?

And besides: the comparison doesn’t really hold, anyway. Real dinosaurs – e.g., Stegosaurus, Triceratops, T. Rex, T. Borg, etc. – all had a good excuse for having such antediluvian views on social morals. They really were ‘antediluvian’, you know: in the sense that their existence actually predated the Biblical flood by several aeons, at least.

What’s Edwin Vassallo’s excuse, I wonder? He’s a product of the late 20th century: so like the rest of us, he has also witnessed all the extraordinary social and political transformations that have taken place here over the past 20 or so years (indeed, his own party was itself – albeit sometimes very reluctantly – part of that same transformational force).

Yet there he still is: clinging tenaciously to a worldview that has been debunked, discredited, and unceremoniously dumped on the garbage heap of European history, for almost as long as the dinosaurs themselves have been extinct...

Ah… but that, too, is part of the problem with the ‘dinosaur’ comparison. ‘Dumped on the garbage heap of history’, did I say? Perhaps… in the rest of Europe. Here in Malta, however, homophobia and misogyny were ‘dumped’ from our political lexicon a lot more recently than that – quite literally, in the last decade alone – and even then: for the most part, only on paper.

To put that another way: our laws and procedures may indeed have all been upgraded to remove any discrimination on grounds of ‘race, creed, gender, sexual orientation’, and all the rest of it; but whether the attitudes themselves were ever fully exorcised from the local political mindset… that’s a very different proposition.

Quite frankly, it doesn’t really look that way at all. For let’s be honest: Edwin Vassallo is hardly the only Maltese politician who still argues in favour of laws which would actively discriminate against gay or transgender people; or deny IVF therapy to infertile couples; or even make it illegal to access emergency contraception in this country.

Former Justice Minister (and European Health Commissioner, if you please) Tonio Borg has also taken to the Sunday papers, to put across more or less identical arguments against the Equality Bill.

Recently, he even argued that Church schools should be free to discriminate against non-Catholic applicants for teaching positions, even on subjects other than Religion… on the grounds that “the Catholic ethos permeates the entire curriculum, including such subjects as science, ethics and philosophy.” (Because, as we all know, the fundamental principles of science work one way for Catholics, and another way for everyone else…)

But let me not get bogged down in the pointless exercise of actually answering these, and other nonsensical claims.

The bottom line is that, even if we have now expunged our legal framework of all the outdated (and sometimes shockingly discriminatory) terminology it was riddled with until quite recently… and even if (to be fair) most Maltese politicians have, by now, evolved just a little bit beyond the Jurassic Era – at least, in the sense that no longer regard rampant homophobia as a badge to be worn with (ahem) ‘pride’ – the reality is that those antiquated attitudes are still very much alive and kicking today: not just among certain politicians, but – much more importantly – among sizeable swathes of the wider population, too.

And this should hardly surprise us, because… well, it was only a few short years ago that those same attitudes were not just widely accepted and embraced, across the board; but they actually formed the fossilized backbone of pretty much all Malta’s legislation concerning social policy.

For instance: in 2009 – that’s just 11 years ago, folks – the European Commission opened infringement procedures against the Maltese government, specifically for refusing to include a reference to ‘same-sex couples’ when transposing the European Free Movement Directive into national law.

Once again it was Tonio Borg who objected to the clause; and he even argued, in Parliament at the time, that “only relationships that were in Malta’s national interest should be recognised.”

That same year, Borg went on to accuse Joseph Muscat of trying to ‘regularise gays [!]’… because the former Opposition leader had proposed including same-sex couples in the wording of the rent-law reform bill.

“We will only protect those who deserve protection,” Borg added; and… well, there you have it, I suppose, straight from the dinosaur’s mouth. Only heterosexual couples were ‘in the national interest’, back in 2009; and as for gay couples… they didn’t ‘deserve protection’ (even though, here as elsewhere, same-sex couples are statistically far likelier to be victims of prejudice, discrimination, and even violent assault, than their heterosexual counterparts.)

But if I raise these issues again now – just over a decade later – it’s not so much because they remain ‘relevant’ to the current scenario: but because – unlike Edwin Vassallo – Tonio Borg wasn’t exactly ‘chastised’ by his own party for making such blatantly homophobic remarks, at the time. Still less did his party leader ‘dissociate himself’ from those sentiments … as Bernard Grech has (commendably) done today.

No, no: make no mistake. Tonio Borg was not regarded as a ‘dinosaur’ for making those claims, back in 2009. Far from it: he was, in fact, merely expressing the Nationalist Party’s actual ethos on the subject… an ethos that had been deeply ingrained into the PN mindset – and, subsequently, into Maltese legislation – throughout Eddie Fenech Adami’s 25-year stint as Prime Minister (and, I need hardly add, even more so before).

But in case you’re wondering: this particular brand of the ‘Religious Right’ – for want of a better term – was not even limited just to the PN. Though the Labour Party has certainly done a much better job of reinventing itself, in line with current trends…. I still vaguely remember Labour MPs like Adrian Vassallo (which reminds me: would it be too much to ask these people to change their surname, before opening their mouths in public? It’s getting kind of embarrassing, you know…) arguing that ‘gay marriage’ is “one of the problems which erode our social and family values”… and even associating homosexuality with ‘child abuse’….

And OK, I’ll admit that it does seem a long time ago now (even if it was only in 2006): but then again, the only real difference between the two Vassallos in question – apart from the fact that one was Labour, and the other Nationalist – is that… well, Adrian resigned from the Labour Party in 2012 (and is therefore, politically speaking, very much ‘extinct’), while Edwin not only still occupies a Parliamentary seat, representing the Nationalist Party, to this day: but he has also just been reconfirmed by the PN as a candidate for the next election.

Whether he will get elected or not, of course, is another question entirely: but the answer still depends on how widely his prejudices remain shared – in spite of all the recent legislative changes – among today’s broader electorate.

And this, in turn, is not exactly an easy statistic to calculate… partly because (as evidenced, time and again, in local surveys about racism) people who hold down bigoted, prejudiced views tend overwhelmingly to lie about their own opinions in surveys… so the actual range of the spectrum never quite shows up on the radar.

Another reason, however, is that… much as I hate to have to admit it… it is actually quite unrealistic, you know, to expect a population that was almost 100% homophobic until so very recently, to suddenly metamorphose into a population that is almost 100% tolerant of minorities… all in the space of just a few, short years.

What this also implies is that, all those achievements I mentioned earlier in the sphere of equality – the cohabitation bill, the transposition of European directives, the marriage equality act, the introduction of divorce, IVF, sex education in schools… you name it – they’re all still in danger of conceivably being overturned, through a simple change in government, in a not-so-distant future.

So rather than just dismiss the likes of Edwin Vassallo as a bunch of ossified, antiquated ‘dinosaurs’ … perhaps we should really be thanking them, for so graphically reminding us that the ‘struggle for equality’ is actually very far from over in this country.

And that’s because – as long as these dinosaurs refuse to actually go extinct, once and for all – there is always the danger that (just like ‘Jurassic World III’) they will one day come back with a vengeance; and once again wreak untold havoc and destruction, on an unsuspecting 21st century…