30 years ago: Pjazza Tlieta, homosexuality and I | Joseph Carmel Chetcuti

Lawyers in Malta are as ‘respectable’ as they are loud, and, as respectable people go, there wasn’t a single homosexual lawyer with the courage to come out publicly. Indeed, not even a professional homosexual man or woman

Joseph Carmel Chetcuti with Guze Chetcuti and Mario Azzopardi
Joseph Carmel Chetcuti with Guze Chetcuti and Mario Azzopardi

A day in the second week of February 1994.  Possibly a Thursday or a Friday. Ġużè Chetcuti, my uncle, and I are enjoying a hot drink at his flat in Għar il-Lenbi Street, Sliema. Occasionally, the background noise of the television intrudes into our conversation but not enough to interrupt it. That is until a news bulletin announces that the widely-followed programme Pjazza Tlieta was planning to debate homosexuality on 15 February 1994. The programme pledged to stage a serious debate on homosexuality — apparently, the first of its kind in Malta.

I had long disclosed my homosexuality and activism to my uncle. He also knew the reason behind my 1994 visit to Malta... to undertake preliminary research into homosexuality on the island.

By then, I had disclosed my sexuality and my activism to many others. Among them, my uncle’s close friend, the award-winning poet, theatre director, and educator Mario Azzopardi. After the news bulletin, my uncle proffered some advice, “You can forget about ever working in Malta if you take part in the programme.”  While working in Malta was the furthest thing from my mind, I needed no convincing that activism often comes in the way of writing about the past, a task that must always be discharged with logic and evidence in mind.

Someone — possibly Mario — must have alerted Lou Bondì, the presenter of Pjazza Tlieta, that I was visiting the island and a few days before it was scheduled to air, I received a telephone call from Lou. He asked me to join a panel of ‘experts’ that included a priest and a psychologist. The offer was tantalising, but one that I declined. I thought little of that call until a couple of hours before the programme was set to go on air.

On the day of the programme, Azzopardi must have spent hours trying to track me down. He finally located me at the Student Travel Service, then situated along St Paul’s Street, Valletta, where I was visiting a family friend; and only a couple of hours before the scheduled start of the programme.  My decision to pass over the invitation floored him.

“Ġuż”, as he was in the habit of calling me, “You have to understand the impact of a professional man publicly coming out in Malta?  You must not miss out on this opportunity.”  Incredibly, no professional Maltese homosexual had ever come out in the media. So, I decided to switch to campaign mode.

I telephoned Lou to let him know that I had changed my mind, and I was willing to join the panel. It was too late. Lou had already drafted Charles, another homosexual, onto the panel.  He invited me to join the audience, an offer I refused. I explained that, if I were to participate in the programme, it would be inappropriate for a homosexual to play a subordinate role to that of the panel of ‘experts’. Lou understood where I was coming from, and he decided to talk to Charles who was happy to switch roles.

With Pjazza Tlieta some two hours away, I hurriedly left Valletta for my guest house in Sliema to shower and make myself look ‘respectable’, as lawyers in Malta must do! And to gather my thoughts.

I knew next to nothing about Pjazza Tlieta, possibly the most popular programme on Maltese television.  I never imagined it would turn out to be a significant moment in Malta’s emerging gay and lesbian history.  Mind you, some 25 years after the Stonewall Riots!

By 1994, I had already clocked up some 22 years of activism in Australia’s gay movement. I joined CAMP, Australia’s first political homosexual organisation, in 1972.  In 1973, I became a founding member of the Catholic subgroup of CAMP.

I was a regular at demonstrations. I protested outside Darlinghurst’s Sacred Heart Church, my former parish church, until a strong-minded priest and his parishioners moved us off the steps of the church. I protested outside Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral following the sacking of Mike Clohesy from a Marist Brothers-run school in Eastwood. In 1978, I joined Sydney’s first gay Mardi Gras and the unauthorised procession that followed it when police arrested 53 demonstrators.

We were a politically incorrect lot. Outrageous. Disdainful of authority. Contemptuous of respectability. Scornful of (most) politicians, the legal profession, the clergy, and the medical profession and its allies. We demanded not begged for our rights. Here and now. Tomorrow was too late. We insisted on acceptance and equality not tolerance. We did not take no for an answer. In the streets of Sydney, we took to shouting, “Not the church, not the state, gays will decide their fate!”  Yet, we continued to have fun. I had hoped my appearance on Pjazza Tlieta would bring a little of that ‘outrageousness’ to the programme.

Regrettably not. I was calm, cool, and collected by Sydney standards. Even though I was restrained, some branded me a controversialist. A compliment any activist would be proud to receive.

Pjazza Tlieta went on air and Lou introduced me as a lawyer and a practicing homosexual. An intriguing label. Two decades of practicing homosexuality — nudge nudge, wink wink — and I have yet to graduate from the school of homosexuality! When will I ever be good at it, I wondered.

The programme covered a range of topics on homosexuality — among them, its ‘causes’.  No one ever seems to bother inquiring into the causes of heterosexuality. Dun Ang Seychell tried to balance the Church’s compassion with its teachings. A hard task. The psychologist did what psychologists do best – theorise. A self-styled representative of the Cana Movement, who also described herself as one of the Movement’s counsellors, turned out to be neither. So, upset was the Cana Movement by her misrepresentations that it issued a statement in which it disassociated itself from everything and anything this fake representative and counsellor said.

As Mario had predicted, the programme’s great contribution to the debate — if I may also say so myself — was the appearance of an unapologetic, out-and-proud homosexual Maltese-Australian lawyer who cared little about what others thought of him.

Lawyers in Malta are as ‘respectable’ as they are loud, and, as respectable people go, there wasn’t a single homosexual lawyer with the courage to come out publicly. Indeed, not even a professional homosexual man or woman.

Newspaper coverage of the programme was extensive. It went on and on. On 29 March 1994, L-Orizzont devoted two full pages to an interview with me.

The programme ends and some attendant approaches me with the news that around 10 men had gathered outside the Public Broadcasting Services in Gwardamanga. They were waiting for me to leave the studio. I expected the worst, but I decided to confront them. I was about to give them a piece of my mind but as it turned out, the men had been watching the programme nearby and decided it was time to meet and greet me. Pleasantries were exchanged. Then, Lou, two of his assistants, and I travelled to a Paceville restaurant for a pizza. The patrons, mostly families, spotted us. They were all supportive. We then moved on to Potters, a well-known gay bar in Paceville. The Maltese patrons, sitting at tables alongside one of the walls, were still dumb-struck. They never expected a debate like the one they had just witnessed. They greeted us with applause. The tourists standing at the bar must have wondered what was so remarkable about a gay Maltese lawyer coming out on national television. That night, almost every Maltese patron insisted on buying me a drink.

The next morning, I left the guest house to catch a bus to Valletta. Not far from the guest house, an elderly woman approached me. She spoke only one word, “prosit”. At Valletta’s bus terminus, an elderly man commended me for appearing on Pjazza Tlieta. From the looks I received that day, the programme must have been a hit for the television station. A restauranteur introduced me to his family, offered me a bottle of wine, and refused to accept any money from me. Of course, it was not all a bed of roses. It never is.

A gay acquaintance from Potters decided to keep his distance, fearing his association with me would out him. A relative asked me to stop visiting him at his place of employment. He also refused to continue to have coffee with me in any public place. The local Church was not about to let the matter rest. It issued a Lenten pastoral letter on “The truly Christian family”, its response to Pjazza Tlieta.

Who would have thought that, in 2023, a Jesuit pope — horror of horrors — would sanction the blessing of rings for same-sex couples? Sometimes, you have to wait decades before others understand that you are on the right side of history, but the wait is always worth it.

Joseph Carmel Chetcuti is a graduate of the Universities of NSW and Melbourne.  He holds an MA (Hons) in Political Science, an LLB Hons, and a Licentiate in Theology. He was admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor by the Supreme Court of Victoria and a Solicitor by the High Court of Australia. Chetcuti came out as a gay man in late 1972 and has been an activist for over five decades. He is believed to be the first Malta-born Maltese-Australian to have come out to the world at large.