Homophobia is not a ‘cultural trait’. It’s a choice | Eman Borg Mercieca

This year, Gozo held its first-ever Gay Pride March: hailed as a ‘historic milestone’ for the local gay community. But LGBTI+ Gozo president EMAN BORG MERCIECA argues that the event had another symbolic significance: that of challenging a different kind of stigma, against the island of Gozo itself

Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

Recently, you commented that: “The march shows that Gozo is not a bubble, and the idea that Gozo is conservative needs to stop; we are progressive with the same laws and realities as everyone else.” Nonetheless, Gozo’s first Gay Pride march took place in 2022: 18 years after Malta’s. And while the perception of a ‘culturally-conservative Gozo’ may indeed be a lazy stereotype: it is true that – perhaps because of double-insularity - Gozitans have traditionally resisted ‘progressive change’, in the past (divorce being a classic case in point). What are you really challenging then, with that statement?

I think that what we are challenging, here, is the perception that ‘Gozo is different from Malta’: in the sense that Gozo is somehow ‘more homophobic than Malta’; or even ‘exclusively homophobic’, while Malta is not…

If we had to compare Gozo with Malta at this level, however: the only real difference that emerges, is the amount of space and services dedicated to the gay community. Obviously, both spaces and services are much more limited in Gozo, than in Malta.  And this, I think, is what challenges Gozo’s gay community to be more open, and visible: the lack of spaces, and services.

And yes, this is due to ‘double-insularity’: because of course, in Gozo there is the unavoidable reality of being ‘an island within an island’.

But if you had to compare Gozo with other pockets of society – not just in Malta; but also at European level – you will find that there are situations, and experiences, that are very similar. In rural areas in Italy, for instance… or Greece; or anywhere else in Europe… you will find that the realities, on the ground, are not all that very much different from Gozo.

So this idea that Gozo is some kind of ‘special cocoon’; a ‘bastion of conservatism’; or that it is somehow ‘unique’: as though these attitudes exist ‘only in Gozo’, and nowhere else… this is what we’re challenging, ultimately.

And it works both ways. It’s not just that those perceptions of Gozitans are flawed; but it’s not even true that people are automatically going to be more ‘progressive’, just because ‘they’re Maltese’.

That’s nonsense. You will always find elements of resistance, in every country: even Malta, which is now at the top of the European  charts, when it comes to LGBTQ legislation. We see it all the time, in the news; and we saw it very clearly in 2019… when Parliament was debating the Equality Bill; and the Far Right movement was allowed to put forward homophobic comments, and suggestions, in a Parliamentary Committee session…

Now: to have said everything, the LGBTIQ movement was also invited to submit its own recommendations, in the same consultation exercise. But still: it was the Parliament of the Maltese Islands – not just Gozo – that permitted openly homophobic content to be discussed, during a parliamentary debate.   

That is the equivalent of ‘normalising’ hate speech against the gay community: and it’s not something you will see happening very often, in other ‘progressive’ European countries…

This brings me to a question I was going to ask anyway (and this time, it’s about all of Malta: not just Gozo). As you said yourself just a second ago: our country is now recognised ‘world-leader’, in advancing gay rights through legislation. But how much of that claim can actually be justified, in terms of tangible changes on the ground?

Well, this is why I mentioned that example of the 2019 parliamentary debate. What worries me is that – despite all the recent advancements – we are still being complacent about things like that.

In Malta, we celebrate that we are ‘Number One’ in LGBT legislation… which we ARE, in fact. And it is something that can very easily be quantified, in practice: because you can see the changes, from 2013 to 2022, physically written on a piece of paper.

But when it comes to the social reality: that’s a whole different ballgame. Partly because it is very, very difficult to quantify experiences, on an individual level.   When we launched our own research survey last March, for instance, we interviewed 69 Gozo-based, LGBTQ residents. And even in that small sample, the experiences were so vastly different, that it’s very difficult to extrapolate anything with any certainty.

But when our highest national institution – Parliament – complacently allows certain homophobic ideas to keep circulating… then eventually, it will trickle down to the rest of society….

Is it really happening, though? Reason I ask is that the traditional homophobia we used to associate with ‘conservative Malta (and Gozo)’ – was never really just about legislation, was it? With homosexuality itself decriminalised in the 1970s, all that remained was ‘social stigma’. How much of that would you say still exists? Are Maltese gay people still ‘holding back’, as it were, out of fear of social repercussions?

I believe it is still happening, myself. It’s not something I can ‘quantify’, or ‘prove’, by quoting statistics – because people’s individual experiences are always so different – but I do believe it is still an issue, for many people.

Even when you look at the Gozo Pride March itself. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very successful event: but the amount of Gozitans who were actually present, was substantially less than the amount of Maltese people who attended. So there is still some resistance – or let’s say, some kind of ‘doubt’ – that might be stopping some LGBTQ individuals, based in Gozo, from marching in public.

And that tells us something, I think.  It tells us that – in certain pockets, at least – the social stigma is still there; and in some cases, it is still quite strong.

At the same time, however, we are extremely grateful that there were so many faces from Malta; that there was so much of an effort, to collectively ensure that Gozo’s first Pride March would be a success.

But we do hope that next year, in 2023, we will see more Gozo-based residents, taking part in such ‘visible’ events. Because when it comes to events which are, let’s say, ‘not promoted as much’ – I don’t want to say ‘secret’, or ‘underground’, because it would not be the right word: I’m talking more about individuals going out together, on a friendly basis, in a social context… on those occasions, such people DO reach out to one another. They DO feel open and comfortable, in a ‘safe’ environment without the presence of the media…

On the subject of media: until recently, the flow of public information had always been ‘controlled’ – for better or worse – by an organised structure. Today, however, there is social media, which gives us a more ‘undiluted’ view of people’s actual opinions… and very often, the result is homophobia of the most acute variety imaginable. How do you account for that, yourself? Are we to understand that, beneath this façade of ‘LGBTQ-friendliness’… nothing has really changed at all, except on paper?

I wouldn’t go that far. ‘Except on paper’ would be an exaggeration: because I do genuinely believe that there have been many social changes, over the last 10 or 15 years.

And I can even confirm this myself. Perhaps the biggest manifestation of this change happened last year: when LGBTi+ Gozo opened its office, ‘Qawsalla Hub’… and the Bishop of Gozo was present for the occasion.

That, to me, was one of the strongest statements that the head of the Church in Gozo could ever have made. In silence, that symbolic gesture started the process of ‘healing’, for a lot of people. I would really like to clarify that.

When it comes to social media comments, however: on one level… yes, it is a concern, quite frankly. Our own organisation even had to report a certain recent comment to the police. I wouldn’t even call it a ‘homophobic’ comment, mind you: it was more of an attack on humanity in general…

OK, I’m curious now. What did the comment say?

Basically: ‘We should bomb you all. You should all die’…

I see. Go on…

I won’t comment any further about this particular case, as there is now a police investigation going on: the person has already been questioned, and the legal process itself is under way.

I have to add, however, that the police took our report very seriously indeed: to the extent that even I was surprised. Once again, it illustrates what I meant earlier, with ‘Gozo having the same laws and realities as Malta’. This was a case of hate-speech against Gozo-based LGBTQ individuals… filed in Gozo, and handled by Gozitan police… and it was dealt with very professionally, and with all the urgency you would expect. And I feel it is something that deserves to be acknowledged.

But to return to the original question: when it comes to social media commentary, in general… I think the one thing which is really important, is that we challenge hate with love. For yes: those comments are real… they’re coming from real people - including young people, sometimes - but they’re also coming mainly from ‘fake accounts’. Ninety percent of such comments are, in fact, posted under fake profiles.

And again, this tells us something. It tells us that these people, whoever they are, evidently understand that what they are doing is essentially ‘not right’; they are ‘ashamed’ enough, of their own opinions, to hide behind a fake profile; and that – in some cases, anyway - they are basically just ‘having fun’ while hidden behind a computer screen.

I would be very curious to see, however, whether or not those individuals would have the courage, and audacity, to come out and actually say those comments directly, on a one-to-one, face-to-face basis.

How would you respond, if someone takes you up on that?

First of all, I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with those people, and discuss matters individually. Partly, just to try and understand where they’re coming from… but partly, also to say, ‘Listen: this is not right; this is wrong; and here is why. Now, let’s go through the process for you to start your own journey, to be able to understand.’

Because it’s a journey I myself have had to go through, too. Just as nobody is ever born ‘homophobic’; nobody is ever born with a full understanding of human sexuality, either. And I’m no exception: I was, in fact, very shielded from such things, as a child. I had never even heard the word ‘gay’, before I was around 13 or 14… and ‘lesbian’, much much later.

And I only really understood what it meant to be ‘trans’, when I was already co-ordinator of LGBTi+ Gozo. The same with the concept of ‘non-binary’. I only had a vague idea of what it meant, until one of my fellow co-ordinators came out as ‘non-binary’ some time ago.

Like everyone else, I had to learn all these things on my own. So I too, am a subject of the same lack of knowledge; and as such, I can fully understand how other people – especially if they come from earlier generations, which had even less access to knowledge, than we do – would find it even harder to understand such things, than me.

And here, the media has a part to play, as well. Take someone of my parents’, or grandparents’ generation, for instance. How on earth can we expect them to ‘understand’ such complex matters… when the only ‘explanation’ they ever get, is from snippets of television discussion programmes, here and there, lasting around 10 minutes each?

Nowadays, however – in 2022 – we ARE finding spaces, to discuss these issues openly. Nowadays, we DO have sources of information, accessible to everyone, which people can use to inform themselves.

So if people continue to express that sort of homophobic hatred, today… it is no longer just a question of ‘lack of knowledge’, as it might have been in the past. Nowadays, it’s a choice.