Misinformation is the real threat to equality | Rebecca Buttigieg

Malta has come a long way, in terms of civil rights; but REBECCA BUTTIGIEG – Parliamentary Secretary for Equality and Human Rights - admits that it is easier to change a law, than to change a country’s entire mentality 

Parliamentary Secretary for Equality and Human Rights Rebecca Buttigieg
Parliamentary Secretary for Equality and Human Rights Rebecca Buttigieg

This week, Malta kicked off its ‘Euro-Pride’ festivities: and it seems there is much to be proud about, when it comes to LGBTQ rights. From a situation where gays were not even legally acknowledged, 10 years ago: Malta now tops the charts, as Europe’s ‘most gay-friendly nation’. This raises the question: is there anything even left to fight for, on the LGBTQ front? 

As you said, we've achieved a lot over the past 10 years. And the changes we have seen, in that time, are the sort of changes that usually take place over generations. Our national legislation is now regarded as ‘pioneering’. Most of it has, in fact, been used as a blueprint by other European countries, to model their own legislation on.  

And I think that’s really important: especially when you see how our society is made up. The legislation has really pushed forward a change in mentality. To me, the greatest example of this is when there are certain LGBTIQ-phobic comments, online. Today, there will be backlash against those comments, by society in general. It won’t come just from activists, or the LGBTIQ community itself. In general, there is now widespread recognition, that those comments are just ‘wrong’.  

So the legislation has sparked a change when it comes to mentality: evidenced even by the fact that people actually feel safe ‘coming out’, and living their life without the fear of discrimination.  

This is not to say that we don’t have cases of discrimination; but the number of such cases is very small, compared to what we used to have before.  

So a lot has already been achieved. But there is still a lot that we have to focus on, over the next five years. In fact, we launched the third National Strategy on LGBTQ Equality on Idaho Day [May 17] this year. And two of our main concerns, are combating hate speech, and misinformation: because those are the biggest threats to equality that we are facing; not just in Malta, but across the globe.  

That is our next hurdle, so to speak, when it comes to equality... 

These hurdles you mention, however, are not always easy to define. ‘Hate speech’ is perhaps something we can all recognise; but ‘misinformation’ can take many forms. To adherents of the Catholic faith, for instance, homosexuality is in itself regarded as ‘sinful’. To other sects – such as River of Love – it is a ‘pathology’, that can be ‘cured’ through ‘gay conversion therapy’.  Is this the sort of misinformation you have in mind? 

As you said: misinformation takes many forms. Let me give one, very small example. In the run up to Euro Pride, we organized a ‘Dancing with Pride’ event last July; to bring everyone on board, and share the message of equality.  

Now: there was no ‘backlash’, or controversy, surrounding the event itself. It had been advertised for a long time beforehand; and on the day itself, the event was a success.  

But then, a few days later, someone posted an photo online, out of context [featuring drag artist Olivia Lilith, performing in front of children]; and suddenly, there was an uproar.  The misinformation that was perpetuated on social media, as a result, was incredible. Lies spread like wildfire, about what was actually happening during the event.... 

That is one example, of the type of misinformation we're talking about; and the effect it can have on other people. What we really need to do, is make sure is that people actually look at where they're getting their information from; that they can decipher ‘who is saying what’, exactly; and distinguish between what is an opinion, and what is fact.  

Because this is the real threat to equality. When you look at what’s happening around the world – in countries like Italy, just a few hundred kilometres away– you will see that ‘fiction’, and ‘conspiracy-theories’, are very often being accepted as ‘fact’.  

And this is dangerous, because we cannot take civil liberties for granted. So, coming back to the changes that have been achieved, in a matter of 10 years: I grew up in a different generation, where I used to hear politicians like [Former European Commissioner for Health] Tonio Borg saying, in Parliament, that with the Rent Reform (and I’m quoting, here; I will never use this language, myself): “we're going to regularize gays...”  

As I recall, Tonio Borg had also argued that the EU’s Freedom of Movement Directive should apply only to ‘families in the national interest’... 

Yes; and he was a government minister, at the time. Basically, we had a government which had incorrectly transcribed an EU directive, in order to excluded same sex-couples: on the basis that “it was not in Malta’s national interest.”  

So we've come a long way, since then. But this is also precisely why we need to remain vigilant, in the fight to protect civil liberties. They’re not ‘guaranteed’... 

At the same time, however: while Malta has made great progress, LGBTQ activists still point towards a few lingering problems. MGRM official Alex Caruana, for instance, argues that many of the hurdles you mention, could have been addressed by the Equality Bill. But it seems that – after facing a backlash from conservative forces (including Tonio Borg) – it has been placed on the backburner, since the last election. Can you confirm whether or not this is true? Is the Equality Bill on the Parliamentary agenda, right now? 

The Equality Bill is a manifesto measure... and as such, you can rest assured that it is on the agenda. We have, in fact, committed ourselves to re-tabling it, in Parliament... 

So it hasn’t been re-tabled, yet? 

No, not yet. Obviously, we are still working on it... and we also have to look at what’s happening on a European level. There were proposals issued by the Commission a few months ago, in fact. So we want to make sure that the legislation that we put forward, is in line with European standards. That’s what we are working on, right now. 

I take it, then, that the delay has nothing to do with the (unexpectedly fierce) resistance put up by the Opposition, the Church, and various other bulwarks of conservativism... 

The resistance that took place was, as you say, from ‘conservative forces’: not from within the Labour Party itself... 

I wasn’t suggesting that there was internal resistance (though there were reports of that, too). What I’m asking you is whether – as was the case with the abortion amendment – the government has had a ‘change of heart’, after the Equality Bill backlash. 

No, not at all.  When you look at the discussion that took place, in 2019, you’ll see that it went through the second reading, and actually got to committee stage, as well. But when you have legislation that is going to radically shake up the entire status quo... it’s bound to be controversial, in itself. So the problem was never that ‘we do not believe in it, anymore’. Far from it. We have committed ourselves in the last election to implementing the Equality Bill; and we are now working on implementing, it as soon as possible. 

Still on the subject of the conservative backlash: critics have also argued that the bill would have implications for both ‘freedom of speech’, and ‘freedom and worship’.  Tonio Borg (once again) wrote an article in The Times: warning that Catholic schools would no longer be able to impart the Church’s own teachings on homosexuality. At the risk of a Devil’s advocate question: doesn’t he have a small point, there? Could the Equality Bill infringe on other, equally fundamental human rights? 

The aims of the Equality Bill are, very simply, to gather all Malta’s anti-discrimination legislation under one umbrella. And on the subject of education: I really want to thank the schools, today. Because the reality is very different, from the one described by Tonio Borg.  

Today, we are seeing a lot of co-operation from schools; and a lot more LGBTQ inclusivity. When it comes to awareness-raising - and even when there are transgender children, who are transitioning - there are a lot of teachers, and school heads, who are accepting these realities: even in Church schools.  

So the situation is very, very different. At the end of the day, when we talk about ‘equality’, we're not talking about ‘oppressing one person, against the other’. We're just talking about ‘equal access to rights, for every one’.  

Earlier you said that LGBTQ people can now live ‘without fear of discrimination’. Is that really always the case, though? One problem that clearly remains, is the plight of transgender (or non-binary) people when applying for a job. As Caruana put it: “When they present themselves in a way which conforms to social norms but which defies their own identity, they face no problems. But when they present themselves as they really are, they face problems and often end up jobless.” What is currently being done, to address this issue? 

Once again, it all boils down to education. When we change laws, we're also changing mentalities. But obviously, it takes a lot less time to change a law, than to change an entire nation’s culture. So when it comes to LGBTIQ, specifically as a community, we need to start by addressing the intersectionality of LGBTQ identities, more.  

Because so far, we've just looked at the phenomenon from one angle. And LGBTQ persons can have more than just one identity. There are persons in the community who do not identify with the two gender binaries; so one of our measures - which is in our National Strategy, as well - is to enhance more awareness, when it comes to reporting discrimination.  

This is being done in conjunction with the NCP; and we are also working closely with both private and public sectors. We are currently having discussions with the Chamber of Commerce, for example, for them to set up an LGBTQ-specific Forum, which can serve as both a support-structure for the private sector, and also as an advisory body.  

Another thing that we are aiming to do, over the next five years, is to enhance the legal recognition of persons who do not identify with the two gender binaries. A few months ago, we had a discussion with non-binary persons, to find out what their experiences actually are; and to see what they themselves consider to be the major issues.  

Some of the things they told us – like, for instance, what they would like to see on their ID documents - might not even require any changes to the law, at all. It could simply be a policy that needs tweaking.  

But if we do not hear from the community itself, we might risk ending up with legislation that does not even apply to them, at all.  

One major complaint often levelled at Malta is that – while our domestic laws respect the principle of equality – this is not reflected in the way we treat refugees, and asylum seekers. Malta currently considers eight countries that criminalise homosexuality as ‘safe countries’ where failed asylum seekers can be sent back. Moreover, LGBTQ asylum seekers may even face persecution, within open and closed centres. How do you respond do that criticism? What measures are in place, to protect vulnerable asylum seekers – especially, non-binary – from being deported to unsafe destinations? 

The International Protection Agency has a protocol in place, that provides guidelines for professionals in the sector on how to treat LGBTQ persons who are claiming asylum: immediately upon their arrival, and before they even submit an application. This protocol is adhered to across the board, even in reception centres; and AWAS professionals are also present during the process. 

LGBTQ persons are also housed differently, depending on their needs. So there is an awareness raising campaign going on; there is a protocol in place, which also means that asylum seekers do not have to undertake certain demeaning practices, to prove that they are LGBTQ... as was standard practice in all European countries, until recently.  

However: what we need to emphasize on more, I think, is the plight of persons who come from a different culture; and who have never spoken to anyone about their identity, before. In such cases, it's very difficult for them to trust institutions, when their own backgrounds are so vastly different from ours. So that's where we need to invest more: in awareness training, to help those persons to be able to open up, before the asylum process begins.  

In fact, the SOGIGESC Unit [Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Unit], within the Human Rights Directorate, has issued a leaflet – published in the six primary languages used by migrants – containing information about Maltas LGBT IQ legislation; and the asylum procedures, in general. It's being distributed to anyone who is in the process of applying for asylum; or is currently residing at the reception centres... 

That all sound very reassuring: but what about the issue of deporting LGBTQ asylum seekers, to ‘safe countries’ which they may be actually be imprisoned, or worse?   

More needs to be done, certainly.  I am, however, informed that just this past week, there was a person coming from this list of safe countries, who was granted asylum... 

But the issue concerns failed applicants, not successful ones... 

I cannot go into all the details, because I’m not one of the professionals involved. But what I think we really need to do is - from our end, when it comes to equality and human rights - is work more on awareness training.  

Because that, I believe, is where the real barriers exist. When we are talking about persons who, as I said before, come from a different background; and have an inherent distrust in institutions... it's very difficult for them to open up... 

... and if I’m understanding you correctly: if they don’t open up, they won’t qualify for asylum in the first place. Right? 

Basically. So what we need to do, from our end, is ensure that those people feel safe enough to be able to disclose their identity; whilst also balancing that the very difficult act, of having a just and fair immigration system.  

And yes: a lot more work needs to be done, on that front...