Indifferent strokes | Gabi Calleja

As chairman of the Malta Gay Rights Movement, Gabi Calleja this week presented a report to Parliament on harassment of and discrimination against gays in Malta. Parliament’s reaction? Indifferent...

“As a gay person is this country, about the first thing you learn is how to grin and bear it,” Gabi tells me as we settle down for this interview. “Yes, our members do sometimes turn to us when faced with discrimination or harassment. But most gay people just put up with it in silence, so the cases we know about represent only the tip of the iceberg...”

I have just asked her whether discrimination against gays is a significant problem in the MGRM’s direct experience. She replies by inviting me to consider the reactions of the Social Affairs Committee to a report of harassment she herself presented in parliament this week.

The word Gabi Calleja uses to describe the committee’s reaction is: “confusing”.

“I was asked point blank by [Nationalist MP] Michael Gonzi – who had came late, and missed the entire presentation – if I thought I was being ‘too pessimistic’. He said that from his own experience as a GP, Maltese society not as homophobic as our survey results seemed to indicate. I find this a little hard to understand. What was he expecting me to do? Change the survey results, so that they match his own impressions?”

And just to confuse matters further, the reaction of SAC chairman Edwin Vassallo was almost to diametrically opposed to that of his own parliamentary colleague. Faced with statistics to the effect that 34% of Maltese gays claimed to have experienced harassment – sometimes accompanied by serious violence – over a period of two years, the former parliamentary secretary for the self-employed replied that this was ‘perfectly normal’.

“He told me that he was not alarmed by the figures, as they were no higher than the general figures for other categories: single women, the elderly, etc,” Gabi recalls. “I have to say, this is very strange. So one government MP thought I was exaggerating, and the other told me our findings were ‘not alarming’. What am I supposed to make of that?”

For all this, it was Edwin Vassallo’s other observation that made it to the headlines the following day. Subverting a famous comment by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when decriminalising homosexuality in 1968, Vassallo observed that “sometimes, what happens in people’s bedrooms is the government’s business.”

Gabi acknowledges that it was an unusual thing to say, but at the same time does not attach too much weight to it herself.

“It’s not the first time he’s used that expression. I’ve heard him say it before. But to be fair to him I think his point was misrepresented. What I think he meant was that the government occasionally has to foot the bill for people’s decisions and behaviour, in terms of healthcare services, social welfare benefits, etc.”

The MGRM chairman is far more concerned with what she describes as Edwin Vassallo’s ‘false argument’ regarding the comparability of gay harassment statistics with those of domestic violence, among other issues.

“Different segments of society cannot be compared on a like-with-like basis,” she asserts. “There are important distinctions, one of them being that our statistics are based only on those respondents who have already come out openly as gays, and are therefore more vulnerable to harassment. We estimate that around 23% of gays in Malta are not out, and this may partly be due to fears of harassment. If more gay people were to go public about their sexuality, logically the implication would be that harassment cases would increase...”

Elsewhere, Gabi points towards indirect statistical evidence to suggest how widespread homophobic attitudes actually are in Malta. “Looking at our own members, you will immediately see an over-representation of people in tertiary education.”

Gabi argues that this in turn implies discrimination at the place of work: “Basically, the greater the employment opportunities, the safer people feel to come out. People with lower job opportunity prospects are likely to be more wary of going public. This might explain why so few people in that category admit to being gay...”

Besides, there are also the inevitable survey limitations to be taken into account.

“Our question was based on harassment experienced over two years. If you extend that to ‘harassment throughout their lives’, the statistic would probably be much higher.”

Nor was Edwin Vassallo’s bedroom blunder the only oddity to come out of the same committee hearing. Beppe Fenech Adami, parliamentary assistant to the Justice Ministry, also raised eyebrows with his ill-advised quip that he and his wife had once ‘exchanged roles’, but without any success.

Gabi here allows herself a smile. “Exchanged roles? What did he do, exactly? He couldn’t have breastfed, so presumably he did the dishes, or changed the babies’ nappies... To be honest his comment says a lot more about our national gender stereotypes and gender inequality, than it does it about gay issues...”

But joking apart, Gabi Calleja admits to being dispirited by the experience.

“At the end of the day, what I find discouraging is the lack of general recognition of our concerns. I attended this hearing to present our survey results, and also to submit our recommendations for the committee’s consideration. But the mentality is clearly still resistant to a more inclusive perception of society. We still have a long way to go...”

This is particularly irksome when placed in the context of ongoing horror stories concerning discrimination against gays – stories which rarely make headlines, in part because of the secretive nature of the subject at hand.

Gabi draws my attention to an incident revealed in the comments section of the Times, regarding a young man who was shunned by his family upon coming out of the closet... only to eventually commit suicide. “I didn’t know him personally, but a friend of mine did,” she says. “I think it’s so sad. And then you get someone like Michael Gonzi telling us we’re exaggerating...”

But let us move on to the proposals themselves. In recent weeks the MGRM published a list of seven priorities, including two which are of direct relevance to the legislation currently being debated parliament: legal recognition of same-sex relations on an equal footing with marriage; and perhaps more controversially, the issue of gay adoptions.

So far, we’ve talked primarily about government MPs and their reactions to the MGRM survey. What about the Opposition’s proposals?

“Well, on One TV this week Joseph Muscat said that he is against gay marriage, but in favour of civil partnerships. He also made it ‘abundantly clear’ that the Labour Party is opposed to gay adoption.”

Gabi at this point shrugs her shoulders. “We don’t need Joseph Muscat’s blessing to adopt children. We can do that already. What we’re asking for is recognition of this state of reality...”

The issue of gay adoption is traditionally the most controversial; but surprisingly, Gabi plays down a perceived national resistance to gay adoption in principle.

“What gets to people is the fact of having two men or two women raising a child... not necessarily the notion that gay people can raise children. Single-parent adoption is already an accepted reality in Malta... and this is true of gay parents as well.”

Another surprise (to me, at any rate) is Gabi’s observation that local adoption agency Appogg tends to be more liberal in such matters than the authorities in the adopted children’s countries of origin. “Today, most children adopted locally come from either Russia or Ethiopia – two countries which are notoriously homophobic.”

As part of the process regarding single-parent adoption involves an annual report on the family conditions submitted to the home agency, gays who adopt children from these countries tend to avoid disclosing their sexuality. But Gabi reasons that they are more concerned with negative reactions overseas than here in Malta.

It is however a rare example of tolerance, in an area which is otherwise replete with prejudice. Defending the right of gay couples to adopt children, Gabi argues that the MGRM looks first and foremost at the interests of the child concerned.

“This is the argument we are usually confronted by. We are told ‘it’s not good’ for children raised by a same-sex couple. My answer is that a child’s interests are best served when its family environment is legally recognised. As I said, gay adoption is already a reality. The best way to protect the child’s interests is therefore to regularise these families.”

Having said that, Gabi concedes that the Labour Party’s notion of ‘civil partnership’, while falling short of the gay community’s demands, nonetheless marks an improvement over the PN’s proposal of a cohabitation law.

“At the moment the PN is talking about cohabitation, but it is now becoming clear that this will not be on an equal footing with marriage – very far from it. All that is being discussed is the concession of very limited fragmentary rights to people who live together: it touches a little on property and inheritance, but it doesn’t go any further than that. Then you have the PL’s ‘civil partnership’ idea, which is a step ahead of cohabitation, in that at least the union is recognised at law as being a couple. But there is too much that remains unclear about this proposal. The extent of its similarity to marriage has not been clearly defined... other than to stress that it is ‘not marriage’...”

For Gabi, much of this discussion is a case of playing around with words. “We’re getting lost in definitions of ‘marriage’ and ‘the family’, but if you ask me the family is a social institution, not a political one. If you perform all the functions of a family, you are a family, whether legislation recognises you as one or not...”

Meanwhile, as parliament discusses different models and how these can be legally accommodated, there are individual areas of blatant discrimination that urgently need to be addressed.

One of these is the issue of transgender marriages, as enshrined by the now notorious case of Josanne Cassar: born a man but legally registered as a woman after successfully undergoing gender reassignment therapy.
Cassar’s case has been much publicised in the press, so what follows is but a brief summary. In 2004, Cassar’s plans to get married were scuppered when the Marriage Registrar refused to release the necessary marriage banns... arguing that despite her operation, she was (in his opinion) ‘still a man’.

Cassar successfully challenged the decision in court, but the Registrar appealed against the ruling, and in a remarkable reversal of fortunes the Appeals Court upheld his complaint. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect is that the Marriage Registrar argued in court that Josanne Cassar – though still a man in his view – should not be allowed to marry even a woman. In fact, the implication of the Appeals Court ruling is that Josanne Cassar cannot get married... at all.

“What is truly disconcerting about this case is that it reveals how Malta simply disregards European case law at will. There is already a precedent set by the European Court of Human Rights in this regard; but the Maltese courts, while noting the ECHR ruling, argued that this precedent was not enough to convince Malta. In other words, Malta is not obliged to follow European legislation, despite having been a member of the Council of Europe since the 1960s...”

But while despairing at the absurdity of the ruling, Gabi nonetheless reasons that the onus of responsibility lies with politicians, not judges or magistrates.

“I find it disturbing that responsibility for this bizarre situation is placed on the shoulders of a judge. Government should bring forward the necessary reforms. Politicians have an obligation to transpose European legislation into Maltese law. If the European courts have established that marriage must be available to post-op transsexuals, then it is inconceivable that Malta insists on denying it...”

There is also an additional irony underpinning the ongoing affair. Should Josanne Cassar lose her Constitutional battle, and exhaust all other legal remedies locally, her only remaining avenue would be the European Court of Human Rights – i.e., the same court that Malta has already blatantly ignored when it came to rulings of the same nature.

Coming back to the parliamentary hearing, I ask Gabi a question that has long posed a particular trouble within my own profession. Sometimes, it falls to a newspaper or similar medium to ‘out’ public figures who are known or suspected to be gay. We saw this recently in the case of Liberal Democrat MP David Laws – although the ‘scandal’ there had more to do with expenses fiddling than sexuality – and we have seen on a smaller scale here in Malta, where the strategy is altogether more dubious for being altogether politically motivated. How does Gabi react to cases such as these?

“On a point of principle, I would argue that gay people should never be outed by others without their consent. They are the only ones who are in a position to know the implications for themselves, insofar as family, friends, jobs are concerned... besides, it is really not the media’s role."