Fairness above all | Ray Calleja

Actor and television presenter Ray Calleja speaks in the wake of the passing of the civil unions bill. While emotional about this landmark development, he’s also keen to emphasise that fairness is ultimately what matters

Ray Calleja compering at the civil unions celebrations in Valletta. Photo: Ray Attard
Ray Calleja compering at the civil unions celebrations in Valletta. Photo: Ray Attard
Ray Calleja compering at the civil unions celebrations in Valletta. Photo: Ray Attard
Ray Calleja compering at the civil unions celebrations in Valletta. Photo: Ray Attard

I had a feeling that actor and television personality Ray Calleja would be easy to speak to, owing to the fact that he’s a seasoned television personality who’s well aware of how the media game works.

But he – arguably – turned out to be the easiest person I’ve even interviewed, for reasons I wouldn’t have entirely expected.
Sitting down for our interview, he politely asks a potentially brusque question: “So, erm, just to be clear… what’s the… ‘agenda’?”

I reply with the truth: that I’d like to hear his views on the passing of the civil unions bill (Calleja was one of the presenters at St George’s Square, Valletta last Monday, as crowds gathered to celebrate the new legislation), while also taking into account the potential impact of the popular play Jiena Nhobb, Inti Thobb in which he starred in, and which is set to return for another run at the Manoel Theatre in May.

“Okay, okay,” Calleja says with a wary smile, and looks into the distance. Throughout the course of our conversation, his words are halting, but measured: he confesses to feeling “emotional” about what happened on Monday, and that the passing of the bill sparked off a number of thoughts on the subject that he’s still trying to work out properly.

But though he allows himself plenty of pregnant pauses between each reflection – and I notice that they drop heavily: he looks as though he’s on the verge of tears – because he takes his time to speak, cautiously edging each thought out, his thought process also comes across as reasoned and entirely logical.

“The most important thing is, simply, that it happened,” he replies when I ask him what his immediate reaction to Monday’s events was. “I’m just glad for the people that I know to have suffered injustice because of the way things used to be. But it’s also important to remember that new legislation doesn’t change perceptions overnight. The same thing happened with divorce. The entire country has to undergo a process…”

When I ask him whether he feels that being in the media has, in some way, given him a clearer idea of what the national consensus is – on issues such as gay rights especially – he disagrees vehemently.

“But I think that being in the media helped me to realise – really realise – that everyone has a different perspective on things, and that this should be respected. For example, if I’m interviewing someone whose views are the exact opposite of mine, my role is to show what their perspective is, irrespective of whether I agree with it or not.”

This attitude of cautious tolerance is what informs his views on gay rights, even after Monday’s events. Even when I inevitably bring up the Opposition’s decision to abstain on voting on the bill, Calleja chooses not to condemn the Nationalist Party.

“This is partly because I know for a fact that there were many within the party itself who didn’t want to abstain. Just to be clear: I would have preferred if they were allowed a free vote on the issue. But I have no problem with people disagreeing on the civil unions bill – what I would like to be able to do is for us to respectfully discuss our differences.”

But this is not to say that the matter is a non-issue for Calleja. Far from it. He speaks about an ingrained, psychological effect that not being granted a basic right like civil union can have on people – something that may be hard to quantify in political, or even social, terms.

“Okay, so, this is where I’m coming from in all of this,” Calleja says, rubbing his eyes and allowing himself a sigh. “Having lived my life feeling as if I wasn’t living the ‘right’ lifestyle – this would be reinforced by family and the Church and so on – you have to learn to become immune to the effect it has on you. And one of the confusing issues in all of this has been in the use of the word: equal. Nobody in the world can come up to me and say ‘you’re unequal’. They can tell me I’m ‘different’, sure, but not unequal.

“At the end of the day what’s at the core of all this is the notion of ‘fairness’. I do not expect to be treated differently just because I’m in a minority and have legislation in place that – simply – allows me to be treated fairly. But by the same token, I think this legislation needs to be there in the first place.”

When we move on to discuss Jiena Nhobb, Inti Thobb – originally staged last February, the polemical play casts Calleja as a procurer of surrogate children for gay couples – he reminds me that that play is less about the polemic surrounding civil unions than it is about surrogacy.
“So it’s still quite relevant.”

But as even its title suggests, the overarching theme of the play is love, in all its forms, and how we negotiate that phenomenon in a contemporary social context. Currently studying anthropology at the University of Malta, Calleja is keenly aware of the fact that different family structures have been existing, historically, for a long time.

“Adoption and surrogacy have been with us for thousands of years. There is no right or wrong family structure, really, if the driving force is… oh God, am actually I going to say it?” he smiles at his earnest outburst. “Well… if the driving force is love.”