Pride and prejudice | Colette Farrugia Bennett

As Malta’s 16th annual Gay Pride Week comes to a close, COLETTE FARRUGIA BENNETT – MGRM committee member and social worker with Rainbow Support Service – outlines why Pride is still relevant, in a society that hasn’t fully overcome its prejudices

Colette Farrugia Bennett
Colette Farrugia Bennett

Malta has jumped to the top of the European table when it comes to equality and gay rights: scoring 90% in the recent Rainbow LGTBiQ Map. It seems that most of the local gay community’s demands – for example, marriage equality – have been met. All of which raises a question: does Pride Week still mean the same, in an age when homosexuality is clearly more accepted?

If you only look at the Rainbow Map, you might very well ask yourself, ‘What is the point in a Pride March?’ But the reality on the ground is very different. Just because there are laws, on paper, protecting and giving rights to minority groups, it doesn’t mean that problems don’t exist, or that there’s no discrimination. So ‘Pride’, to me, means that we still have to be present, visible, and make it a point that we’re still there: first of all, to celebrate. We need to celebrate our achievements, but also to remind people that there is diversity that needs to be respected. The stories on the ground are not that everything’s fine; we still hear of discrimination taking place, harassment, online harassment, institutional homophobia… transphobia, in particular, is something that a number of individuals are experiencing. These often take the form of hate crimes. So even if there is legislation to protect gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, etc. – even if we have obtained marriage equality, adoption, and all the other things we once only dreamed about – hate crimes still happen. And some people are still scared to report them. In reality, then, I think that Pride is still needed. And even if we reached a stage where everything was perfect, I still believe we would need to continue marching in solidarity with other countries. There are other countries –in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas…all over the world, really – that are way, way behind us. There are even countries where rights have been granted, but are now being taken away: like the US, for example. Besides, there are other solidarity issues with other minority groups as well. Intersex persons, in Malta, are still largely invisible, for instance. For us, it is not just about marching for gay rights. We still need to be there, visible, standing in solidarity with other minority groups within the broader gender spectrum.

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at Pride is that: if the ultimate goal is ‘equality’, why does the gay community feel the need to make a show about being ‘different’? Doesn’t that contradict the ultimate goal?

‘Being different’ is one thing; being treated differently is another. Historically, ‘being different’ meant that you were treated differently… so you were ‘unequal’. Today, we strive for equality; in the sense that you are treated the same, no matter how ‘different’ you are. Though we have achieved a lot, in reality, we have not achieved full equality yet; and we may never do. Even in a perfect state, it would be very difficult for people to be truly equal… in the sense that society will always have its own perspectives, and negative attitudes towards one category of people or another. For me, it’s more a case of equity, rather than equality. If a person with disability needs three steps to achieve their goals, and I need only one… I should not be in any way spiteful towards that person, because I’m getting one, and they’re getting three. But then again, we do need to celebrate our differences; because it is our differences that make us a diverse society. For instance, around 15 years ago – roughly the same time Malta held its first Pride March – the Council of Europe came out with a slogan: ‘all different, all equal’. That’s the idea behind Pride: we don’t need to all be the same to be equal. We can all be different, and celebrate the differences that exist between individuals, but enjoy the same rights and opportunities.

Earlier you said that ‘we’re not there yet’ when it comes to full equality. What would you say Malta still needs to work on?

In terms of rights, I think we’ve achieved as much as it was realistically possible to achieve. The 90% score on the Rainbow Map confirms that. Basically, what’s still missing is the Equality Act… which is needed to update the existing Equality Between Men and Women Act. This needs to be opened up to other remits. For instance, the EU’s Equality Directive also talks about ‘goods and services’. Basically, if someone goes to a coffee shop with a same-sex partner, the establishment should not be able to refuse to serve them on the basis of their sexuality…

But surely that is already illegal in Malta…?

The Constitution does have a clause that prohibits that kind of discrimination, yes. But it is general, and does not go into specific details. Having an Equality Act would make it more open: by including, written in black on white, all the possible grounds of discrimination so as to encompass everything. Elsewhere, surrogacy is something else that is still missing…

Surrogacy is also one of the areas that is still highly contentious in Malta. Do you see it as a realistic objective to pursue?

It is a very hot potato here, yes. But surrogacy is not just for same-sex couples; if it is introduced, it will be for everyone: including heterosexual couples who might need it…

In fact, the last time the issue was raised in Parliament was in connection with IVF and assisted fertility…

Precisely. In the US, for example, it is mostly heterosexual couples who use it. But part of the reason it’s so controversial, I think, is that the issue is often brought up in conjunction with abortion here. Unlike abortion, however – which is being discussed locally, at some level – there is no real debate about surrogacy in Malta at all. It’s an issue that has been put on the shelf, so to speak. But I do think we need to start discussing it: it’s a subject that hasn’t been explored enough. People might know what surrogacy is, but not how it works. Myself included, by the way. I don’t know very much about it: what I do know was mostly gleaned from movies or television… the media… maybe a paper I once read. But in reality, that is not being ‘informed’. Maltese society is not informed enough about it; we don’t talk about it enough. So I think an adult, civil, in-depth discussion needs to start happening. And also research, to determine whether it is even feasible, in such a small country – because we also need to look at our demographics. Maybe we would need to enter into an agreement with another country … I’m talking off the top of my head here, but we do need to look at from this perspective. Even adoptions are difficult in Malta. So there is a lot more to explore, before we can come to an agreement on whether to introduce surrogacy or not.

Coming back to the question of equality: it was reported today that children in schools sometimes lie about their family situations, to avoid feeling singled out or excluded. The article made specific references to Mother’s Day, and the evident problems it poses for children of same-sex couples in the classroom. Isn’t this an indication that, despite having all the laws in place, equality is still difficult to achieve in practice?

The sort of problems children face in schools go well beyond that. But yes, there are problems that arise, especially around Mother’s or Father’s Day. What if a class is told: ‘Today, we are going to make a card for Mother’s Day’… but some children have two mothers? What are they going to do? If they make one card, which of their mummies are they going to give it to? Some might even think: will I be ‘outing’ myself, if I make two cards? That is why some children end up lying. Then again, it might not be because these children have been explicitly told that there is something wrong with their family; but because the textbooks they use in school do not, in any way, represent those families… the message they are getting is: “Your family is not ‘worthy’ enough to be represented here”. There might also, obviously, have been messages coming very directly from other students, parents or teachers. But I don’t think it’s too bleak. There are very good outcomes in schools in cases like these. There are schools which have taken very good care of these children… even those you would least expect: including Catholic schools. I’ve worked with several Catholic schools, and they’ve been excellent in the way they’re caring for these children. This is a best-practice example of how schools can pass on the message. When a school announces to its students that (for example) ‘this child is no longer going to be called ‘Colette’, but ‘Colin’”… the rest of the kids just get on with it, like nothing ever happened. Because kids are often better informed than adults …

Some adults, it seems, are not very well informed at all. There was a recent case of a violent assault on a trans person at a pastizzeria in Msida, for example: which brought home to many people – myself included – that homophobia (or transphobia, in this case) not only still exists, but may be more widespread than we think. Do you share that perception?

It is very difficult to say how widespread it is, because a lot of people do not report such situations. In fact, most situations are unreported in all spheres, not just by the LGTBiQ community. But in our case, reporting may still be perceived as a fearful thing to do. Because the police were not always on board; they were not always our allies. I’m not saying that they are now; but when you realise that the police were, in one way or another, being unhelpful, or mocking the people filing the report… and we’ve heard of these cases in the past: people who were dismissively treated when reporting violent abuse… or, in some cases I know, who heard a policeman calling someone else a ‘pufta’, while they were waiting to file a report… what sort of impression do you get? I think the community does not have a lot of trust in the police. And even if a report is filed… there may be the fear that nothing will come of it anyway. Why go through the trouble, and expose yourself to the possibility of being mocked or shamed, if nothing’s going to happen? So the reality on the ground, in so far as how often this happens, is very difficult to know with any certainty…

As MGRM, though, surely you will be a point of contact. Are you ever approached in such circumstances?

Yes; we do get people informing us of personal experiences like that. More often, though, what we hear about is provocation. Let’s just say that: not everyone is ‘out there to get you’… but some people are certainly out there to provoke: name-calling, and all that. Obviously, not everyone reacts in the same way. Some of us might just brush it off; others might react in a way that escalates the aggression. I’m not saying it’s the community’s fault, naturally… but how you react will also influence the other’s reaction. Having said this: if the first action is direct, physical violence… then it’s very difficult to contain one’s reactions. I’ve never been physically assaulted in the street; but I have been a victim of verbal violence in the past. As for myself, I have always ignored it. But I always ask: what if it were someone who had just come out? Or someone who is very uncomfortable with their identity: people who are not ‘OK with themselves’ yet? Where would this put them: back in the closet? If so, what sort of psychological harm will this create for them? These are things that still happen on the ground today.

Your earlier point about trust in the police force raises a separate question. Does it mean that all these historical achievements on the equality front have simply not filtered down to institutional level?

I wouldn’t say they haven’t ‘filtered down’. I think it’s more a case that there are still prejudices: sometimes on an individual level, but sometimes also institutionally. When it comes to gender identity, for instance, there are still a lot of stereotypical, preconceived notions of what being ‘male’ or ‘female’ means, and all of that. It extends even to the police themselves: society expects them to be masculine… how would people react to a very effeminate policeman? It must be very difficult to come out in the Police Force, for instance. But the prejudice issue is not something only the police are facing: we were all born into a society that has upheld so many prejudices, for so very long, against gay people... bi people… lesbians… trans people… intersex people… so the shame associated with all that is still intense. Prejudice has to be worked on – not just prejudice against the LGTBiQ, but also against other races; other religions; other nationalities, and so on. Unless you work on your prejudices, you’re just going to a remain like a horse with its blinkers on. Unless you make sense of what you’ve been taught, at school or by society – and let’s face it: we’ve all been taught a lot of very negative things. Even some of the phrases we use every day: ‘mela jien iswed?’ [Did you think I was black?]; or ‘Haqq Ghat-Torok!” [Damn the Turks]… never mind that after saying that, some might go to the local Turkish Restaurant, and eat a kebab… these racist remarks are very integrated into our everyday speech. Even the word ‘Pufta’ is very integrated. So unless we work on these prejudices – unless we question them, try to make sense of them – we will basically just stay with them.

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