Anti-gay, anti-feminist, religious zealots: the adversaries of the Equality Act

The voices against Malta’s Equality Bill share a similar terminology against ‘Marxism’ and so called ‘gender ideology’

The conservative resistance
The conservative resistance

It is a virulent mixture of religious conservatives, Catholic traditionalists, evangelicals, pro-lifers, and also members of the political far-right, for whom the Equality Act represents another “culture war” being waged by dark Marxist forces.

One of these is the Pro Malta Christiana, an ultra-conservative minority that includes the right-wing academic and one-time Azzjoni Nazzjonali political activist, Philip Beattie, which in the past accused the Maltese archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of “favouring the homosexual agenda” – specifically for his endorsement of gay Catholic groups such as Drachma. Beattie, a lecturer at the University of Malta, had led a rosary rally in “reparation for the abomination of Malta’s annual gay pride”.

On their Facebook page, Pro Malta Christiana makes it well known what it thinks of the Equality Act: “It’s a Marxist attack against religious liberty,” they say, redolent of the same words employed by the anti-IVF campaigner and pro-life activists Marlene Sciberras in a recent Times opinion. “It is a vile attack against Christian faith, human rights, freedom of expression, and conscientious objection.”

READ MORE What is the Equality Bill • MALTATODAY explainer

The group comprises Catholics who resent Pope Francis for his statements on migration, claiming the Pope wants to open the West to immigrants as a “non-negotiable principle” and dialogue with Islam “whatever the cost”. But they tell their followers as Malta is a majority Catholic nation, “Maltese Catholics are legitimately entitled to object to, and resist the multiculturalism that arises from mass, disordered influxes of immigrants.”

Their religious zeal is mirrored by the evangelical preacher Gordon John Manché, whose Facebook page is replete with links to news on Donald Trump, anti-Democrat news sources, conspiratorial links on COVID-19 vaccines peddled by Maltese far-right activists like Moviment Patriotti Maltin, or the right-wing Catholic priest – and dear friend of Holocaust denier Norman Lowell – David Muscat, who in one recent tirade took aim at the Nationalist MEP Robert Metsola for “an attack on Catholic Poland”.

Manché has been part of the conservative backlash on the Equality Act, which he has termed “perverse”: one of his followers has been protesting outside the House of Representatives, claiming the law will allow teachers to teach 6-year-old boys “how to kiss boys” and that parents are losing “their right to educate their children”.

In the press, the main backlash to the law is fronted by Life Network Foundation chairperson Miriam Sciberras, an anti-abortion activist who protested the introduction of gay marriage in 2017 as well as IVF rights for lesbian and single women. As in instances, a suspicion of “far left” cultural maxims is a common thread: in the 2017 protest against marriage equality, the pro-life activist Paul Vincenti said not giving the right to people to conscientiously object to provide services to same-sex couples was “communism”; likewise, Sciberras recently claimed that “threatening people into compliance” with equality “is tantamount to brainwashing and Marxist indoctrination.”

They are then joined by an old ally: the conservative Nationalist politician and former European Commissioner Tonio Borg. Back in 2005 he wanted to entrench the crime of abortion in the Maltese Constitution, energising the Gift Of Life movement fronted by Vincenti, and rubbishing his critics as “the liberal elite”. Since 2019 he has been protesting the equality bills in newspaper columns, claiming they prevent Church schools from “advancing lessons on the beginning of life in biology or the definition of traditional marriage.”

Against the civil rights revolution

It’s daunting to paint the full connections of Malta’s conservative vanguard and its political allies in both the Nationalist and Labour Parties, as well as the far-right. Yet all seem to share traits of being anti-migration, opponents of multiculturalism and all form of gay rights, mistrustful of mainstream media, and eager to latch onto the strongmen tropes of Trump and Bolsonaro, or the countries challenging the European mainstream like Orban’s Hungary and Poland.

What is clear is that this great right-wing backlash took its fragmented shape right after Labour’s election in 2013.

In 2011, the great divorce referendum exasperated the Maltese Catholic Church. Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, whose Mistra land deal risked losing the PN the 2008 election, had been left out in the cold despite having been weaponised to heckle Labour leader Alfred Sant; in 2010, the Maltese bishops employed their overweening power to prevent MPs who had separated from their spouses from attending Pope Benedict’s high mass in Malta. Pullicino Orlando hit back two months later, rocking the political establishment with a private member’s bill legislating for divorce. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi demanded a referendum, and Labour jumped aboard a coalition of liberals who went on to defeat both the conservative PN establishment and the Church that backed it.

It was the watershed moment for the secularisation drive that Joseph Muscat used to divide his adversaries from then on. Backed with Labour’s massive majority, there was no recognisable opposition to the legalisation of civil unions, gay adoptions, embryo freezing and wider IVF suffrage, the ban on gay conversion therapy, gender identity rights, and gay marriage. The Church had been caught on the back foot; the Nationalist Party was facing its own crisis.

Suddenly, out of the woodwork came a variety of conservative and crypto-fascist outfits and religious zealots opposing Muscat’s civil liberties campaign; their anti-immigration streak was shared by the far-right but they could not buy into Norman Lowell’s belief in eugenics and euthanasia of the disabled, so ‘softer’ formations opposed to multiculturalism, asylum seekers, Islam but also virulently anti-abortion started taking shape: Moviment Patriotti Maltin took to the streets, and attempted to forge some form of understanding with Ivan Grech Mintoff’s Christian right-wing ‘party’. The latter has been particularly close to the “ex-gay” campaign of Matthew Grech who thinks voting Labour “is a sin”; Grech Mintoff ran his own anti-abortion tirade, losing thousands in defamation costs in favour of the Malta Gay Rights Movement.

It is arguable that all these individual movements were once ‘hidden’ inside big tent parties like the Nationalist Party. Even Labour’s civil liberties agenda pushed out antediluvians like former MP Adrian Vassallo, who once dubbed liberals ‘pigs’ and wanted hotels not to provide pay-per-view porn on their TV screens.

Under the protection of respected types like the PN minister Tonio Borg, extreme conservatives were easily hidden in such broad churches: few credit Labour leader Alfred Sant for having single-handedly prevented Borg’s crusade to entrench abortion in the Constitution back in 2006 by refusing to sign the Paul Vincenti petition; less braver politicians were then scared of the pro-life backlash not to sign the petition.

Yet since 2018, an unstoppable debate on sexual and reproductive rights for women has been energised by the Women’s Rights Foundation, young human rights activists, and the first coalition of pro-choice doctors.

As the debate on Malta’s Equality Act today shows, this religious, right-wing and fragmented opposition is dead set against enforcing the equality of access to goods and services, and meritorious employment practices, because it destabilises the privileges enjoyed by Church schools or religious organisations.