Newly-minted NGO in push to raise awareness on Malta's transgender community

Members of the newly-minted NGO Gender Liberation speak about their efforts to raise awareness about Malta’s transgender and gender variant community, while also striving to help all those who form part of and identify with this under-represented segment of Maltese society

Gender Liberation, from left: Daniela Azzopardi Bonanno, Mario Gerada, George Douglas Saliba, Alex Mangion, Pyt Farrugia and Gabrielle Borg Cassar (Photo Ray Attard)
Gender Liberation, from left: Daniela Azzopardi Bonanno, Mario Gerada, George Douglas Saliba, Alex Mangion, Pyt Farrugia and Gabrielle Borg Cassar (Photo Ray Attard)

The recently founded NGO Gender Liberation seeks to reach out, inform, and empower gender diverse communities in Malta and Gozo. Gender Liberation intends to explore and question established categories of gender and sexuality in Malta and Gozo, in order to stimulate fruitful dialogue.

Having formed under the auspices of President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society at the beginning of the year, Gender Liberation’s outreach is focused on the trans* gender variant community, and it is slowly gaining traction among the relevant communities that it seeks to address.

When I met the young and eclectic group for a chat at Inspirations Café in Valletta – the group’s “regular haunt”, one of their number informs me – evidence of their freshness as an entity is readily apparent. Mini-debates pop up all throughout our conversation – most of them over ever-thorny terminology: particularly tricky when gender identity is at stake – and a healthy jumble of opinions on the group and its aims makes itself heard before members begin to reply to my questions directly.

But though the group may still be hashing together its immediate goals and public image during what is clearly an embryonic stage, both its formation and initial steps suggest that it is poised to make a significant contribution to the ongoing discourse about LGBTIQ rights, with a particular focus on gender variance. And given that the organisation has recently been invited by Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli to form part of the LGBTIQ Consultative Council, bringing about tangible change in the field is certainly a possibility.

“Gender Liberation came about during a Family Forum meeting at the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society,” the NGO’s spokesperson, Alex Mangion explains. “The president asked us what more could be done to raise awareness about people on the transgender continuum in Malta, and we suggested that setting up the NGO would be the right step forward. But we wanted to ensure that it’s not just limited to transgender people, but also everyone who identifies themselves within the gender variant continuum.”

While other local NGOs did address gender and sexual diversity, Gender Liberation’s focus on the transgender and gender variant communities is so far unprecedented.

“When you look at other NGOs who do work in this field, such as Malta Gay Rights Movement, Drachma and We Are… they do great work and they do address issues pertaining to gender variance, but they’re predominantly ‘gay led’. It makes a key difference that this organisation is led by a transgender person – it opens up the debate to that aspect of society in a very clear way,” according to the NGO’s adviser, Mario Gerada, whose primary involvement is in the LGBTIQ Catholic group Drachma.

However, far from simply being a pressure group with a ‘transgender agenda’, the organisation’s key aim is to question established notions of gender identity, so as to help people break out of any oppressive social expectations related to gender. In fact, two of the organisation’s members – Public Relations Officer George Douglas Saliba, and Legal Adviser Daniela Azzopardi Bonanno – are heterosexual, and Gerada concedes that even the most privileged social category of all – the ‘straight white male’ – can sometimes feel pressured into the roles imposed on them by their gender.

“The majority of straight men don’t have any real problem celebrating their gender, but even then – if you look at everything from the lens of your gender identity, how can you not be trapped by that? And when it comes to transgender people, this is made all the more intense,” Gerada adds.

“While that’s a fair and beautiful point,” the NGO’s Outreach and Advocacy Officer, Pyt Farrugia, says, “the fact remains that the heterosexual white male remains in a position of privilege. And what’s the only noble thing one can do with privilege? Give it away – share it.”

In fact, Daniela Azzopardi Bonanno says that another aim of the organisation is to “pass on the message that being part of the ‘mainstream’ of society is not an excuse to impose a superiority complex over others.

“Also, it shouldn’t just be transgender people who are fighting for their rights all the time. The people within the mainstream who are more open to minorities should also work towards inclusion. That’s how true inclusion happens,” Azzopardi Bonanno says, also noting that the recently unveiled Gender Identity Bill is a welcome step towards a “more equal society”.

“It’s a human rights matter: just like I have my human rights translated into civil rights, so the Bill aims to ensure that trangender people fully enjoy these rights too.”

When it comes to on-the-ground advocacy, Gender Liberation has begun discussions with University and other educational institutions, while also above all striving to be a contact point in and of itself – offering support and advice. Most urgently, the organisation wants to move the discourse on gender variance away from the medical sphere. In other words, assuring that if people on the gender variant and transgender continuum are advised to seek psychological help, they are being directed to do so for the right reasons. (The parallels are both obvious and worrying: recall the ‘gay conversion’ practised by the likes of Gordon Manche’s River of Love initiative).

“The only reason I imagine a transgender person would want to seek psychological help in relation to their gender identity, would be as a result of depression caused by the patriarchal structures which marginalise them,” Farrugia says, echoing Mangion’s concerns about how many people on the transgender continuum are often “misled” when they seek support. The organisation also hopes to reach out to parents and relatives.

“Parents sometimes feel as though they have nowhere to turn in these situations, and we are hoping to provide them with the support they need. Of course, we need to consider the individuals on the transgender continuum at various stages of their journey, but you need to consider the community as well,” Azzopardi Bonanno says. 

Having been greeted with a heartening response on social media – confirming the need for such an organisation on the island – the organisation is confident that forming part of the LGBTIQ Consultative Committee will lend necessary political will to their efforts. But Farrugia is also keen to point out that changing the public perception of transgender people ‘on the ground’ remains top priority – primarily by allowing transgender people to “tell their own stories, in their own way”.

“This is unfortunately the opposite of what we’ve seen in Malta, where TV programmes, for example, have taken transgender narratives and repackaged them for audiences in a ‘point and stare’ kind of approach.”

As a counter-example, Farrugia brings up photographer Gilbert Calleja’s striking book – Liminal, a visual essay about Malta’s transgender community.

When discussing his work prior to the book’s launch in 2013, Calleja said that it was people from the south of Malta who were most tolerant to transgender people. The reason for this was simple: these communities came into direct contact with transgender people more regularly.

It’s a point that Gender Liberation’s youngest member, Gabrielle Borg Cassar – officially the organisation’s ‘Artistic Officer’ but emphatically referred to as ‘muse’ by her colleagues – poignantly illustrates.

“There’s a stigma we need to fight. Whenever people see transgender people on television, it gives rise to all sorts of misconceptions. But when they get a chance to meet a transgender person in real life, they’re more likely to go, ‘oh, you’re just another person’…”

Those interested in getting in touch with Gender Liberation may send an email to [email protected], or find the organisation on Facebook

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