Gabi Calleja has been a pioneering voice for LGBTI inclusivity in Malta for over a decade. As co-ordinator of the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM), her work supporting the republic’s LGBTI community has coincided with a number of radical political reforms and a gradual shift in social attitudes.
What is happening in Malta, and why does progress appear to be happening so quickly? I met with Gabi in Sliema, Malta last month to find out how and why LGBTI rights have advanced so far to date, as well as what challenges lie ahead.
Gabi was keen to start with describing the legal position in Malta. Since April 2014, civil unions have been legal, but these are “the real deal”, unlike British civil partnerships, with civil unions being available for same-sex and opposite-sex couples and carrying the same rights and obligations as marriage. She affirmed that this represents a “huge legal advance” in which same-sex couples have parenting and adoption rights. Marriages entered into abroad are also recognised as marriages.
This is particularly remarkable given that as recently as 2006 opinion polls in Malta showed support for same-sex marriage at 18%. Gabi explained that the civil unions followed many years of asking for change, with resistance often focusing on parenting rights. In spite of neither the Nationalist Party nor the Labour Party making such a complete commitment to facilitating same-sex unions in 2008, by 2013 the picture had changed completely and a new Labour government was eager to make real advances.
It isn’t merely in respect to same-sex unions, either. The government is currently seeking to introduce a new Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act, designed to regulate recognition of gender identity and the rights of intersex persons. It will afford greater protections for trans people, in addition to making illegal genital surgeries on intersex children and ensuring that they are not subjected to “reparative” therapies aimed at “fixing” them.
Furthermore, under the act trans people will no longer have to go through gender reassignment surgery to change their birth certificate but instead would simply submit a “clear and unequivocal declaration that one’s gender identity does not correspond to the assigned sex in the act of birth”, while parents will have the option of postponing the entry of a gender marker on their children’s birth certificate.
Gabi believes that having passed a constitutional amendment, which included sexual orientation and gender identity as protected grounds in April of 2014, parliament should be consistent and vote in favour. The conservative Nationalist Party is still reeling from the backlash from their abstention on the civil union vote and coming out in support of this bill would go some way in bridging the gap between the PN and LGBTI community. “It’s been a relatively smooth process aside from some technical difficulties.” There is support for the principle of the bill, including from international quarters.
Malta passed legislation in 2004 prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, part of Malta’s Aquis Communitaire on joining the EU. This, however, I am assured has some limitations: it does not apply to discrimination outside employment and falls short of facilitating access to reproductive services. In Malta, sperm/egg donation and surrogacy are illegal and automatic recognition of gay parents needs to be tested in practice.
This continued discrimination is something Gabi feels can be challenged next: “Legislatively we’re moving in the right direction, at a fast pace. Socially, it will take more time, especially given generational attitudes.” She makes it clear, however, that she has every confidence in the government and it isn’t difficult to see why. Not only has Labour taken a progressive stance on LGBTI rights, at every major event Prime Minister Joseph Muscat mentions it.
I asked whether Muscat’s flying the flag for LGBTI equality is based on personal conviction or political opportunism. Gabi assured me that his conviction is not in doubt, but accepts that there’s also an element of political savviness in play. “He wants to keep the LGBTI vote” she said, pointing to its electoral significance in a country that saw the Nationalists win the 2008 General election by a mere 1,580 votes.
MGRM has a constructive relationship with the government, as well as with the LGBTI groups of the various political parties whom she credits with helping educate their respective leaderships.
Gabi has herself met with the Prime Minister several times and praises him for “sticking his neck out”. she said, before adding that MGRM’s influence is arguably greater due to the ease of ministerial access. The influence is telling – Malta has risen to 8th in the ILGA Europe Rainbow Map, and is now ranked higher than Italy, Germany, Ireland and Austria on LGBTI rights.
Gabi recalled a previous government minister who had difficulty using the term “gay” in their dealings with MGRM. “Now we have a minister who uses terms like ‘genderqueer’.”
For all this progress, Malta remains a conservative society (divorce only became legal in 2011, after a referendum in which 53% voted for the change). Abortion remains illegal.
The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency estimates that only 40% of Maltese LGBTI people are out in their workplace. Only 35% would be comfortable holding hands in public. “The perception of safety is not there”, Gabi told me. There have been reported violent attacks and it appears some go unreported due to a lack of trust. The MGRM is looking to work with the police to develop a system to register such attacks specifically as hate crimes.
“Young people are coming out earlier” said Gabi, “but it’s not because they feel safer, but possibly because they feel they have nothing to hide.” She details some of the anti-bullying strategies MGRM are working on but insists this is a long-term project: “It takes a lot to train every teacher – the introduction of co-ed schools at secondary level is a very recent change teachers are still getting accustomed to. The teaching profession is quite conservative, and ongoing training requires working with public entities. It’s a complicated process logistically.” But the government is on board and MGRM is keen to ensure that policies are put in place to protect trans, gender variant and intersex students.
MGRM is also working closely with parents (“there’s been a shift from blaming themselves to asking how they can be supportive”), other LGBTI groups, advocacy services and even the Catholic Church to achieve its aims. They may well have their differences in emphasis, but for 2015 they’re organising Pride Month together – which will run from 17th April (the anniversary of the Civil Union Act) to 17th May (International Day Against Homophobia).
I asked whether there are any “out” figures in Maltese public life who serve as role models for younger members of the LGBTI community. A celebrity chef and a TV presenter are the nearest thing Malta has to a Tom Daley, it seems. “We’ve only had two out politicians, and one of those was outed,” Gabi informs me. “The closet is still quite strong in Malta and there remains a culture of denial.”
Malta now has a gay-friendly club, which is seeking to work constructively with MGRM and other local LGBTI organisations. From my conversation with Gabi I got the sense that, in spite of Malta moving forward very quickly legislatively, MGRM is focused on the future rather than the recent past.
The Gender Identity bill becoming law will surely be the next major milestone, while MGRM have a 5 year strategic plan to challenge aspects of inequality that continue to work against Malta’s LGBTI community.
In many respects, the recent progress in Malta is an example for others to follow – and in no small way is due to this remarkable woman and the many others who have pursued the dream of equality with such determination for so long.
Gabi Calleja is the Coordinator of the Malta Gay Rights Movement and has been involved in advocacy work, training, awareness raising and support to the LGBTIQ community since 2003. She is a member of the LGBT Consultative Council established by the Government in 2013.
She was elected to ILGA-Europe’s executive board in 2010 and served as co-chair until October 2014. She read for her Masters in Youth and Community Studies at the University of Malta and is a senior executive within the Maltese public sector.