Isn’t this something old fashioned, from the past? I mean, Homophobia, it’s no longer real, right?
I was not surprised by this question that a local presenter asked me during a popular TV show a few days ago. After all, Malta, like most countries in Europe seems to have become more accepting of people who are different. We boast of our high degree of tolerance and openness and the rapid social change, the introduction of divorce, and the plurality of views one sees on the media all seem to prove that. Moreover, in the past year, the country politically also seems to have made great strides forward: the unanimous parliamentary approval for the constitutional clause making any discrimination on grounds of gender and sexual orientation illegal in our country; the introduction of civil unions, and the substantial number of people who came together in Valletta to celebrate this historic event . Yes, things do seem to be improving and to be fair, since coming out ‘nationally’, I was not stoned, or kicked or bullied or called names by passer-byes, nor did I lose my job or end up kicked out of my home.
Yet, homophobia is still around …
Let us first start by looking at the global picture. There are still several cases of homophobia around the world especially in Africa and Asia. Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda are among those countries that still consider homosexuality as something extremely wrong and subversive and in this year alone they have passed legislation making homosexuality illegal and punishable with hefty prison sentences. The homophobic stance in Russia is also well known, while in America demonstrations against gay marriage have often been very virile and hostile.
The situation in Europe is maybe slightly better, since on an official European Union level, there is tangible and concrete action being taken to protect LGBTI persons and their fundamental human rights. Yet, there is still substantial homophobia across the EU. A brief glance at the EU LGBT survey commissioned by the EU Agency for Fundamental Human Rights (2014) shows us that many LGBTI persons living in the 28 EU states still perceive their environment as intolerant and have experienced some form of discrimination or violence in their life, especially transgender persons. The areas that show a significantly high level of prejudice included employment, educational institutions, health provision and personal safety. Despite the general perception of openness, many LGBTI people in Europe today feel uncomfortable disclosing their sexual identity even to their family and a majority find it difficult to hold hands with their same-sex partner in public spaces out of fear of victimisation.
The situation in Malta
Malta follows wider European trends in this phenomenon in the sense that we are somewhat in the middle range in terms of open LGBTI victimisation and homophobia. The local situation naturally presents interesting contrasts that should be analysed further.
On one side, the general social milieu in Malta has become more open and accepting of gay people. In the 1970s, gay people were totally locked up in their closets and many were afraid of the repercussions were they to come out publicly. Back then, gay people were considered as ‘sick’ and I have heard shocking first-hand accounts from some of my older friends of doctors forcing them to take medicine to ‘cure’ them out of this ‘disease’. Others were forced by their parents to get into marriage, and others had to seek refuge in the priesthood. The brave ones who preferred to be open about their sexuality were practically ostracised and some preferred to migrate abroad rather than live hell in Malta.
Things have dramatically improved today. Over the last 10 to 15 years, people have become more accepting, to the point that LGBTI youths are finding it ‘easier’ to do their coming out in their late teens and early twenties. This was something that 15-20 years ago was still somewhat rare. Today, broadly, there is a more open environment where at least ‘externally’ such things as physical attacks and outright homophobic actions are no longer socially acceptable. LGBTI organisations are widely respected locally and internationally and at least on a political and formal ecclesiastical level, there is a clear no-no to any discrimination and violence. Recently, Mgr. Scicluna, the Auxiliary Bishop of Malta, in a celebration to mark IDAHO and the tenth anniversary of Drachma LGBTI, claimed that ‘The church is large enough to include anyone. There is a place for everyone in the Church’.
On the other hand, homophobia is still lurching in the shadows. While open verbal abuse and physical attack have diminished, there is still a lot of work to be done to transform local mentalities and make the approach to gay people more positive. Domestic violence against gay individuals is still a problem: parents who reject or even kick out their gay children from home are still a few too many. During that same TV programme I mentioned earlier, 2 out of the three phone-ins in the programme were by mothers who made it quite clear that they did not accept that their children could be gay. The first one, the mother of a lesbian, preferred that her daughter got married and lived a very unhappy life.
The second one preferred that her son told her he was a drug addict than telling her he was gay. Her solution was quite straight-forward – I’d kick him out of the house. Such statements aired on the national broadcaster were extremely shocking to me and it only brought home a tragic reality: that homophobia is still very much here and unfortunately, many families are not yet equipped and prepared to cope with having gay children. Yet, with 10% of the population being gay, the likelihood of one or two kids in a family being gay is extremely possible. In other social and religious circles, homophobia can be more subtle. People would not probably exclude gay individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, but unfortunately, sometimes, a lot of pressure may be placed on individuals to conform externally to the heteronorm model or else they are expected to remain totally invisible. As long as you are not out loud and clear, you might be tolerated, but whether one is accepted or not, that is a very different issue. At schools, children can be both accepting of difference, but they can also be very insensitive and cold-hearted: bullying is indeed a well-known reality in our local schools and LGBTI difference can be one such strand of difference that peer groups can and do pick on. Yet, this bullying amongst children and youths only reflects a wider problem with society that still has an issue with fully accepting homosexuality.
The roots of homophobia
Homophobia in Malta today is still rooted in a number of different realities. It can be rooted in ignorance and fear of what being gay is all about. There are a lot of false stereotypes about gays: All gays are hairdressers; all gays are effeminate and sissies; all gays dress in strange and shocking ways; all gays are paedophiles; all gays will try to seduce you and if you hang out with gays you will become gay!
There is one particular stereotype that I challenge completely: Gays choose to be gays. NOT TRUE. Gays do not choose to be gay, just as much as no straight person ever wakes up in the morning and decides to be a heterosexual! Yet, I have heard this dumb idea very often, and while experts might debate for long on what causes homosexuality, I am very sure that being gay is NOT a matter of choice nor is it reversible. Above all, it is an identity and definitely not simply a tendency.
There is also another important undercurrent often encouraged by certain religious circles that seem to imply that homosexuality is not natural, that it is un-biological, and it goes against Natural Law. I beg to differ. It is very difficult to understand how it can be unnatural, when 10% of the population worldwide is gay. The conservative argument claims that since the LGBTI experience constitutes an exception, their existence does not warrant proof enough to be considered as within ‘normal and natural human activity’. This argument is clearly flawed. There is so much variety in nature that what we consider as exceptions are ultimately still part of the global whole and therefore still correctly defined as natural. Who are we to decide that this action is ‘natural’ and that other action is not? Moreover, one can hardly consider the gay population as being ‘an exception’, especially when one keeps in mind that one in every ten persons is gay. One might claim that it is only recently that gay people are being heard, presumably because it is now ‘cool’ to be gay and so people ‘choose’ to be gay.
As already explained, such arguments highlight a serious misunderstanding of the whole issue. I would say, that gays are ‘coming out’ more because, today, society is, to a certain point, more open. Even so, even if LGBTI persons were a small minority and not as numerous as they really are, they still deserve to be protected and are entitled to full dignity and full enjoyment of their human rights. Moreover, homosexuality is not a cultural practice, because you find gay people in all cultures; nor is it an exclusively human tendency, because more than 1500 animal species practise homosexuality. Moreover, while I do tend to consider Natural Law as a very valid principle, I would tend to disagree that there is only one way how to interpret Natural Law. Today, modern theologians across various religions (including Catholicism) are offering new insights that have shown that Natural Law can be reconciled with the LGBTI reality, especially when one considers the insights provided by modern Psychology, Sociology and Anthropology.
I make one last appeal to the Maltese people. Gay people are normal people who are as respectful, as loving, and as law-abiding as any of your standard neighbours. Your gay child remains your child, irrespective of his or her own gender or sexuality. Let us be more open and more accepting. Let us kill this hideous monster of homophobia, once and for all!