When equality feels like oppression

While accepting the reality that a part of the loyal base of political parties is less progressive than the parties themselves declare to be, Clayton Mercieca expresses his worry at how the party in Opposition and some of the smaller parties are churning out confusing messages to the electorate with regard to LGBTIQ+ issues.

Have you ever heard the saying, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”? It encapsules the notion that privilege often seems like equality to the privileged, and that real equality can make people suddenly feel very uneasy and perturbed.

The statement sprung to my mind when, in the run up to EuroPride 2023, which was successfully held in Valletta last September, a number of irked social media trolls posted comments stating that, in Malta today, belonging to the LGBTIQ+ community makes one a privileged citizen, with more rights than the rest.

The Journal brought up this issue with Clayton Mercieca, the charismatic LGBTIQ+ activist who became widely known through his leading role in the non-profit organisation Allied Rainbow Communities, a role which also saw him coordinating the Malta Pride for a number of years. He is married to Christian and they are both fathers to their son, Sebastian.

Nowadays, he is part of the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sex Characteristics Unit (SOGIGESC) within the Ministry for Home Affairs, Equality, and Reforms’ Human Rights Directorate. The unit coordinates government policy in the field of LGBTIQ+ equality and provides support to other Ministries and Departments where required.

“Over the past decade, the LGBTIQ+ community has made great strides when it comes to achieving civil rights that it had previously been denied,” says Clayton. “The attention that the reforms carried out in this sector have attracted reflects the fact that equality for LGBTIQ+ persons has become a priority in the country. These reforms, however, have not taken place at the expense of other members of society who had already reached the goalpost. It’s simply a matter of ensuring equality so that those who had been left behind because of the discriminatory policy of the past are empowered to reach those same goalposts too.”

Double-edged sword

Having said that, Clayton warns against complacency. Official successes such as Malta’s ranking, for eight consecutive years, as the number one country on ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Europe Map might, at the end of the day, be counterproductive, providing a false sense of security in a society where, in spite of all the reforms that have been made, discrimination and harassment against LGBTIQ+ persons have not been eradicated.

Clayton describes the Rainbow Europe Map as a double-edged sword: “On the one side, we should be proud that things in our country have moved forward from a legal standpoint. At the same time, we must be aware that the Map is purely a checklist of what we’ve managed to achieve at the policy and legislation level, which is not necessarily always reflected in people’s mentality and behaviour. Actually, such a success might be used as a form of gaslighting – with LGBTIQ+ organisations or persons who complain of discrimination and prejudice ending up taken lightly or ignored.”

Clayton Mercieca

Apart from online homophobic and even hate comments that increased in intensity in the period leading to and during EuroPride, a spotlight was shone on the homophobia that still pervades our society when a poster advertising the event in Valletta was vandalised in broad daylight in a space as central as Castille Square. A few days into the celebrations, then, a group of queer people were verbally harassed and physically assaulted in a bar in Qala, Gozo.

Apart from that isolated event, Clayton conveyed profound contentment with EuroPride Valletta 2023 and its accomplishments. He lauded the variety of events that took place that felt very inclusive, the partnerships forged with various stakeholders, the opportunities it presented, and the lasting impact it has left.

Paceville remains a “hot potato”

Clayton shifts his focus to Paceville, noting the absence of any reported homophobic incidents during the EuroPride period was a relief, considering the history of reports made by different members of the LGBTIQ+ community being treated differently, especially if they were gender non-conforming. Organisers were mindful to EuroPride 2023’s events being concentrated in and around Valletta ensuring the safety and well-being of the LGBTIQ+ community. He further highlights the importance of understanding and addressing concerns arising from various reports, emphasising the need for inclusivity and respect across all establishments, regardless of their staff’s cultural backgrounds.

Immigrants from homophobic countries

This brings us to the issue of the fast-growing number of immigrants from countries with high levels of societal homophobia, but Clayton is quick to precise that it’s finally a question of individual values. He mentions that, even among these immigrants, there are LGBTIQ+ persons who are happy to finally be living in a country that champions their right to safety and equality. However, although they are in Malta, there are instances – particularly when they share an apartment, live in the same neighbourhood, or work with their conationals – when they feel safer to remain in their closet for fear of ending up isolated or harassed.

Politicians’ role and responsibilities

Not all is gloom and doom – there are many success stories around. Before EuroPride, the Human Rights Directorate within the Ministry for Home Affairs, Equality, and Reforms was a key partner in a multicultural evening for people from different ethnic backgrounds. Recalling what a beautiful and memorable event that was, Clayton makes a particular reference to the Filipino trans community which, he says, are very visible and active in Malta. He stressed that, in today’s Malta, it’s those who do not embrace diversity who should feel like the odd-ones out, not the other way round.

Our politicians have a huge responsibility to ensure this is the case. That’s why it is imperative that they are always clear on what their principles really are and put their money where their mouth is. While accepting the reality that a part of the loyal base of political parties is less progressive than the parties themselves declare to be, Clayton expresses his worry at how the party in Opposition and some of the smaller parties are churning out confusing messages to the electorate with regard to LGBTIQ+ issues. They do this, for example, when they officially declare that they are in favour of the reforms that have been undertaken to guarantee equality for LGBTIQ+ persons, but then allow their spokespersons to adopt contradictory positions and scapegoat LGBTIQ+ people for their political gain.

The PN’s Spokesman for Gozo, Alex Borg, to name one, criticised the Government’s plans for free gender affirming care even though, prior to the March 2022 general election, the party he represents had also promised the same measure. On her part, the PN’s spokesperson for Culture, Arts, and National Heritage, Julie Zahra, raised concern over a Żigużajg (the Arts Festival for Children and Young People) performance and workshop regarding gender roles. In the latter case, Clayton feels that the PN jumped on the bandwagon of people’s fear of what they have little information, or are misinformed, about.

He also pointed out that, during ongoing discussions in Parliament on the Equality Bill, politicians from the opposing camp and other stakeholders scaremongered that it would bring about the introduction of abortion. The Bill consolidates existing equality laws into a single framework, guaranteeing that no one in Malta is treated less favourably in any area of life.

Clayton also expressed concern at how people in positions of leadership, despite being well-meaning, are seen to express solidarity with and support for local organisations that have a direct connection with international far-right organisations and with anti-LGBTIQ positions.  A country which has obtained such a progressive stance in this aspect has a greater responsibility to have itself represented by people in positions of influence that align with the values of equality, diversity, and respect for human rights.  

The struggle goes on

The fight for equality and fairness is a constant upstream struggle. If one stops rowing, the boat comes to rest or, worse, drifts back downstream. Things can change and what has been achieved in Malta can be easily reversed. Just look at Italy, Clayton warns, drawing attention to Giorgia Meloni’s far-right-led government’s decision to limit recognition of parental rights to the biological parent only in families with same-sex parents, a move that is expected to impact hundreds of families.

In Malta, the situation is different because of the current administration’s staunch belief in equality for LGBTIQ+ persons; a belief that has been translated into concrete action. Only five months ago, the Government unveiled the Strategy and Action Plan for LGBTIQ+ Equality for the period 2023 – 2027. The third National Strategy of its sort aims to build on previous accomplishments while addressing contemporary societal challenges. The strategy aims at closing the gap to reach the 100 per cent mark on the ILGA Europe Rainbow Index (the score for 2023 was 89 per cent), including by having the Equality Bill endorsed by Parliament.

The newly-launched roadmap is divided into ten areas, comprising 94 measures, based on various fields where LGBTIQ+ people still face discrimination or unequal treatment.

At a glance: The Strategy and Action Plan for LGBTIQ+ Equality 2023 – 2027

Area 1: Measures to promote and guarantee equal treatment in employment and service provision

Measures include ongoing training for public administrators, promoting inclusive workplaces in the private sector, supporting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to adopt inclusive practices, participating in the EU Platform of Diversity Charters, raising awareness of equal treatment, supporting LGBTIQ+ business owners, and promoting Malta as an LGBTIQ+ friendly destination in the tourism sector.

Area 2: Equality data and research that captures the lived experience of LGBTIQ+ individuals

Measures include collaborating to address data gaps, conducting research on lived experiences, providing key data on the Human Rights Directorate’s website, supporting LGBTIQ+ dissertations and academic papers, mapping training content, collating hate crime data, gathering data on gender recognition and health services, assessing school textbooks, developing guidelines for gendered spaces, and researching mental health needs of LGBTIQ+ individuals.

Area 3: Increased visibility of and inclusive services for LGBTIQ+ elderly, persons with a disability, migrants, children, and young people

Measures include raising awareness and providing inclusive care for LGBTIQ+ elderly, conducting awareness initiatives for children and young people, engaging LGBTIQ+ youth and children in public consultations, providing capacity building for professionals working with migrants and asylum seekers, addressing discriminatory provisions for family reunification, establishing a sexuality and relationships advisory centre for people with disabilities, facilitating communication between sectors, and ensuring accessibility and visibility for LGBTIQ+ individuals with disabilities.

Area 4: Fight against discrimination, hate speech, and hate crimes

Measures include extending anti-discrimination provisions, improving media standards in portraying LGBTIQ+ individuals, expanding legal gender recognition, adopting the Equality Act, enhancing relationships with the police and promoting reporting of LGBTIQ+ crimes, providing inclusive training to police officers and security guards, and conducting an awareness campaign against LGBTIQ+phobic language on social media.

Area 5: Facilitate access of LGBTIQ+ individuals to the right to private and family life

Measures include promoting inclusive public policy, celebrating diverse family forms, establishing psycho-social services and community outreach, seeking adoption protocols with third countries, and addressing domestic violence experienced by LGBTIQ+ individuals, with a focus on high-risk groups such as trans and intersex persons.

Area 6: Ensure that the right to education can be effectively enjoyed by LGBTIQ+ individuals, free from discrimination

Measures include developing inclusive approaches to LGBTIQ+ inclusion in schools, creating educational resources and training for educators, investing in capacity building for psycho-social service professionals, promoting inclusive literature and evaluating inclusive practices in schools, reviewing the sexuality and relationships education curriculum, addressing LGBTIQ+ equality and inclusion in school Awareness Days, and mainstreaming LGBTIQ+ inclusion in the new National Curriculum Framework.

Area 7: Facilitate the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ individuals in sports

Measures include conducting a national awareness campaign, providing training for sports professionals, developing guidelines for the inclusion of trans, gender variant, and intersex athletes, extending protected characteristics in the Sports Act, and creating a policy for the participation of trans and intersex students in school sports activities and competitions.

Area 8: Improve LGBTIQ+ individuals’ general well-being and access to healthcare services

Measures include setting up an inclusion working group, expanding healthcare services for trans individuals, finalizing intersex treatment protocols, promoting mental health awareness, enhancing psycho-social support for trans individuals, organizing stakeholder meetings, promoting sexual health and well-being, improving access to HIV support services, implementing an improved condom distribution program, and enhancing clinical pathways for men who have sex with men (MSM) to address higher risks.

Area 9: Consolidate the relationship between government and LGBTIQ civil society

Efforts include supporting the LGBTIQ+ Consultative Council, providing funding to civil society organisations, promoting visibility of LGBTIQ+ individuals, and offering financial and organisational support for hosting EUROPRIDE 2023 to strengthen the relationship between the government and LGBTIQ civil society.

Area 10: Promote LGBTIQ+ equality on an international level

Efforts include advocating for LGBTIQ+ equality at regional and international levels, cooperating with other states and intergovernmental organisations, and encouraging countries to enact legislation that recognises and protects the rights of LGBTIQ+ individuals. Maltese diplomatic missions are also urged to promote LGBTIQ+ equality in line with national and EU guidelines.

As work on the policy front goes on unabated, all hands must be on deck to ensure that equality and non-discrimination permeated down to every person living here in Malta, while continuing to serve as a civil liberties role model for other countries who wish to follow suit.

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