Malta to push for LGBTI rights in troubled times
Malta has become an unlikely champion for the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people in Europe.
This Catholic bastion, where legal abortion is banned and divorce was allowed only in 2011, three years ago voted for a civil union act granting same-sex partners equal rights and privileges as married couples.
A year later, the same Labour government of Joseph Muscat passed a law establishing basic rights for transsexual and intersex people, a world-first bill to create rights for intersex people.
Malta also recently became the first EU country to ban "conversion therapy" - the idea that sexual orientation can be changed with psychological treatment - and will within the coming weeks start rolling out gender-neutral passports and id cards.
Much of that is due to Helena Dalli, Malta's minister of social dialogue, consumer affairs and civil liberties, a former Miss World Malta World and lecturer of sociology at the University of Malta.
This week, Dalli said her staff was working on a proposal to introduce same-sex marriage.
The Labour politician also has her sights on changing the EU, under the auspices of the Maltese rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.
On Thursday (23 February), she told a high-level ministerial conference on LGBTIQ equality mainstreaming, that politicians should lead the way rather than be led by public opinion.
"The example of Malta shows that even countries that are often discounted as not inclined to progress can change fast the moment there is political will and civil society," Dalli said.
"Civil society are the real movers… but it's our role, the role of politicians, to do everything in our power to facilitate and support these initiatives," she added. "We politicians are there to shape public opinion and not be led by it."
The high-level conference marked the first time in years that a council presidency has made LGBTI rights a priority.
Activists who gathered in Valletta hoped this will energise their fight at a rather gloomy period in time.
The upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Czech Republic could end with gains for far-right forces. In the run-up, mainstream parties are not putting forward progressive proposals for fear it could cost them votes.
Meanwhile, the council, where EU governments are represented, has for the last nine years been blocking an anti-discrimination directive that would give the EU legal powers to protect people from prejudice because of their age, disability, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.
The European Commission has often referred to the lack of this directive to justify its lack of action on LGBTI rights. But some feel the EU executive is simply scared of member states.
"It's not a good time for the EU," said Vladimir Simonko, a Lithuanian gay activist who sits on the board of ILGA-Europe, the European lobby organisation for LGBTI rights.
For the last three years, he has been pressuring the commission to do something about a Russian-style "anti-gay propaganda" law in Lithuania.
But earlier this week, the commission sent him a letter to confirm they weren't going to open an infringement case into the matter under alleged breach of EU audiovisual rules.
When asked if the commission didn't have any other tools at hand than a directive regulating a sectoral business, Simenko said. "Maybe. I don't know. I didn't even appeal the latest decision, I didn't have the energy anymore to try and work out a case."
Some other participants, however, feel let down by justice and gender equality commissioner Vera Jourova, who vowed in her confirmation process to present member states with an EU LGBT strategy. Instead, the commission has only proposed a "list of actions" to implement on a voluntary basis.
According to one source close to the Maltese government, the veiled aim of the high-level conference in Malta was to show the commission that the situation in Europe warrants a more hands-on approach.
Michael O’Flaherty, director of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), told the conference that UN bodies had serious concerns about the situation of LGBTIQ rights in 16 of the 28 EU member states.
"There isn't one country in the EU where more than half of the LGBTIQ population feels comfortable holding hands," he said.
Gays and lesbians face discrimination in the workplace, housing, health services or in the form of bullying and hate speech. In many EU countries, doctors and nurses still see homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Transgender and intersex people are still forced to undergo forced sterilisation before their gender identity is recognised in 12 EU countries.
Daniele Viotti, an Italian centre-left MEP, told EUobserver that Malta's engagement was important, "for the EU, and for us".
Viotti, who is a co-chair of the LGBT intergroup, a cross-party forum in the European Parliament aiming to advance LGBT rights, deplored the commission's back-seat approach and said activists were not strong enough to pressure their governments into implementing the list of actions.
"The street today in anti-establishment. I wouldn't trust people to advance our rights," he said, with reference to general moods.
He said he was often coaching young activists.
"I tell them: don't fear. If you cause an uproar from anti-gay forces, that means everything is ok and you are close to winning the battle," Viotti said.
"Maybe I should tell this to Jourova and Frans Timmermans [the commission's vice president in charge of fundamental rights] as well?"
He welcomed that Malta was taking a leading role on the rights of transgender and intersex people in the EU, whose have long been neglected.
"The role of politicians is always to advance new rights," Viotti said.
Polls show that public support for LGBTI rights has grown in Malta, but that result was far from certain.
"They took a risk with the civil unions act. Nobody knew what kind of reaction that would generate," said Gabi Calleja, a coordinator of the Malta Gay Rights Movement.
"But as the parliament was voting on the bill, a huge party broke out outside the building - nothing such had ever happened before! People who had been in the closet for years came to the square and said they had to be there," Calleja told EUobserver.
She said that Malta's small size - only 420,000 people live in the Mediterranean archipelago - had helped to change the mood of the country.
"Now, there are so many couples in civic unions, that a large part of the populations knows personally someone who benefited from the law," she said.
Helena Dalli told this website she had received "many bad comments" over her trailblazing work, but she didn't seem too concerned.
"I am confident that the Malta of my grand-children will be a liberal Malta where you will be appreciated for you as you are, what you do, contribute to society, whether you're white, black, gay, straight, trans, rich, or poor. We are now sowing those seeds, and I am not expecting results for tomorrow or in five years time - but I believe they will be there in one generation's time."
But as the minister is trying to change the EU, some would also like to change her country.
Malta has the strictest legislation on reproductive rights in the world. Access to safe and legal abortion remains a taboo. Last year, lawmakers tried to stop access to the morning-after pill, although they backtracked when faced with a public outrage.
LGBTI couples also have trouble accessing family planning: it being punishable by a prison sentence to donate eggs and sperm.
When asked by a delegation from Rainbow Rose - the associate LGBTI network of the Party of European Socialists (PES), of which Malta's Labour is part - what the government is doing to enhance women's rights, Helena Dalli said the government was working on an equality bill and a human rights commission.
"We are also implementing the Istanbul convention against gender-based violence," the minister said.