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Equality is Malta’s beacon - Helena Dalli

Last week the government inaugurated new premises for its Human Rights and Integration Directorate. Another wish come true for those of us who want equality to be further mainstreamed in our society. Indeed when this government was elected to power in March 2013, Malta had just introduced divorce.

In the meantime, our country was still fighting at the European Court of Human Rights against the rights of a trans woman who had changed her legal gender and wanted to marry her male partner. These two points alone should illustrate how socially conservative the Maltese government was slightly over five years ago.

However, that did not hold us back from aiming high in terms of equality and protection against discrimination.

We worked so that trans persons can marry their heterosexual partners, we put forward the Civil Unions Act and subsequently the Marriage Equality Act. We amended our Constitution to include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for anti discrimination.

We advanced the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act which entirely changed the situation of trans, genderqueer and intersex people.

We subsequently outlawed conversion practice and thus made it a crime to provide this so-called ‘therapy’ to gay persons in order to try to change their sexual orientation. We adopted an LGBTIQ action plan which we implemented, and are currently putting into effect the second action plan of this kind. We cannot, must not, turn the clock back.

We have a responsibility not to let anyone undo what has been done in the interest of a minority which, since time immemorial, has been at worst derided and at best ignored. A minority which had to fight and is still fighting for its rights, as though LGBTIQ people are children of some lesser god.

He’s no longer gay and he wants to marry a woman, why can’t you? This, when we know that it cannot be

A case in point of such a risk of regressing is the X-Factor incident which remains on the national agenda precisely because of the seriousness of the claims that were made. Much is being said about freedom of expression in this context. Freedom of expression which is not unlimited.

There is a difference between freedom of speech that is responsible and speech that is harmful, which is not protected by this right and is indeed limited by national law in line with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thus, those who consider this freedom as a free-for-all are not looking at the right of free speech from the responsibility perspective or from the human rights perspective. Human rights are universal and indivisible, and one right cannot be pitted against another. In the interview which was aired on PBS – and later taken down – the male interviewee was saying that he “was” gay and through divine intervention, he is now no longer so and is looking for a woman so that he may get married.

The airing of this comment was irresponsible and harmful since science shows us that sexual orientation is unchangeable. A very difficult patch for LGBTIQ people is their coming out, when even their families find it hard to accept them and would do anything to ‘change’ their sexuality or gender.

Research and experience show us that suicide, attempted suicide and suicidal ideation among LGBTIQ youth are significantly higher than among the general population. LGBTIQ adolescents have the highest rate of suicide attempts.

Conversely, parental acceptance or neutrality, with regard to a child’s sexual orientation brings down the attempted suicide rate.

This is why the said interview was detrimental to LGBTIQ youth and adolescents. Think about it this way: would the national broadcaster air a recorded interview whereby someone is saying that smoking is good for our health? Or, would it do so without a disclaimer? I don’t think so. Would this be a restriction of free expression? No. The public broadcaster is obliged to guard the public good.

How, then is it all right to broadcast an interview where the interviewee speaks in an equally irresponsible and duplicitous manner which could lead to young people – who are trying to come out – to attempt, or even commit suicide?

This kind of damaging talk puts paid to all their efforts to make their parents accept them. The latter may now say: there you go, this guy made it, he’s no longer gay and he wants to marry a woman, why can’t you? This, when we know that it cannot be.

This kind of argument goes to show how much more needs to be done. It is with this thinking that I have worked as minister over the past five years, contributing to the change in public perspective through all the policy and legislative amendments, thanks to a strong partnership with LGBTIQ civil society and also thanks to the humane leadership of our Prime Minister.

Helena Dalli is Minister for European Affairs and Equality.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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