Described by some as the Mediterranean’s ‘liberal paradox’, the small island state of Malta has embraced LGBT rights at some one the fastest paces in the world despite its majority Catholic population. Same-sex cohabitation were first regulated in 2012 and civil unions were legalised in 2014. The Civil Unions Act of 2014 guaranteed that gay couples had all the same rights as married heterosexual couples including the right to jointly adopt children, a freedom that in many states where same-sex marriage was legalised earlier took many more years to achieve. Malta has now gone one step further and legalised same-sex marriage, only three years after civil unions were first introduced.
In the 2017 general election, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat campaigned on a platform that included introducing same-sex marriage on the island. His Labour Party was in office before the election, retained their majority in the Maltese Parliament and introduced marriage equality legislation on 24th June. The final vote took place on last night and to say that the bill passed with ease would be an understatement. The bill passed 66 votes for and 1 vote against. Consequently, the legislation will be signed by Maltese President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, after which marriage equality will be legal in 15 European countries.
Although this is a momentous step forward, the positive atmosphere among LGBT people in Malta has lasted since the election earlier this year. The Democratic Party, a centre-left opposition party, have said that they will join the Labour Party in supporting the bill, and on 23rd June the Nationalist Party, the main conservative opposition, also announced their intention to back same-sex marriage legislation. This meant that even before the vote took place, the proportion of members of the House of Representatives in parties whose leaders back marriage equality was 100%. I’m never one to celebrate before a goal is officially achieved, but considering the stated lack of opposition to the bill I cannot say that I was surprised by the result.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there has been no opposition to the bill. Some more conservative Nationalist Party MPs broke from their party’s official position and have been outspoken in the hostility towards this legislation. One such lawmaker was Edwin Vassallo who said that marriage equality was “morally unacceptable”, and indeed Vassallo was the only MP that went on to vote against the bill.
Further, the Coalition for Marriage, Life and Family, a socially conservative Catholic group, organised a protest outside of the Maltese Parliament. According to the Times of Malta, only around 200 turned up, although that didn’t stop the march making headlines. One of the more colourful of these was that one protester labeled the law as “Marxist”. As a Marxist this is deeply strange to me as at no point in the legislation does it say that the ability for same-sex couples to get married is instrumental to the cause of proletarian emancipation. But to be fair I might well have missed that bit of the bill.
Some in the press have made a comparison between the gay liberation movement with the march for women’s rights on the island, and this illustrates why journalists like Herman Grech have described the country as a ‘liberal paradox’. Women secured the vote in Malta in 1947, which is comparatively late for other European countries (Denmark: 1915, Norway: 1913, Russia: 1917, Lithuania: 1917, Latvia: 1917, Germany: 1918). Furthermore, women only gained the right to get divorced in 2011. Lastly, abortion in Malta is de jure prohibited but in practice this is not enforced in other countries where the practice is outlawed.
As the status of women’s rights demonstrates, the power of the Catholic Church is shaping social policy is still incredibly strong, which is why the rapid progress of Malta’s LGBT rights movement should be an inspiration for people around the world. The case of Malta is important because it demonstrates that people who self-identify as socially conservative can surprise you. Activists in socially conservative countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia should take faith from Malta’s example and continue fighting for LGBT equality because without these ground troops raising the public profile of this injustice potential allies will unquestioningly accept the prevailing view.
Going forward, what still needs to be achieved? Bisexual and homosexual men are still prohibited from giving blood, which is a policy hangover from the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, however the youth wing of the ruling Labour Party adopted a resolution in late 2016 saying that this ban should be lifted. Further, same-sex male couples are denied access to female surrogates to have children and lesbian couples remain prohibited from accessing IVF treatment.
Given these last two injustices continue to be on the statute books, it is likely that the fight for same-sex reproductive rights will be the next battleground. I send my solidarity to campaigners on these issues, but it is my hope that the legalisation of same-sex marriage will galvanise young people into leading the activism on these issues. The involvement of the next generation would be pivotal in breaking down archaic attitudes to the family and bring about true LGBT equality on the island.