AROUND THE WORLD: Fiona Petras, Malta

Jun 2, 2021 | 2021 Summer - Never Have I Ever

Interviewed by Robyn Ohs

Fiona, please tell us about yourself. 

I identify as a cisgender, fluid bisexual woman and go by she/her pronouns. I was born and raised in Malta, and also lived in the U.K. and Belgium before moving to the U.S. for work. I am now 25 years old and working in foreign affairs. 

During lockdown, I rediscovered my love for reading and writing. In fact, I’ve challenged myself to complete my first novel, which has been my dream ever since I was a child. It will mainly focus on feminist issues and pro-choice themes, and I want to use my writing as a space for bisexual characters to exist in a Maltese setting without the story revolving around their orientation. 

Once gyms safely reopened last summer, I returned to my favorite hobby—pole fitness and aerial arts! I’ve had a complicated relationship with my body my whole life, and pole helped me appreciate what my body is capable of. 

How did you come to identify as fluid bisexual? What caused you to first start questioning your identity/sexuality? 

It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact “aha!” moment. Even after I learned that bisexuality exists, it didn’t click until years later. Looking back at my childhood, there were definitely moments that I now realize could have been crushes. However, it’s easy to analyze your past through the prism of your current self-awareness. 

I call that “the lens of 20/20 hindsight!” Things can look very different looking backward.

The truth is, as a child I had little interest in romance beyond playing make-believe. I think my initial attempt to prove that I have always been bisexual stems from the “Born This Way” argument. 

That said, I always had an inkling that I might one day become attracted to a woman, even though I barely had any evidence at the time. I went through life inexplicably paranoid that others could sense something I couldn’t. When I was ten, a playmate at the park began absent-mindedly fidgeting with my shirt collar, and I went red, certain that I would be “found out” by my parents. 

Ouch!

While playing princesses with my sister, I once entertained the idea that a princess might kiss me instead of a prince. In my mind, I was behaving like a boy, because only boys like girls. I carried this shame into my teenage years. Sometimes, a friendly hug from a platonic friend would trigger musings about a hypothetical relationship with a girl. As a result, I had problems showing my friends physical affection—even long hugs caused me great stress. I was especially confused because I wasn’t attracted to my friends. I also knew I liked boys and therefore couldn’t be a lesbian. While firmly believing in gay rights, I didn’t fall under this category, so I resolved to push it all down and believed I was a broken, perverted straight person. 

It was social media that opened my mind to the vocabulary I’d lacked as a child. When I first encountered the term heteroflexible around the age of 16, I felt that it described me perfectly at the time. As far as I knew, I was straight, but who was I to say what would happen in the future? As time went on, I started entertaining this idea more and more. 

It wasn’t until freshman year at university that I began mixing with people I hadn’t known since kindergarten and finally met girls who I was attracted to. Due to my uncertainty, I dipped my toe in by thinking of myself as bi-curious. I made a bunch of irrational decisions, jumping into bed with the first guy I liked who gave me attention because I wanted so badly to validate my attraction to men.

Finally in my online research, I discovered the definition you coined—that bisexuality is the potential to be attracted, romanticaly and/or sexually, to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree! The key word that struck me was “potential,” and finally everything clicked into place. I had always had the potential to be attracted to women, even though I had not yet met the right person. Continuing to experiment with labels, I tried bisexual heteroromantic, as the flexibility of the split attraction model appealed to me. Finally, I settled on just bisexual, and I no longer exclude the possibility of romantic attraction to any gender. If someone were to call me pansexual, I would not contradict them. However, I identify more with the term bisexual because it is the first word that made me realize there was nothing wrong with me, and so I attach deep emotional meaning to it.

I started dating men and women roughly around the same time, at 20 years old. Before my first date with a woman, I was terrified. What if I didn’t like kissing her? Would that mean I just wasn’t attracted to her, or that I’d been faking all along? But that first kiss felt so natural that I no longer doubted my capacity to feel attraction towards any gender. Funnily enough, she happened to have a gender-neutral name, so for a few months I managed to keep my best friends in the dark about this new development. I felt as though once I uttered the word bisexual out loud, I wouldn’t be able to take it back, but the relief that came with finally confiding in my closest friends took a huge weight off my shoulders that I had been carrying since childhood. 

Admittedly, the first woman I dated and I did not have much in common, but as with most first times, I became infatuated (I once stayed out with her and her friends until 7am in an attempt to garner her attention). On the other hand, I was faced with the reality that if this worked out, a) my future could change drastically, and b) I would have to tell my parents. This terrified me, and I sabotaged everything, pushing her away until she gave up on me. I still feel guilty for how I treated her and for embodying the stereotype of a “bad bisexual,” flaky and indecisive, as she called us.

Aged 24, I entered my first long-term relationship with a man—a Maltese American (what are the odds?). Before this, I had to experience a series of negative responses from men and women alike, calling me unreliable/untrustworthy, comparing me to cheating exes, or oversexualizing me and trying to take advantage of me sexually. 

What, if any, is your religious background, and what impact did this have on your coming out?  

Malta is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, although religious influence has steadily decreased in the past decade. I was raised Christian and consider myself as such only in so far as that is my cultural heritage, and it is so closely intertwined with Maltese life. I had to attend catechism classes to obtain my sacraments, went to Mass every Sunday, and attended a church school where I studied religion as part of the national curriculum. My O-Level finals [a secondary school exam] coincided with Malta’s 2011 divorce referendum and included questions like, “What should a good Christian say about legalizing divorce and same-sex marriage?” In my teens I became disillusioned with the Church as an institution and how its teachings interfered in local politics. Realizing that I could never possibly confirm or deny the existence of God and the afterlife, I settled on the term agnostic, rejecting yet another binary (religious versus atheist).

My disillusionment stemmed from various factors, not least due to a family feud which unfolded around the time of my O-Levels when I was 15. I watched as my staunchly Catholic grandmother and my grand-aunt used each other’s queer children as pawns against one another. Seeing them being treated like cannon fodder caused me personal distress which I was unable to understand at the time. My grandmother finally acknowledged and accepted my uncle’s orientation and his partner, but a whole decade later our ties with my grand-aunt’s side of the family remain severed. Before leaving for the U.S., I visited them, and it broke my heart to see that they didn’t even recognize me. Today, I am only out to my best friends, my partner, and my younger sister, who is also bisexual and came out to me first (when she was 15 and I 18). My parents are much more open-minded when it comes to gay marriage, having helped my uncle come out to my grandparents. At first, however, even my parents struggled to understand bisexuality. They confronted my sister after accidentally seeing some Facebook messages and couldn’t understand why, given the choice, she wouldn’t simply choose “the better of the two options.” I resolved then and there not to become yet another “problem.”

And now you’re out to us, too, though under a pseudonym. I’m curious: what is the legal and cultural situation for LGBTQ+ (LGBTQIA+) people in Malta?

Same-sex marriage was legalized in Malta in 2017 by a more liberal government (not without its own flaws). In 2015, Malta adopted ground-breaking legislation protecting intersex children from unnecessary medical interventions. The Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sex Characteristics Act recognizes the right to bodily integrity and physical autonomy. It is now also possible to not list one’s gender on ID documents. Since then, Malta has been ranked first by ILGA-Europe in terms of LGBT+ rights legislation. EuroPride 2023 will also be hosted in Malta.

Unfortunately, our culture hasn’t been so quick to catch up. While most people are now growing more accepting of lesbian and gay individuals, bisexuals and trans/non-binary people still remain largely forgotten or misunderstood. In 2019, a transgender woman was assaulted in Malta as she was waiting at a bus stop. When the government adopted more gender-inclusive legal language (such as spouses instead of husband/wife and parents instead of mother/father), there was public outrage. Transphobic rhetoric was also scribbled in the University of Malta bathrooms when a gender-neutral stall was introduced in addition to the gendered ones. Groups of self-proclaimed “ex-gays” continue promoting conversion therapy, although they largely aren’t taken seriously. 

What words are used to describe lesbian, gay, bi, or non-heterosexual people in your country?  Are these words equivalent to their English counterparts, or do they have a different meaning?

Due to our colonial history, Malta is a bilingual country and people tend to code-switch between Maltese and English in everyday speech. The Maltese words for gay, straight, bi, intersex, and transgender would be omosesswali, eterosesswali, bisesswali, intersesswali/intersess, and transġeneru. The Maltese word for binary is binarju, but I have yet to come across the Maltese equivalent for non-binary. When we want to refer to these terms casually or fill a lacuna, we tend to simply switch to English. Leżbjana is the Maltese equivalent to lesbian. While it is not in itself a slur, it is still often used in a negative context or as an insult (I was called this a lot as a child when I misbehaved). The pufta slur for gay men is also found in Maltese and is still thrown around like it’s nothing. 

I know nothing about Maltese. Is your language very gendered? 

The Maltese language is the sole surviving descendent of Sicilian Arabic, an extinct Maghrebi dialect, and so it is a Semitic language with pronouns derived from Arabic. It is mostly a mixture of Arabic and Italian, with some influence from English and French. Maltese is highly gendered and even inanimate objects are classified as he or she. Unlike the English they, the Maltese huma has not naturally developed the function of a neutral third person singular. This is particularly difficult when endeavoring to keep someone’s gender identity private. I often need to resort to English or lie about my partner’s gender. The best I’ve managed is to avoid pronouns entirely by saying, “This person is…” While I am not non-binary myself and cannot speak for everyone, I have seen some non-binary folks choose the pronoun they most prefer.

Are you involved with any bi+ or LGBTQ+ organizations in your country or internationally? 

I became involved in Maltese bi+ activism while in the States through an online campaign with Malta’s Allied Rainbow Communities (ARC). We encouraged people to anonymously submit their experiences, some of which shocked me. There were cases where a gynecologist or psychologist didn’t take them seriously or told them to stay away from “promiscuous bisexuals.” Once I moved to the U.S. in the midst of the pandemic, I joined virtual bi+ discussions with Center Bi+.

Are bi folks well-integrated into Malta’s sexual minority community?

I am sure that if a bi person were to join an LGBTQ+ organization, they would be welcomed with open arms. As for the social aspect, dating and gay bars/events, this may vary greatly. It is quite difficult to form a community or sense of belonging because bisexuality does not usually come up in casual conversation the way it does for monosexuals who need only mention a partner or ex. The struggle to find a group of people who “get it” can be lonely. In my late teens, I often expressed feeling bisexual but not LGBTQ+, and this sentiment still sadly resonates with me since, in my experience, LGBTQ+ is too often assumed to mean gay. Even when discussing same-sex marriage, the terminology that is often used is gay marriage. When we celebrated this major milestone in Malta, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only there as an ally, and not as someone who could one day benefit from this law. 

This language confusion was common, for the most part, across the U.S. as well, despite efforts on the part of some of us to use the term “marriage equality.” And here’s my last question: Where would a person living in Malta find bi+ support or resources, inside or outside your country?

Bi+ specific research remains scarce in Malta. ARC has created a private Facebook group for bi+ individuals in Malta. Anyone interested can request to join “Bi & Pan Malta Community” (www.facebook.com/groups/bipanmalta). Other resources are more general LGBTQ+ spaces, but ARC, the Rainbow Support Service, MGRM (Malta Gay Rights Movement), We Are, and LGBTQI+ Gozo are all great organizations to reach out to for support and information.

Robyn Ochs is editor of Bi Women Quarterly and two anthologies: Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World and RECOGNIZE: The Voices of Bisexual Men.

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