By Fiona Petras
Before moving away from my home country, I went for a regular health checkup in which I was asked by the doctor to confirm my sexual orientation—a question asked, of course, in a very binary fashion. Did I like men, women, or both? “Both,” I said, choosing to pick my battles and avoid biting the hand that fed me. I answered the questions dutifully, informing her that I hadn’t been involved with a man sexually in quite a while (she noted it down, nodding), nor had I been involved with a woman that year—at which point she felt the need to confirm whether I was sure I “liked both.” We’ve heard it all before.
I didn’t even question the other things she asked me, i.e., whether I was trans, whether I had ever been involved in an orgy, or whether I had ever partaken in chemsex. These, I thought, were simply questions she had to ask everyone, considering it was important within this context to know my sexual history. It was not until I mentioned it in passing to my straight friends over a year later that I was shocked to learn they had never been asked such things by an OB/GYN. It was also at that moment that I recalled she had, in all likelihood, completely disregarded the fact of my bisexuality, anyway. It was not so much her assumptions about my (apparently very exciting) sex life that shook me, but rather the fact that straight people were assumed not to ever partake in such things. This is when I realized that heteronormativity and monosexuality harm everyone, even cishet people of all genders.
As a result, bi+ and monosexual folk alike are being deprived of essential medical health advice. It would not be a far cry to assume that the same nuances in mental health issues for bi+ patients are being disregarded by professionals in Malta and around the world. A 2020 online campaign carried out by the Allied Rainbow Communities (ARC) NGO revealed that an anonymous contributor had been advised by their therapist to avoid dating bisexuals since they are unreliable. All this is still happening in what is supposedly the most queer-friendly country in Europe for the sixth year running.
With the release of its Rainbow Europe 2021 map, ILGA-Europe announced that “for the sixth year in a row, Malta continues to occupy the number one spot on the Rainbow Europe Map, with a score of 94%.” In the aptly rainbow-colored bar measuring respect for human rights and equality in 49 countries, the European nation sits proudly atop the column, glowing dark green to indicate its apparent superiority over the rest of Europe. It remains perched comfortably far even from its runner up, Belgium, which sits at 74%.
That’s a surprisingly stark chasm, especially for a small and staunchly Catholic island-country in the Southern Mediterranean basin which only legalized divorce in 2011, allowed sale of the morning-after pill in 2016, and still maintains a total and complete blanket ban on abortion with no legal exceptions. So, what sets LGBTQI+ issues apart, and are these findings reflective of the real situation on the Maltese islands? Are government employees and other professionals given the tools required to ensure the physical safety and improved mental health of queer people in Malta? Just as importantly, has the concept of bodily autonomy and general mental and physical health awareness trickled down to individual people going about their everyday lives, whether directly related to LGBTQI+ issues or not?
ILGA-Europe explains that to create its country ranking, each respective country’s laws and policies are assessed using a set of criteria divided into six categories: family; hate crime and hate speech; civil society space; asylum; equality and non-discrimination; and legal gender recognition and bodily integrity. In April 2015, Malta passed world-first legislation that protects intersex infants and children from non-consensual medical interventions through the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics (GIGESC) Act, which recognizes the right to bodily integrity and physical autonomy—in stark contrast to the country’s position on reproductive rights, but a massive step forward, nonetheless.
There is no denying that Malta has in recent years taken a leap forward to become a world leader in certain aspects of LGBTQI+ related policy and legislation. Marriage equality was legalized in Malta in 2017, following which several practical changes were made to accommodate various family set-ups. When discussing Malta’s impressive turnaround, there has been a tendency to focus on policy and legislation, and ILGA-Europe is clearly no exception.
But what about practical changes on the ground and in people’s day-to-day lives? What about the mentality of the Maltese public themselves? Some queer Maltese nationals from the sister-island of Gozo have expressed feeling much more hesitant to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity when returning to rural areas, which has certainly taken an additional toll on their mental health compared to their “mainland” peers. Socio-economic and regional background aside, the reality in Malta is far removed from the seemingly progressive legislation that has been put in place.
In 2019, a transgender woman was attacked by a man while waiting for the bus as he hurled homophobic slurs at her. Earlier that year, Malta had been named the best European destination for LGBTQI+ travelers and the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) had taken this opportunity to highlight the Maltese people’s “reputation for kindness and excellent hospitality.” We Maltese do indeed tend to pride ourselves on our warm and familiar culture; however, it seems our capacity for compassion continues to regress—or perhaps it was always merely a fantasy we told ourselves.
Following the legislative changes in 2016, the MTA embarked on a campaign to promote Malta to LGBTQI+ tourists in the United States and Canada. Fast forward to 2021, and English X Factor star Lucy Spraggan took to Facebook to describe how she had to cut her holiday in Malta short following a series of events in which she and her girlfriend had been continuously harassed. Her decision to choose Malta as a holiday destination had been influenced by its reputation as a progressive and LGBT-friendly country. The public’s reaction to this story was not entirely sympathetic, with several individuals claiming that she was just seeking more publicity.
This begs the question: is Malta truly the bastion of equal rights and mental and physical health that it claims to be, or is it merely economically expedient to appear so? A country where conversion therapy promoters are given platforms to air their opinions because it attracts more viewers. A country where racism and xenophobia are not merely implicit but proudly displayed in public with little to no repercussions, where a migrant worker from the Ivory Coast was gunned down in a drive-by shooting by two members of the Malta Armed Forces. A country where an undocumented worker was abandoned on the side of the road by his employer after falling two stories from a construction site, and his first reaction upon being aided by passersby was to beg not to be arrested. Where in 2020, a pregnant woman’s passport was confiscated after her abusive partner claimed she was seeking an abortion abroad. Where in November 2021, Maltese onlookers in Valletta were filmed egging on a foreign national to take his own life while professionals attempted (thankfully successfully) to talk him off the ledge. This is the same country which has violated the non-refoulement principle (which establishes that those who seek asylum may not be returned to a country in which there are reasonable grounds to believe they will be subjected to persecution) in dealing with the refugee crisis, preferring to bicker with Italy and return asylum seekers to Libya over protecting human life.
Am I now meant to believe that this country gives a damn about queer people, much less bisexual visibility, if it cannot deliver on these intersectional issues?
During this year’s national census, my worst suspicions were confirmed. At face value, the questionnaire had all the indicators of inclusion, taking into account gender and sexual minority respondents and reassuring participants that despite being grouped by household, the privacy of each resident would be respected under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Some weeks after filling out the survey, however, my sister texted me with an urgent heads-up: someone from the census had called my house and asked my father to confirm that I was indeed bisexual. Up until this point, he’d had no idea. I had so many questions. Why were they calling my house with the same questions I’d already answered online? Why was my privacy as an adult household member being violated, and why were my safety considerations being completely disregarded?
While I am lucky enough to have open-minded parents, many aren’t so fortunate. My experience wasn’t unique, as ARC received similar complaints and recommended reporting such grievances directly to the Census. I did so, of course, but the damage has already been done. I was furious. The decision on how, when, and whether to come out to my parents had been stolen from me—all because those hired to carry out these phone calls had either been improperly trained or were so insensitive as to completely ignore procedure. I had been outed to my father by the most queer-friendly government in Europe.
No country will ever be able to completely eradicate discrimination, which is why the fight for equality is never over. But a pattern has started to emerge in Malta. When a government claims to stand for queer liberation but fails the most basic ethical implementation of its policies, it is at best incompetent and at worst deceitful. When a country continues to trudge forward in its regressive policies on immigration and asylum, gender equality, and reproductive rights, it is not truly progressive. When a government enacts policies at the very top but neglects to implement a bottom-up approach to mental health and non-discrimination to ensure that such changes are welcomed and led by the public, these changes are superficial at best. And lastly, when queer liberation is highlighted particularly in times of national crisis or, conveniently, when a new corruption scandal emerges, this is not merely a coincidence; it is blatant pinkwashing.
Fiona Petras is a bi+ writer from Malta who has previously contributed to Bi Women Quarterly and set up the Facebook page Call Us Bi, Our Name.