Attitudes don’t change overnight | Cynthia Chircop

Reports of violent homophobia – such as the recent allegations of aggression by Paceville bouncers – seem at a glance to belie the country’s rising reputation as a ‘European leader in LGBTIQ rights’. But MGRM co-ordinator CYNTHIA CHIRCOP still believes that – notwithstanding the need for more education and awareness – Malta remains a ‘relatively safe’ place to be gay

Cynthia Chircop (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Cynthia Chircop (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

In January, MGRM published a study which found that “55.6% of respondents said they did not feel safe in Paceville, while 35% claimed to have suffered some form of discrimination”. Recent events – including a much-publicised homophobic assault at Nordic Bar – seem to uphold those findings. First of all: how widespread do you believe the problem of violent homophobia to be in Malta today?

Compared to other countries across the globe – where LGBT persons have been murdered, just for being LGBTIQ – I believe Malta is relatively safe for LGBTIQ persons, and violence is not a widespread problem.

For instance: the EU LGBTI Survey II, conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2019, found that LGBTIQ respondents in Malta had the lowest reported rate of threats and violence in the EU; and the rate of physical or sexual attacks motivated by the victim being LGBTIQ was only 6%.

In addition to that, within the survey we conducted, only 14% described the incidents they experienced as ‘violent’. However, underreporting of incidents could potentially be a factor for such low numbers.

Also, violent homophobia and transphobia could be experienced by LGBTIQ migrants coming from communities that are extremely homophobic. Through the work we do with LGBTIQ migrants, and online requests for help from persons who are still in their country of origin, we have encountered LGBTIQ persons who live in fear for their lives, if their communities found out they were gay.

It follows that open centres and detention centres are not safe for LGBTIQ persons. In fact, we had a case earlier this year of a trans asylum seeker who needed housing and was welcomed by a person in their home as the open centre was not safe for him.

At the same time, Malta has been consistently praised for its gay rights legislation: earning first place in the International Lesbian-Gay Association’s Rainbow Europe’s league for LGBT rights, from 2018 onwards. And yet, the MGRM report paints a somewhat different picture: with respondents claiming that “Paceville bouncers often aggressively intervene when LGBTIQ individuals display public affection”. How do you account for this apparent contradiction? Is it a case of having all the necessary legislation in place… without making any real difference on the ground?

Every year, we welcome the news that Malta is first on ILGA Europe’s Rainbow Europe map; but we also advise caution.

On the ground, there is still much work to be done within Maltese society, in terms of education: especially where being LGBTIQ intersects with other groups and issues such as youths, migrants, the HIV positive community, sexual health and so on.

Training is still requested by educators and professionals on resources, learning more about supporting LGBTIQ persons and in creating safe spaces; and the Rainbow Support Services offered by MGRM are still sought out by LGBTIQ persons and their families.

Attitudes have definitely changed, and it is due to a number of reasons; the improvement in legislation, the extensive work of local NGOs in education, raising awareness and lobbying as well as a general shift in attitudes towards LGBTIQ persons that could also be attributed to increased visibility and inclusion of LGBTIQ persons in media.

Apart from violent assault, the study identifies discrimination in the provision of services to be a major issue. LGBT persons have reported being denied entry to establishments, as well as being harassed (and/or kicked out) for using gender-segregated bathrooms, etc. These issues were all also highlighted in MGRM’s submissions to the Human Rights Council, all the way back in 2008. Why do you think it is taking so long for such basic prejudices to be overcome?

I believe it is a lack of education and sensitivity towards LGBTIQ persons, and lack of knowledge of discrimination laws. Even victims are often not aware of their rights; and in many cases, the establishment itself would have no policies in place to ensure their patrons are treated with dignity and respect: regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and other protected characteristics.

Attitudes don’t change overnight, however; even with such a swift change in legislation protecting LGBTIQ persons. What we would like to see is establishments actively taking steps by getting sensitivity training, having inclusive policies, as well as taking on a campaign such as the ‘Ask for Clive’ campaign in the UK: whereby patrons could alert staff to cases of homophobia or transphobia.

There is also a need for education campaigns to address the number of under-reported incidents; focusing on such issues as what is criminal (and therefore, reportable); how to open a report, and how progress can be monitored; as well as providing information about hate crime and the rights and duties of the public.

MGRM’s recommendations, in its January 2020 report, include ‘a bill to regulate bouncers’ – which has been in discussion since the 1990s, but never actually materialised – as well as sensitivity training for the police, among others. Has any progress been made since then? Do you feel, in a nutshell, that the issue of homophobia is being given enough importance by the authorities?

It was reported, in late 2019, that the drafting of a law regulating bouncers in entertainment establishments was at an advanced stage, but we have not heard anything on its progress since then. The fact that the Human Rights Directorate is providing training to police officers, through the police academy, is certainly a step in the right direction, but we feel that there is more that can be done: especially on tackling under-reporting.

Under-reporting certainly seems to be an issue. The Paceville survey also found that “Most (93%) of those who suffered some form of discrimination stated that they did not report the incident to the police.” Does this reflect a lack of trust in the police force, in such cases? If so, what option does that leave for the victims of homophobic crime?

There are several reasons why a person would not report an incident to the police. MGRM did not gather much information on this in the survey, however.

Nonetheless, it could be due to ignorance of the law: i.e. not knowing if one is covered by the law, or if the behaviour in question is actually criminal. Non-reporting could also happen if one did not feel the incident was serious enough to warrant a report.

Lack of trust in the police – or the belief that reporting will not lead to effective action – is also a possibility; and we had respondents who expressed this when describing their own experiences in the survey.

The few who did report incidents also claimed they did not receive any feedback from the police; or if they did receive any, it was after a long time had elapsed.

With the setting up of the Hate Crime and Hate Speech Unit, however, we hope to see an improvement in report numbers. The Human Rights Directorate is also providing training to police officers to respond to cases of hate crime and hate speech, including LGBTIQ victims, through the police academy.

Since the launch of the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2022, they have trained a total of 866 officers. As mentioned earlier, we believe an education campaign on addressing underreporting of hate crime and hate speech incidents is needed.

Anti-LGTB discrimination is, of course, not limited just to Paceville. Nor does it always manifest itself in outright violence. In 2008, for instance, it was reported that “73% of respondents feel the need to conceal their sexual orientation and/or gender identity or avoid discussing it at the workplace, some or all the time. 13% of respondents experienced discrimination in employment [including] refusal of employment, and dismissal.” Has the situation improved in any way since then?

The situation has improved greatly since 2008. In the most recent survey on LGBTI people in the EU to date – the FRA EU LGBTI Survey II conducted in 2019 – 27% of respondents are not open about being LGBTI at work; only 7% felt they were discriminated against in seeking employment, and 16% felt discriminated against at work due to being LGBTI in the 12 months before the survey was held.

That marks a significant change – from 73% to 27%, in just over a decade – and it is evidence of the change in attitudes and inclusive workplace policies. This is further proof of the value of education and increased visibility of LGBTIQ persons.