In a sea of contradictions

First appeared in DIVA magazine.

Turn on a Church radio station in Malta and you can listen to the Rosary, or The Horoscope, and Miley Cyrus within minutes of each other. To us it might seem strange, yet this is typical of this small island just off Sicily, so full of contradictions that it almost makes a strange kind of sense.

Want more examples? There are plenty. Firstly, given how many times Malta, and its sleepy sister island, Gozo, have been colonised – by the Romans, Spanish, French and British amongst others – it has an unexpectedly strong sense of identity and Maltese characteristics (friendly, outspoken, unhurried) become obvious within a few days. Secondly, the Maltese insist they are fit and healthy, yet their country has the highest obesity rate in the EU.

On the one hand abortion is still illegal and yet, on the other, Malta’s Ministry of Education last year introduced policy for how schools should address transgender and intersex students.

Thirdly, there’s the legislation. Malta is one of the few countries in the world which (in 2015) passed intersex legislation and yet in 2012 Embryo Protection Act also passed, meaning Malta has no sperm bank. Divorce was only introduced in 2011 (with just 51% voting in favour in a national referendum), a mere three years before the provision of Maltese Civil Unions (2014). On the one hand abortion is still illegal and yet, on the other, Malta’s Ministry of Education last year introduced policy for how schools should address transgender and intersex students.

And as for Catholicism… That isn’t just a legacy here, it’s embedded into the country’s DNA – so much so that there are over 365 Churches on Malta and Gozo combined, more than one for every day of the year! It might sound obvious, then, to suggest that Malta isn’t the ideal LGBTIQ holiday destination but that wouldn’t be fair; on our recent visit to this Mediterranean sun-spot my wife and I were subject to fewer quizzical looks than when going about our regular business in London.

Clearly it wasn’t like this twenty or thirty years ago. So what exactly has been going on behind the scenes? Much of the work done to promote Malta as an LGBTIQ destination for both locals and holidaymakers should be attributed to Maltese gay rights activist Gabi Calleja. Gabi, whom we were lucky enough to catch up with on our visit, works tirelessly to promote opportunities for older LGBTIQ people in Malta. She spoke openly to us about the stronghold of the Catholic Church, who recently introduced a paper in Malta suggesting anti conversion therapy (aimed to ‘rid’ people of their non-heterosexual desires). Thankfully this was met with enough resistance to be culled and last October, thanks to the efforts of Gabi and her colleagues, Malta moved up to number one on the European Rainbow Map (overtaking the UK and Belgium).

Things are changing, sometimes quickly sometimes slowly and, as Gabi’s partner Nadine comments: “The line between liturgy and liberache here is very thin.” The main gay bars are more male focussed (such as A-XM) and centre around the tourist districts of Paceville and St Julians (axmgroup.co.uk) and the popularity of Eurovision puts camp firmly on every bar’s menu at least once a year. These days Malta has a week of events dedicated in June to Pride however. It’s an intimate gathering organised by Allied Rainbow Communities alongside the Malta Tourism Authority which usually draws around 300, Gabi informs us. But this is around 225 more than when it launched in 2004! “A transgender person was granted asylum on those grounds here in Malta,” Gabi tells us. “Malta Gay Rights also organises Rainbow support services with a weekly youth drop in and social work and counselling for those under 25 and there’s a Rainbow Crossing in both Malta and Gozo and the school children crossed the one in Gozo with full parental consent!”

And now: what to see? The Maltese archipelago is a small, friendly place, with just a 25-minute ferry ride between the two islands and a total population of 400,000. There’s plenty to recommend it in terms of sightseeing, landscape and food – a fusion of Italian, Sicilian and Mediterranean influences. The capital, Valletta, is not to be missed. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site with elegant squares, tiny cobbled streets and the remarkable St John Co-Cathedral, home to two works by world renowned painter, Caravaggio. Recently voted 2018 European Capital of Culture, Valletta is an interesting phase of regeneration. This centres in particular around the ex-party strip of Straight Street (known to its old friends as ‘the gut’) where, until the 1970s and the end of British rule, it was once home to cabaret bars and transgender performers, all frequented by British sailors. Strolling around the medieval town of Mdina (a.k.a. ‘the silent city’) is also very memorable. Its tiny population – less than 300 – and unspoilt medieval streets were recently made famous as the location for many crucial scenes in the hit TV series ‘Games of Thrones’. Another urban highlight is the trendy waterfront town, Sliema, located opposite Valletta harbour. Sliema is an ex-pat, yoga hub with one vegan-friendly cafe (mintmalta.com, also see thegrassyhopper.com in Valletta), excellent steak (Little Argentina on Tower Road) and beautiful grand old houses set back from the water on narrow undulating streets. Though the ferries between Gozo and North Malta are quick (25 mins) and regular, in general the Maltese public transport system lacks urgency… so it’s best to hire a car if you’re keen to really explore traditional spots like the quaint fishing village Marsaxlokk (go on Sunday mornings for the infamous fish market) or visit a lesser-known Maltese favourite, the Playmobil fun park (playmobilmalta.com) just five minutes’ drive from the airport. Or, for another side of life, visit Gozo (translation: ‘joy’) whose tiny villages have hardly changed in decades and whose Ggantija Temples are the oldest freestanding structures in the world – even older than the pyramids.

GETTING THERE
• National carrier Air Malta continues to operate an extensive year-round scheduled service of up to 26 flights per week from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester with fares from as little as £75 one way. Air Malta also operate regional Summer charter flights from Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham,
• Newcastle, Exeter, Norwich and Glasgow. airmalta.com
• Also see visitmalta.com for tourist information

– By Lucy Fry

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