Exclusive: Malta’s PM Joseph Muscat challenges world leaders ‘to lead and not follow’ on LGBT equality

Since Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was elected in 2013, the traditionally-conservative island of Malta has had nothing short of a revolution on LGBT rights.

The Catholic island nation, home to half a million people, now regularly tops lists of the best countries in Europe on LGBT rights – after civil unions, equal marriage, gender recognition laws, same-sex adoption and a ban on gay cure therapy were passed by Muscat’s government.

This week, Muscat is in London for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where progress on equality is a hot topic given 36 of the 53 participating countries still criminalise homosexuality. On Tuesday, for example, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said she “deeply regrets” Colonial-era anti-gay laws being inherited by other Commonwealth countries.

PinkNews spoke to Muscat about what changed his mind on LGBT rights, and what can be done globally to convince conservative countries to embrace LGBT equality.

Malta has done a huge amount on LGBT rights in the past five years. As a leader, why has it been so important to you to pursue these reforms?

For me, it has been a process and a learning curve.

I do remember the first interview I gave as leader of the opposition. I said, ‘I agree with civil unions but I disagree with access to adoptions and I definitely don’t agree with marriage equality, because I think marriage is something else.’

That was my point of departure. Throughout the process I met so many mostly young people who told me their experiences, showing me that I was wrong.

I changed my mind. I saw that I was wrong, and today we are in a much better place.

What did you think of gay people when you were growing up?

Well, Malta was one of the most conservative societies in Europe.

I was never exposed to negative sentiment against gay people, but I grew up in a society where some things were left unspoken. Society seemed to be content with simply tolerating that gay people exist – they’re not bad, as long as they’re not with children.

That’s the type of society I grew up in, but I had gay friends at school, and I still do have many gay people who are very close friends of mine.

What really swung my opinion, and that of many, is when issues on LGBTIQ rights are made to be issues of equality. That is the principle we adopt in anything we do – why should we discriminate? That’s the simple acid test.

Public opinion shifted very quickly in Malta. In 2006, a poll found that 73 percent of people opposed equal marriage, but a decade later 65 percent said they were in favour. Why do you think there has been such a massive change?

Self-praise is no praise, but I think as a government, we’ve showed leadership.

I remember those polls, and if we had acted based on the numbers, it’s crazy, the government doing something which is not even supported by 30 percent of our population. It’s crazy by any political standard.

But we engaged with people, and we managed to convince more people, and more importantly we gave a voice to people who experience discrimination every day of their life.

I think what really swung the debate on adoptions, for example, was the experience of a young couple – two men – who went on TV on a very popular programme and appeared with their adopted son who has Down’s syndrome.

The country learned the story of this wonderful young kid, who other so-called ‘normal’ couples had refused because of his disability. Had it not been for these two young gay men, this young kid would today still be institutionalised and instead he has a loving family.

That experience was so strong that even some of the most profound doubters had to rethink their position.

Q. Malta is a very Catholic country. What was the reaction like from religious communities towards equal marriage and LGBT rights?

I don’t think there was a homogeneous response. I think that the Roman Catholic Church globally is rethinking its position on how to react.

I don’t agree with the current position of the Church, even though I’m a Catholic myself, but I would caution against demonising the Church in its entirety or saying it’s an anti-gay organisation.

In any organisation of that size there are different facets and different people. Not everyone has the one point of view.

Some other Catholic countries have had a very different experience to Malta. In Italy there was a very strong reaction to proposals for civil unions, which took many years to secure agreement, and there’s little chance for progress beyond that. Why do you think that is?

Once again, I think it’s about leadership, and whether you think these issues are issues worth campaigning for. No-one will put into place changes simply because they need to happen. Someone needs to campaign, someone needs to convince mainstream political leaders who are willing to take the risk and campaign on such issues.

Even when we have doubts or there were issues, we discussed them openly. We didn’t try to conceal them – we tried to not demonise those people who would not agree. We said, “I see your point, I totally disagree with your point, and this is why I disagree with your point.”

We’re here during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Theresa May spoke of the UK’s regret at its history of imposing anti-gay laws in former colonies, many of whom still have the laws today. Malta had such a penal code that was repealed in the 1970s – what did you think of her remarks?

Within the context of the meeting we’re holding this week, I think it was the proper thing to do, acknowledging that some of the problems that LGBTIQ people are facing in a lot of Commonwealth countries [is] a direct result of colonial rule.

I would say it shouldn’t be used as an excuse [by Commonwealth countries] in saying, “This law is because of the British.” I think that’s too convenient. We were under colonial rule, we were a colony, but we have dispensed those laws more than 40 years ago.

So this shouldn’t be used as some sort of point of arrival – but it’s the start of the process.

36 Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexuality. What role do you think progressive countries can have on an international scale to encourage others to decriminalise homosexuality?

That’s the million dollar question. Malta’s experience speaks for itself and our values, but I would caution against taking a sort of neo-Colonial attitude to this, in telling others what they should do.

I think we should be very strong in our advocacy, but advocacy is about hand-holding and showing leaders that we are willing to walk together down this path, and sharing experiences of misconceptions in our own countries on our own path.

Our approach should be one of partnership, but that should not be mistaken for not saying things as they are.

Have you raised LGBT rights with leaders from countries with anti-gay laws, and, if so, what has the reaction been like?

Yes, I have. Most of the time the standard answer is, “Our society is not ready for this,” for which my standard counter-reply is: “Leaders need to lead and not follow.”

Only twice has someone said, “I don’t think this should be done.” The standard reply is, “It’s not us, it’s society as a whole.”

But we’ve gone through this ourselves – there’s always excuses for putting up obstacles to change.

It’s politicians blaming people, when actually, the people want politicians to say what they really think and take it from there.

What role do you think the European Union can have in helping to secure LGBT rights?

As the European Union, we must first of all see that all our member states have a basic degree of respect, treat their citizens equally, and don’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

It is only then that we can have enough clout and credibility to help other countries [outside the EU] – but, definitely, I do think there should be a correlation between international development aid and the treatment of the LGBTIQ community.

(Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty)

Malta was the first country in Europe to prohibit the use of gay ‘cure’ therapy. What pushed you to act on this?

The reason has [a first name] and a surname: Silvan Agius [Malta’s human rights and integration chief].

We are blessed to have such a great advocate in our midst, and we use his expertise. Sometimes I tease him and say, “I want you to get fired!”

We want to have done what needs to be done to ensure equality is implemented.

The next in line is the issue of blood donations. That is something that is on our agenda, and we are putting in place the necessary apparatus to make sure everyone can donate blood with the same monitoring, rather than try to exclude gay men.

In the past few years the Malta Tourism Authority has begun to promote Malta as a gay-friendly tourist destination, building off the legal changes. Do you think there’s international lessons in that, that equality is good for business?

I think it’s obviously the case, there are studies that show equality is good for business. We haven’t just done it because it’s good for business, we’ve done it because we believe it’s the right thing to do.

Even cruise ships registered under the Maltese flag have started to use our legislation to administer equal marriage on board.

There are studies to show LGBT equality has a positive direct impact, but even indirectly, in changing the way a country is perceived, this is a plus.

The gender recognition law implemented a few years ago in Malta allows people to change their legal gender quite easily. In the UK, similar reforms are on the table, but there’s been a lot of push-back from people who say it would put women’s rights at risk. How was the implementation of that law in Malta, and have there been any drawbacks?

I can’t give my analysis on what is being said here by certain groups in the UK, but I can say what our experience has been, and our experience has been very positive.

It has not and should not be trivialised, but the way in which our legislation was put forward recognises all this.

I would say, all groups engaged in promoting equality should always be united.

Have there been any issues at all raised since the gender recognition law was implemented?

No – I am not aware of any issues.

The Malta Gay Rights Movement has spoken about challenging homophobic bullying in schools. Do you talk about these issues with your own daughters, and what would you tell them if they saw someone bullied because of who they are?

Actually, my daughters raise these issues with me. I don’t need to raise them with them because [they do first].

I don’t think it’s because they’re different from any other kids, I think like most other 10-year-old kids, they know everyone needs to be treated equally and this is something that is not on.

While there are instances of bullying, as in any other society, I believe our system teaches our kids to respect everyone, and I’m proud of that.

There’s been a resurgence of an unsavoury kind of politics globally over the past few years, with what is happening in the United States and the resurgence of the far-right across Europe. How do we ensure a voice for tolerance in politics?

I think it’s not going with the flow. It’s about convincing people. I am one who believes that while far-right movements are unsavoury, and I totally disagree with them, I still think that a substantial part of the people who vote for the far-right or so-called anti-establishment parties are essentially good people. They are frustrated because their voice hasn’t been heard, because they feel alienated, because they feel no one else is giving them a voice.

I would discourage an us and them kind of mentality. It’s about engaging, not necessarily with the parties, but with the people – discussing their fears and showing that their fears, most of the time, are unsubstantiated.

Have you met Donald Trump?

Yes. It was interesting. I will leave it at that.