It may be surprising to some to learn that a small island nation in the central Mediterranean is the best place – legally – for anyone in the LGBTIQ community to live in Europe. For three years in a row, Malta has been ranked as the number one most gay- and transgender-friendly country in Europe by the ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Index – based on the country’s policies and regulations. The EU sponsored index Malta ranks above the likes of Belgium, Norway, the UK, Finland, and France – the next five most gay-friendly countries and, historically, those thought to be most culturally inclusive.
Malta, a deeply Catholic country, which did not legalise divorce until 2011 and still bans abortion, shot to the top of the Rainbow Index in 2016, overtaking the UK for the first time and “buoyed by an irresistible combination of determined activism and unprecedented political leadership at national level, which led to the adoption of ground-breaking legislation and comprehensive public policies”, according to the report’s authors.
The change in the Maltese government five years ago is to credit for many of these policies. After 15 years in opposition, the centre-left Labour Party came to power in 2013 and prioritised gay-friendly policy creation. The new government’s first step was to introduce a bill granting civil unions to same-sex couples, providing several rights equivalent to those granted through marriage, such as joint legal adoption. The Civil Unions Act was approved by parliament and signed into law in April 2014.
In 2015, the country had led the way on LGBTIQ rights with its Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act, which made it the first country in the world to prohibit unnecessary surgical procedures on a person’s sex characteristics without his or her consent. In that same year, Malta became the first country in Europe to introduce an education policy focusing on the needs of transgender, gender-variant and intersex children. It granted asylum based on gender identity grounds for the first time that year, and the government launched its first LGBTIQ Action Plan for 2015-2017.
In 2016, Malta’s gay-friendly legislation continued apace. The first adoption by a same-sex couple under the Civil Unions Act was finalised in this year. The age at which individuals can independently opt for legal gender recognition under the 2015 legislation was dropped from 18 to 16. Transgender identities were no longer classified as a mental illness. And, most widely publicised, Malta became the first country in Europe in 2016 to outlaw conversion therapy, treatments that try to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. The Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Bill was approved by parliament in December and introduced fines and prison sentences for anyone involved in these harmful conversion practices on people under 16 years of age.
Marriage equality remained one of the largest legal gaps for the LGBTIQ community in 2016, but public opinion polling showed that 61 per cent of respondents were in favour of equal marriage in Malta. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat also expressed his explicit support for marriage equality, saying he would vote for it and noting that “the country is ready for a debate about it”.
By July 2017, the Maltese parliament had voted nearly unanimously in favour of marriage equality, and the law went into effect in September. By the end of 2017, marriages involving same-sex couples were being entered into the public registry.
Marriage equality had also become a reality for couples in Germany and Finland in 2017; but Malta’s continued political leadership on LGBTIQ rights, including the introduction of X gender markers on official documentation, which opens the possibility of gender-neutral markers for people’s passports and identity cards, awarded it the top spot in the 2018 Rainbow Index – scoring a 91 out of 100 percent on a scale that goes from gross violations of human rights and discrimination at 0 percent, to respect of human rights and full equality at 100 percent.
Objectively speaking, Malta, like all countries, still has its issues with gender equality, and the Rainbow Index is a measure of positive policies, not societal acceptance. In June 2017, Maltese LGBTIQ NGOs reported 15 cases of online hate speech during a six-week EU-wide monitoring exercise. The Catholic Church in Malta also remains wary of many of the government’s LGBTIQ policies, including the outlawed conversion therapy bill, which, before it was passed, the Church had labeled as discriminatory, fearing it would “affirm the superior legal status of homosexuals over heterosexuals”.
Still, the political leadership in Malta on LGBTIQ rights remains strong, public opinion is also largely supportive of gay-friendly policies, and the small yet influential Mediterranean nation is a supreme example for Europe and the world as to how inclusive governance can successfully operate.