Gozo: how the most ultra-Catholic island in the Mediterranean is coming out of the closet

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A strange process takes place on the ferry that covers the little more than five kilometers between the island of Gozo and the island of Malta . X – let’s call him X – leaves his conservative family’s home in ultra-Catholic Gozo every Monday morning and on the way to his university in the also very Catholic Malta he “becomes” homosexual.

On Friday afternoons, however, the reverse phenomenon occurs and X, exactly in that same piece of sea but in the opposite direction when returning home on the weekend, becomes an apparent heterosexual and acceptable to the norms and customs of their parents and land . The feeling of freedom depends on where you come from and where you go. Malta, the main island of the only EU country that prohibits any type of abortion, approved divorce in a referendum in 2011 with 52% support and homosexual marriage in 2017, can be a space of sexual freedom if it comes from the small and closed sister island of Gozo.

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“There are 17 and 18 year olds who come out of the closet when they come to university in Malta and when they return to Gozo they go back into the closet. A young gay man in Gozo must leave the island to be gay,” he explains to Eman Borg , president of LGTBI + Gozo, to El Confidencial. Rejection is not homogeneous, nor is the form of that rejection, nor does everyone, including Catholics, participate in it. But from time to time, in that silence of empty and narrow societies, there is a broken lip, a cry, a cry …

Christian and Muslim border

“My friends support me and they like the way I express myself and my sexuality. A good part of my family, especially my little cousin and my uncles, too. My father, of course, being a conservative and traditional alpha male is very against and we have had many fights, some physical “, recognizes Neville Sultana , a young homosexual born in Xaghra, a small municipality on the island of Gozo of just over 4,000 inhabitants.

“I can’t live the life I want. Being gay in Gozo is not easy. Traditionalism is everywhere. Stigma and discrimination, too. There are no places where I can meet people like me on this island,” explains Andrea Muscat, another Young gay man from Gozo studying in neighboring Malta.

Ta Pinu, in Gozo (JB)

Ta Pinu, in Gozo (JB)

Gozo is a beautiful and peaceful microworld where there are the oldest temples on earth, Ggantija, and 46 churches, so that its about 31,000 inhabitants can practice worship, spread over its 67 square kilometers. Like Malta, the island has lived for centuries the tension of living between the border of the Christian world and the Muslim world . Invaded and sacked in 1551 by Ottoman troops, the island was building a religious fervor in which the ecclesial institutions assumed civil power.

They locked up and defended themselves with walls and prayers, as valid as any belief, and in that remoteness from everything, prayers became norms. Until times changed, cheap flights and the internet brought everything closer together, and a traveler who was followed by another bunch of travelers appeared there to teach the 21st century, according to some, and import vices, according to others. ” Malta has become a preferred destination for so-called gay tourism . Today a good part of my clients come from that sector”, explains Silvia Quiroga , a tourist guide on the island for 15 years.

“The phenomenon of gay tourism is very recent. The Internet 10 years ago changed everything. The Church has lost its power and today in Malta there are 50% of people who support everything the Church says and 50% who do not “, says Eman Borg , a young man who in 2017 received the Queen’s Young Leader Award from the Queen of England herself for his fight for the rights of the LGTBI collective.

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The calm and catholic Malta is also the calm and gay Malta. Gay tourism helped knock selfies and tips out of the closet to some islands until then accustomed to practicing sexuality between gender equals inside a chest of drawers. “Now there are a lot of older people in Gozo who are admitting their homosexuality. Before they were single people who lived with their parents so as not to be branded as gay, ” explains Borg. Do you feel free to live your homosexuality in Gozo? “I am not afraid or bound to be me in Gozo, I am just tired of several troglodytes who keep looking at me and making comments because they do not accept that a boy does make up or wear feminine clothes,” says Neville.

Authentic devotion to God

On the other side, sometimes not so far away, there is a religious fervor built over generations. The Sanctuary of the Virgin of Ta’Pinu, in Gozo, is the home of these beliefs. He proudly wears the license plates of the vehicle that took Pope Ratzinger there , CBT-147, and with devotion the pieces of hair, prostheses, baby pajamas or casts that his faithful wore to recognize the Virgin for his miracles.

Ta Pinu.  (JB)

Ta Pinu. (JB)

The walls of the basilica, behind the altar, are a museum of thanks and wills. The Mother of Jesus interceded for the faithful who suffered serious car accidents in Australia (many people from Gozo emigrated there to earn a living in past decades), babies who were presumed dead, or legs that should not be able to walk again. From that place, Bishop Mario Grech once spoke to her faithful, the call by the orthodox sectors of the pro-gay bishop Church to support homosexual groups.

“I must confess that I face the urgency of this need while listening to the families of homosexuals, as well as to the same people who have that orientation, and are hurt by the language directed towards them in certain texts such as the Catechism of the Church These people are struggling to keep their faith alive and to cultivate their sense of filial belonging to the Church “, were the words in 2014 of the then bishop of Gozo and president of the Episcopal Conference of Malta after his several encounters with the Drachma Parents Group , a Catholic association of parents with children of the LGBTI community.

The prelate, who Pope Francis has taken to Rome by recently appointing him as deputy secretary of the Synod of Bishops, shook with his ideas an island used to the fact that the only important changes that came from the sky were rain or wind. In 2018, on Maltese television, Grech addressed the issue again, saying that “homosexuals have the right not to be judged and to be respected as a couple .” Again thunder echoed in some consciences.

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Everything has happened quickly in a place where everything happens very slowly. In 2006, the Eurobarometer indicated that 73% of Maltese were against same-sex marriage. In 2015, just nine years later, the same Eurobarometer stated that 65% of Maltese were in favor of same-sex marriage.

“You are born Maltese and you are automatically Catholic. For many Maltese, Catholicism is culture. We are suffering now that the Church in the past has entered politics,” says Costantino Misfud , a believing Maltese and member of several active Catholic organizations. He is part of that new Catholic community that advocates modernizing proposals without losing the essence of his faith for which he asks for a respect that is sometimes lacking.

The ‘Pride’ in Malta (Gay Pride Malta)

The ‘Pride’ in Malta (Gay Pride Malta)

“Now there is freedom for people to believe what they want. I also have the right to speak and sometimes I feel that my voice is not heard. Those who bet on freedom often do not accept what I think,” says one of those Catholics tired of feeling their thoughts belittled as stale. “If you talk about abortion or LGTB issues, for example, they tell you that you are homophobic. With respect you can talk about everything,” he explains.

The prison of an island

It is true in any case that the Church in Malta has lost direct influence in political life, but it continues to have enormous social and territorial power. “They continue to own most of the land. A young man from Gozo often only has as a social space places related to the Church. We ourselves meet there. The priest is true that he is very open, but in any case we are obligatory in a religious space because there is no other “, says an Eman Borg who acknowledges that” I myself studied to be a priest. For my family it was an impact to know that I was gay. 30 years ago a gay man in Gozo went to Malta or emigrated “. Do you feel homophobia? “In Gozo, homophobia is internet attacks and some threats, but there is not a problem of hate, there is a problem that the gay issue is denied as if it did not exist.”

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“There are no bars or places for lesbians in Gozo. You must emigrate to Malta. A colleague has suffered attacks on social networks even from her own family in Gozo”, explained Graziella Scerri , a “Gozitan” lesbian who narrated on television that in her first 20 years of life on her small island “I did not find anyone who had my sexuality or with whom to talk about it.”

Do you dress or behave differently in Gozo than in Malta? “I can be myself in Malta. I act and explain my wishes differently there,” Muscat responds. “I try not to act or dress differently, but sometimes it can’t be helped to keep the peace with my closest family ,” says Neville. ¿ Can a person LGTBI live their sexuality freely in Gozo or Malta should go? “It honestly depends on where, but I feel that in Malta I am much freer to be myself because my father’s shadow does not reach that far. In Gozo he has some power but in Malta there is my kingdom”, responds a young man accustomed to to be rejected as if he suffered a defect by the man who gave him life.

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