Interview | Sunday, 28 March 2010

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A secret history of Malta

Maltese-Australian lawyer Joseph Carmel Chetcuti’s compendium on Maltese gay life is a first, but its relevance is not restricted to gay people only: it is a missing part of an island’s history

As a chronicle of gay life, Queer Mediterranean Memories is an exhaustive memoir of gay haunts, beats, and clubs, and the personalities that brought these places to life. As the first historical record of its kind, much of Joseph Carmel Chetcuti’s monograph is based partly on anecdotal reminiscences, partly on personal inference on Malta’s queer who’s who. Much of his work is historically referenced, giving readers a coherent picture of gay life from the decadent heyday of post-war Strait Street with tales of its drag queens, orgies and gay hangouts; through to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the creation of Malta’s modern gay rights movement.
There is however much history that is based on anecdotal evidence, some rumour and speculation, and in obvious cases such as his reinterpretation of Dun (now saint) Gorg Preca, personal inference: how much is this actual history, or are we just dealing with pop culture book, a manifest of gay life ultimately intended for gay people only?
“It’s not strictly speaking a gay history. I look at aspects of gay history, the way Maltese law impacts gays and lesbians, and how it discriminates against gay people. It tries to do a lot of things, and I adopted this approach because there was nothing of this kind,” Chetcuti says.
Much of the stuff here is original, some it well known revelations of gay men and women: broadcaster Charles Arrigo comes as no surprise, while Chetcuti also lists former President Agatha Barbara and Allied Publications’ founder Mabel Strickland. Others include the fabled Mary-Man, from Sliema: the testosterone-infused woman who worked as a bouncer in the bars on the ferries, and a misfit made cruel fun of by little boys. Other snippets describe life in Malta as we never knew it: because it was a secret, and part of a historical inventory held inside the minds of Malta’s queer society. In this sense, Chetcuti’s book is a collection of stories and anecdotes illustrating this secret life, perhaps never making it into the public consciousness because of the prevailing hypocrisy and prejudice.
In one instance, he talks of the Wembley Store boys, who during the 1960s and 1970s would hang around in Republic Street before making their way to Valletta’s Lantern Bar, a gay-friendly pub in Sappers Street. Chetcuti says there were the first men in modern Malta to flaunt their sexuality, even get intimate in the store’s narrow doorway. “They defied dominant heterosexual culture and challenged traditional Roman Catholic values. They were a barometer of youths’ discomfort with gender stereotyping and disenchantment with the establishment. They were our precursors, the John the Baptists of Malta’s gay and lesbian liberation.”
Other accounts are gleaned from first-hand interviews with the people who lived their days in Strait Street (Valletta, as a port town, is the epicentre of much of the gay life chronicled by Chetcuti): “It provides some idea of where people can go when they tackle a history of gay Malta. When we’re dealing with aspects of a minority group that is really invisible on a formal level, it is important to try and make it visible by ensuring that these anecdotes and stories are not lost. My view is that if I didn’t write the story of Balzunetta and Strait Street, these anecdotes would be lost; the last drag queen, Cookie, passed away a few years ago…”
Chetcuti admits that his book attracts controversy because his approach “recreates the past… history is a creative process. You don’t simply react to sources, and you interpret it on the basis of the present looking at the past. I bring all my prejudices and outlooks, and my experience and deficiencies to this work.”
This is where I bring up his liberal interpretation of Saint Gorg Preca’s sexual orientation, whom Chetcuti identifies as “one of us” – supposedly convinced by his feminine voice, his partiality towards having young men lead the MUSEUM Catholic doctrine society, and his low esteem of women. It was this irresistible piece that generated controversy, even attracting Gozo bishop Mario Grech’s opprobrium.
“We’re dealing with a community that is invisible or tries to be invisible. When you talk about sexuality you are really speculating a great deal. I have declared myself a homosexual but what does it mean? There is an element of speculation, that is different from invention: this is speculation, based on evident facts. Other people can interpret these facts. The only thing I say is ‘this is the way I have interpreted them’.”
In this case, Chetcuti was categorical about Preca’s sexual orientation.
“Yes, but that’s the voice. I thought the voice struck me at an emotional level… there’s such a thing as a gaydar [the intuitive ability to assess someone’s sexual orientation], where you can pick out someone who is just like you. I actually believe I was extremely cautious in the way I interpreted things. At the end of the day, I am not saying Preca was a practising homosexuality.
“Some years ago I was speaking to a member of MUSEUM, and I told him I was writing a book on homosexuality. His first comment was ‘don’t write anything about Dun Gorg Preca’… that simply went by and I forgot it. Some years later, in 2007, I heard Preca’s voice for the first time. And what this fellow planted in my mind had been confirmed. I found other things, for example... the sensual description of Christ, or his attitude towards women. It’s not that gay men are misogynists, but when you are a closeted gay man you become jealous of women, because you can’t have the same relationship women have with men.”
In a way, Chetcuti’s stance is justifiable if we had to look at it from another perspective: much of the criticism levelled at his interpretation of Preca’s orientation comes from those whose prejudice is that the saint must have been undoubtedly heterosexual. So why is it ‘acceptable’ to think someone is straight, but ‘defamatory’ to think they are gay?
“I don’t think it is fair to think of someone as heterosexual or homosexual. I start with the premise that I don’t assume the person to be heterosexual; and secondly, I don’t see anything wrong with thinking that someone is homosexual. It may be defamatory if you are calling somebody a liar at the same time… Preca is now a significant Maltese person, and I see nothing wrong in tackling a part of his life that is ignored in Malta.”
Critics might latch on to Chetcuti’s background as a Conventual Franciscan novitiate, and how far this impacts his statements on the Church. But he writes of his experiences inside the convent and offers a window into the hidden lives of gay men who entered the priesthood with no other option other than being in a sham marriage.
“Throughout my life, I had been aware of being attracted to men, but I would have never described myself as a homosexual. I’d have been terribly offended if someone did… but when I went to confessions as a boy and told the priests of my temptations towards people of the same sex, every priest told me it was God’s sign that I was called for the priesthood. And I went regularly to confession… I was a MUSEUM member who believed that any physical contact was sinful.”
After taking his simple vows, Chetcuti remembers walking past a friar’s cell where he saw the monk, completely naked. “He invited me in, and told me ‘do whatever you want’. It was the first time I was with a man, and I think we just briefly touched each other and I walked away. At that very moment, it dawned upon me that it was not a mortal sin.”
Throughout his work, Chetcuti encapsulated the vicissitudes of gay life in Malta, and how it seemed to vacillate between the raunchy haunts of Strait Street’s gut, and the secret beats and parties held by men of high position – such as judge Joseph Flores and the businessman John Francia (who adopted his lover so that he could inherit his wealth without it being seized by the Labour government) – to the decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Labour government in 1973, and finally the creation of a political gay rights lobby, the MGRM, in 2003. In this sense, Checuti gives the sense of a gay community which seemed inclined towards holding on to its secret identity during a time when the government was effectively lifting anachronistic punishments, and then became more vocal as the EU membership brought with it anti-discriminatory legislation previously unheard of in Malta.
“A lot of gay men and lesbians in Balzunetta and Strait Street were harassed by police and discriminated against. One of them had told me that it went with the territory… but they were comfortable there. When it came to working-class people, I remember one drag queen, Bobby, was imprisoned for several months for having sex with a man in his own home; on the other hand Francia, could use the adoption laws to secure his wealth. Once the British left and Strait Street wound down, it seems that gay men and women here closeted themselves once again…
“When homosexuality was decriminalised in Malta, a lot of gay men felt they had nothing to fear. But they didn’t look at other sources of discrimination,” Chetcuti says. “In other countries such as the USA and Australia, which are federal governments, the battle for gay liberation had to move from one state to the other: so they had to be political.”
Even in his account of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Chetcuti reveals the undertones of bigotry from Labour and Nationalist MPs that accompanied the debate. Fear and suspicion of gay people was evident even while MPs were updating criminal laws.
“Anton Buttigieg is the best example,” Chetcuti says, who seemed to echo some of the misgivings expressed by Nationalist MPs (two of them, he says, were gay but he doesn’t publish their names). “Dom Mintoff was different and he outshone everyone. He would have sat comfortably with us. What I like about him is that he was not afraid to tackle an issue head-on.”
And this is what makes 1973 less a moment of gay liberation, and more a case of Mintoff standing up to the Church. “That had a lot to do with it, and I suspect Mintoff knew he could take on the Church in this way.” As Chetcuti writes, the reform of the Criminal Code did not usher in a gay and lesbian movement and places part of the blame at the feet of well-off, well-educated gay men who entered marriages of convenience, deserting their wives and children at night to roam beats, and ‘unmindful, uncaring and disinterested in the anguish of their fellow and not so fortunate brothers and sisters.’
Chetcuti looks at Labour’s new LGBT branch as not one that necessarily marginalises gays and lesbians. “A lot of the gay community’s members are invisible, so giving them some recognition and an opportunity to discuss their issues is terribly important.”
But when it comes to the MGRM getting political, Chetcuti feels that the lobby will have to take political sides: “I think it’s important for gay people to support political parties, and it doesn’t matter which… I don’t expect a political party to have my agenda, politics is about compromise after all.”
In this sense, Chetcuti says that even on certain issues confronting particular social groups, both gay and straight men and women can come together on tackling Malta’s idiosyncratic realities: for one, the absence of divorce or rights for cohabiting couples.
“What’s likely to happen is that there will different pressure groups coming together… I think gay people should be able to support heterosexuals in their fight for divorce, and that heterosexuals should support gay rights.”
Queer Mediterannean Memories is Chetcuti’s second major foray into bringing queer culture into the public fora. Chetcuti’s uncle, novelist Guze Chetcuti, “one of the great romantics”, had advised him back in 1994 not to appear on Pjazza Tlieta on PBS to debate homosexuality. ‘Open homosexuality’, he told me, was still frowned upon in Malta. He added that being out-and-proud would destroy any plans I might have hade of a future career in Malta.’
Years later, after his father died in 2006, Chetcuti discovered a letter to his father from his uncle, written in 1997, shortly after the publication of Il-Ktieb Roza. The subject was Joe’s appearance on a radio programme. ‘So far he has come out with flying colours,’ he wrote to his father. ‘The book is receiving much publicity and raises a subject that shows the number of homosexuals in Malta is fare greater than I thought. He is making a success of it and is shaking our closed minds.’

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