Opinion | Sunday, 04 April 2010

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Gays and Straight – equal in the eyes of the State

The Social Affairs Committee is currently discussing a bill to regulate cohabitation. The members of the committee are open to suggestion and are currently asking for feedback from the public, so much so that Edwin Vassallo said: “We are conducting this exercise with a very open mind and we are not excluding anyone. We want to listen to feedback from everyone, including cohabiting sisters, couples of the same sex and separated people.”
My hope is that the inclusion of all types of couples does not end at the feedback stage. Cohabiting homosexual couples, for example, experience exactly the same problems as heterosexual ones. This law must be drafted in a manner that allows same-sex couples to register their partnership in an official manner – which will give them important rights such as the right of inheritance and a widow/er’s pension. We cannot continue living in a society where the only option for same-sex couples is to pull a Francia and adopt their lover!
There are also various other important issues that should be addressed by this bill, foremost amongst which is the right of cohabiting partners (same-sex or otherwise) to take on the role of next of kin when making important medical decisions for their partner when he or she is taken ill and is not in a position to decide for him/herself. We have heard endless stories of family members refusing to allow gay partners to visit their loved ones on their deathbeds in hospital after a serious accident or at the end of a debilitating illness – this is ridiculous and must stop.
Similarly, there must be a serious discussion relating to immigration rights in the context of cohabiting couples. When a Maltese citizen marries someone who is not Maltese, after a number of years the foreign partner becomes eligible for Maltese citizenship. People who cannot get married (either because they are separated and cannot get divorced, or because they are a same-sex couple) do not have the same option available to them. Therefore it is important that a civil union brings with it the same privileges that marriage does in this context. If you are gay and have registered your partnership, then after a number of years your partner should be entitled to citizenship. Similarly concepts such as fiancé visas should be extended to same-sex couples.
The life of gay couples is automatically harder than that of straight couples. They are to a certain extent going against the flow, so they have to face more opposition. This should not extend to the law, however – in the eyes of the State, as of God, we are all equal. There are hundreds of homosexual couples living in committed relationships in Malta – they may be a minority but that does not mean that we should ignore them. They are just as Maltese as heterosexuals, pay the same taxes as heterosexuals and should have the same rights as heterosexuals!
Anything less than that and this cohabitation law will be a failure.

Where are the bookworms?
I was astounded to hear that only 5000 people used the public library at Belt Is-Sebh last year. After all, in the last two lifestyle surveys issued by NSO, reading was shown to be the most popular hobby amongst adults in Malta. In the survey published in 2003 the figures showed that 51.5% of women and 24.8% of men enjoyed reading and considered it their favourite pastime. Similarly, in 2007, reading retained its pole position, with 27% of men and 48% of women selecting it as their preferred hobby.
It is difficult to understand how in a country with 118,542 self-avowed bookworms, only 5000 chose to visit the national library. It is either because thousands are visiting their small local libraries instead of going to the one at Belt Is-Sebh, or else because there is a common perception that the library is not worth visiting.
I will take myself as an example. I am a bookaholic in the extreme sense of the word. I regularly stay up at night or wake up early to finish a good book and on average I make my way through one to two books a week. Taken over a year that is approximately 100 books. However I cannot recall the last time I visited the library!
The reality is that the great majority of people think of the library as full of fusty, old, outdated books. Before writing this article I tried a book search in the library website. I was surprised (and pleased) to see that it is possible to check the availability of books in libraries all over the island, and also that it is possible to reserve a book. That is all positive.
What is not positive, however, is the distinct lack of recent titles. I tried to search for books by Stieg Larsson (author of the Millenium Trilogy that has taken the world by storm) – not a trace of anything by that author. To be totally fair the Millenium Trilogy is a pretty recent phenomenon so I also tried other popular contemporary writers such as Jodi Picoult, Alice Sebold, David Baldacci, Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell. There were several books available by these authors however they were dispersed in libraries throughout the island.
So if I want to borrow The Lovely Bones (by Alice Sebold) I would have to drive to Birkirkara, Birgu, Marsascala or Qormi – since the one at Belt Is-Sebh is currently out on loan. At that point I could either reserve the book or I could just go to and get the book delivered straight to my door for just €5.49.
Frankly as petrol gets more expensive, the €5.49 option becomes more and more attractive!
In order to increase the number of people visiting the library, it is important that regular purchases are made in order to have recent bestsellers available. Furthermore, there should be more than one copy of each book available – particularly in the central library at Belt is-Sebh.
It would also be a good idea to launch a service where people can choose the books they want to borrow online and then have them delivered from the central library to a local library of their choice. That would make the books much more accessible and increase the selection of books available to people who frequent local libraries.
Reading opens up our minds to the world. Any investment made by the Ministry of Education to increase the number of books read in Malta is well worth it.


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