Summer Fellow: Queer Migrations: From Malta to the Islet of Gozo
This past summer, Lang CESJ was proud to offer Summer Fellow positions, which offered funding and support for students to carry out independent, social justice focused projects. Students' projects took place across the country, spanning a wide range of disciplines. We are excited to share their work with the world; each week, our blog will showcase a Fellow and their project. Read all about their work, in their own words! This week, Jamey Jespersen shares reflections from their summer work.
Human rights discourses often elevate political, legal change over socio-cultural reality. The country of Malta, for example, was propelled to the front of the global LGBT+ rights movement last year for its praised reputation of passing unprecedented, pro-queer legislation. As a young, queer, aspiring anthropologist, I came to Malta eager to explore the translation of these progressive laws into actual social change. Could this country be a refuge from regular discrimination and violence almost axiomatically faced by queer people living in the social margins? Or has positive legal change not yet successfully infiltrated Maltese culture; one still deeply entrenched with traditional, Catholic values?
My first day in country I learned that the field school would be situated on the tiny islet of Gozo; home to thirteen small villages and only 40,000 people. It did not take long to learn of the cultural divide between mainland Malta (what Gozitans would describe as a cosmopolitan replica of Europe) and Gozo (what the Maltese would consider “backwards” or “fifty years behind”). While researching in the most conservative pocket of the country posed obvious challenges, I was also able to observe a much more raw and honest depiction of how European LGBT+ values have been received either with trepidation or complete rejection by the Maltese population.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I was able to meet and interview over twenty queer individuals ranging from 16-77 years old; taking field notes while hunched over at a bar at 2AM in the country’s one gay nightclub; interviewing one of the three Maltese drag queens as he shaved and applied lipstick before a performance; sneaking into the Gozo ministry in order to investigate if the all-gender bathrooms the government promised would be installed were actually under construction; sitting in the childhood home of a 67 year-old gay man as he showed me pictures of him as a kid and told stories about how his Catholic school teachers would discipline him for playing around with other boys on the playground; and of course sipping red wine in a closeted gay Minister’s mansion in the Gozo capital of Victoria as he told me about how the country was slowly, but surely changing its view on LGBT+ people. Each of these encounters impacted my research in their own way, ultimately reframing the way I understood how progressive queer culture has, or has not, made its migration onto the islet of Gozo, or perhaps fully onto the island of Malta from Europe.
Despite what most people told me from the start, queer life does exist and thrive in Gozo, but of course with restrictions. Just like most parts of world, there are a series of obstacles these people must face in order to find acceptance, visibility, and confidence in who they are. While Malta continues to boast the most comprehensive legislation for LGBT+ people, perhaps research via anthropology can start to highlight how this progress may not be impacting the everyday lives of queer peoples in the most closeted pocket of the country, ultimately making a closer account of intimate social realities. Overall, this research unveiled to me how deeper anthropological inquiries can perhaps be used to locate and illuminate where this translation from human rights law to social change undergoes tension, and can ultimately better articulate the real migration of queer ideology, knowledge, and acceptance as understand, experienced, and told by queer Maltese individuals. I am excited to continue this research in order to eventually develop a comprehensive ethnography filled with queer Gozitan and Maltese peoples’ stories about, and perspectives on, Malta’s evolution toward fostering a better future for the lives of LGBT+ people all over the country.