“Where’s your mummy? She’ll be here soon,” a customer cooed over baby John, who was being held tightly in his father’s arms at the pharmacy.
John (not his real name) just giggled back. But for his parents, Clayton Mercieca and Christian Vella, the encounter raised a fundamental concern: in a couple of years’ time, John may be lost for words if asked the same question.
“We have not encountered any hostility from those around us – we were welcomed in our neighbourhood and by the community, and supported by service providers,” Mr Mercieca told The Sunday Times of Malta.
“But we know that as he grows older and starts integrating with other children, he will start asking questions, and we want him to know that there are other forms of families apart from the mother-father scenario.”
So far, the questions asked by others have stopped at inquiries about where the mother is, or where do the two fathers find their maternal instinct.
The two men have therefore signed up for monthly meetings, where they will meet other LGBTIQ parents to learn how to deal with similar situations.
We want him to know that there are other forms of families apart from the mother-father scenario
The meetings are part of the Rainbow Families project and have been set up by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society and the Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement (MGRM) to coincide with this year’s Pride Week. They are aimed at supporting LGBTIQ families, specifically same-sex parents and parents of children who identify as transgender.
While Mr Mercieca, 32, and Mr Vella, 31, share many of the same parental challenges as their heterosexual friends, some are specific to LGBTIQ parents.
As new parents, they have stumbled across a couple of administrative problems. They are not afforded the long period of paternal leave that is granted to women and they have had to jump through legal hoops because the child’s mother cannot be listed as ‘unknown’ on the birth certificate.
However, interacting with others presents its own challenges that they need to learn to navigate.
“Once, while out for a walk with John, a man stared us down and asked us whether we were Maltese, and whether the child was ours,” Mr Vella recalled. “He was quick to provide his opinion: he said he was totally against gay parents. This was the first time we encountered such behaviour, so it came as a shock for us. But we did manage to discuss the issue with him. It was hard.”
Others assume that John has been adopted. When they learn he is not, they challenge the couple about it. The monthly meetings will allow LGBTIQ families to learn from each other’s experiences and share concerns about the attitudes of some people towards children brought up in LGBTIQ families. The Rainbow Project will also provide participants with the opportunity to engage in debate and discussion facilitated by professionals. Children aged three to 18 are provided age-appropriate activities.
The next meeting will be held on October 6. To register, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. or call on 2148 4462.
‘Your family is okay’
International research shows that children raised by LGBTIQ families find great solace in meeting others who share the same experience, as they come to the realisation that they are not alone.
Children from minority families do question why their family is different from everyone else’s at school, says child psychotherapist Elaine Micallef.
Once they become aware that there are several other children like them, they feel empowered to speak about their family. They start to feel that their family is ‘okay’.
Since it is estimated that so far there are only about 100 LGBTIQ families in Malta, the Rainbow Families project makes it easier for them to meet, says Ms Micallef, who is also a core member of the President’s Foundation.
Such spaces, she adds, are important for all minority families – whether the children are adopted or fostered, the parents have different ethnicities, or suffer from some physical or mental ailment, the children feel empowered. Their sense of shame is reduced and they feel supported. This is besides benefiting from the exchange of information about how to deal positively with particular situations, such as being asked too many questions by other children at school or even being bullied.
Although all minority groups find comfort in such spaces, Ms Micallef warns against segregation. “It’s not about moving them out of the community and putting them with children like themselves. It’s about giving them a space where they can feel empowered to return to the community and be okay with their identity, no matter what that identity is.
“The idea is to empower children to feel that they can easily integrate with the rest, no matter their differences.”