The Malta Independent 21 November 2018, Wednesday

FIRST: Two fathers, shattering social stigmas

First Magazine Monday, 30 July 2018, 11:35 Last update: about 5 months ago

By way of celebrating diversity on Father’s Day, Kris and Steve Vella Grima – two active role models in the local gay community – welcome Martin Calleja Urry into their home to discuss life in 2018.

Words by Martin Calleja Urry. Photography by Joanna Demarco

Kris and Steve Vella Grima breached important social boundaries in 2016 when they became the first gay married couple to adopt a child - a young boy named Ben, who has Down's Syndrome, and was turned down by many other couples waiting to adopt. Since then, they have opened their doors to a fourth member of the family, fostering a beautiful two-year-old girl.

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Both children welcome me without an ounce of shyness before they rush off to their playroom together. "Having each other for company has really benefited both of the children," said Kris, as he watched the two toddle into their playroom.

Previously considered a conservative stronghold of Catholicism, Malta is now the front-runner for gay rights in Europe, with families like the Vella Grimas being equal to their heterosexual counterparts. The ground-breaking decision to give the green light to the Marriage Equality Act meant that equal rights were no longer a distant dream.

 

"In terms of the law, we're living in a sort of nirvana state," says Kris, a lecturer and researcher on same-sex families, and his husband Steve, a hairdressing director. They confirmed that direct discrimination in day-to-day life is practically non-existent.

 

Life is pleasant these days, but Kris recalls when society was not always so accommodating. He shares a few unpleasant anecdotes - gay patients being refused medical treatment, a close friend who died of AIDS left alone in a hearse outside the church at his own funeral, and relatives of openly gay people being attacked in public.

 

"We went through hell; we were made to move into an underground life, playing invisible and made to feel disgraced. Conservative and fundamental thinking denied our existence and our true selves. In the past, if you identified yourself as being gay, then you had to exclude getting married or becoming a family. Nowadays, due to changes in the law, all of this is possible - although I'm aware that it will take years for society to truly acknowledge us as equals," says Kris.

 

Resounding victories were celebrated on many fronts recently, but it begs the question: what's next? Refusing to rest on his laurels, Kris views complete integration as the next target, and argues that some branches of society are lagging behind the laws introduced, which are in need of a re-evaluation of certain practices.

 

The reality of the everyday

 

Expressing my curiosity about the daily challenges they face as a same-sex couple, Kris and Steve admit that little annoyances can become a thorn in their flesh. "Changing a nappy in the women's toilets feels awkward in a country where we are promoting equal parental responsibility. If I'm alone with Ben in the park, people ask me for the mother or, if I'm with Kris, they'll assume one of us is his uncle. Only a few, however, have done these things with bad intentions. People look - they will always look - and I've accepted that, but it's when they overdo it that bothers me," said Steve.

 

Kris points out that applications from schools, hospitals, certain banks and insurance companies, for example, are generally addressed to mother and father.

 

What about adoption rights? Kris confirmed that a few gay couples have been successful in becoming parents, and that it's easier for a lesbian couple to adopt. However, it's a totally different story for a gay male couple. He reiterates that, overall, not much has changed since they became Ben's adoptive fathers, and wonders why the number of children that have been adopted by same-sex couples can be counted on one hand.

 

He suggests that there are numerous obstacles facing same-sex couples wanting to adopt. The process is known to be an expensive and mentally draining experience, and he says that it's no wonder that many simply give up.

 

Heteronormative mentality

 

How do Kris and Steve feel living as two fathers within a Maltese society? Kris believes that a heteronormative state of mind is still a feature in the Maltese psyche. (Heteronormativity is the word given to a view that heterosexuality is the preferred or 'normal' sexual orientation).

 

"The mentality of some people projects that we are not their equal. They make you feel accepted but they wouldn't want you to sit next to them," said Kris. "We want to be ourselves at home and in public. I am aware that some people are afraid of the unknown, and it's to be expected, as the change was too quick."

 

Nowadays, he feels as if it's his duty to help others understand that LGBT families can blossom in today's world, and this can be facilitated by a fertile society that allows integration.

 

The responsibility of the media

 

Moving on to the media's role, Kris underlines its importance in transmitting a message of equality, in both content and discourse. "No, I'm not happy with the picture that's being painted in the media. Disrespect for autonomy includes actions and attitudes that ignore, insult and demean others. I genuinely feel that, morally, everyone should be respected and treated equally. Groups are often portrayed with a certain 'sameness', but we're definitely not homogenous. The dynamics of another gay family are most probably different than ours and we should respect that. The media has a massive responsibility to portray things accurately, with the aim of reducing discrimination on every level," he says.

 

Promoting visibility and diversity

 

When Steve and Kris decided to go public with their story, some criticised their decision to do so, but the couple takes solace in knowing that their exposure offers inspiration to others. A portion of their privacy was willingly sacrificed, but it helps others walk down a similar path. Kris admits, however, that the focus on him and his family can play on his mind from time to time. "I feel responsible for other same-sex couples that are still coming out and for portraying our family 'normality.' If a hundred people are present in a room, we are predisposed to realising that their focus will be on us: people observe how we communicate with our kids and vice versa. At times you become over-cautious about doing the right thing," he says.

 

For Kris and Steve, evidence of their success lies in the number of gay couples who refuse to remain in the shadows. "We speak up to promote visibility: families are slowly coming out of the closet. Full acceptance will come when new forms of families show themselves," says Kris. He looks towards the parents to instil moral values in today's children, urging them to educate their offspring from day one, because they represent the future.

 

"Teaching diversity needs to start from a very young age and it needs to start at home. The prime educators should be the parents not the teachers, because we're expecting too much from the teachers. We lack education, and education is power: it gives you choices and the skills to think independently. Education is now so accessible that ignorance is no excuse. Parents should practice what they preach and equality should be taught from the ground up," Kris concludes.

 

The Vella Grima family will continue to reap the benefits of the seeds they have sown, relishing the hectic work-life balance they have worked so hard to achieve. For now, they can rest easy knowing their struggles have paved the way for gay and lesbian couples of the future. Have we reached the pinnacle of acceptance or will we continue to see progressive changes? Only time will tell.

 


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