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Malta: Where the Right to Transition is Enshrined into Law.

When we arrived at Charles & Ron Café in Naxxar, Malta, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. My local guide didn’t really know either. “You might even get to meet Charles or Ron, the iconic creators of Malta’s leading fashion brand. But I’m not sure”, Audrey had said. I’m not very fashionable I thought to myself, not queer fashionable at least, wearing my White House Black Market soccer mom ready Pret a Pedi tan pants and a $12.99 no-name half-sleeve top from the discount chain Ross. 

I hadn’t wanted to upstage Karly May Naudi, the Maltese Supermodel that I was there to meet; but mostly I wanted to be comfortable for the big day of touring I had ahead of me. But this first stop was the most important by far. Here was where I’d learn what it’s really like to be transgender in Malta; how local trans people live, and the issues they face in their daily lives. I wanted to learn this firsthand from the perspective of a local trans woman, rather than simply relaying my experience as a high-privilege post-op transgender woman from the U.S. Fortunately for me, Karly had written her bachelor’s degree thesis at Malta University on employment issues facing transgender women like herself in Malta. Truth be told, I was a little nervous to meet her.

Karly and Jamie at Charles and Ron. Courtesy of Jamie Anne Harrell

The prior day my partner Jaine and I had explored parts of the old town of Valletta on our own. Our boutique 4-star hotel, the Gomerino on St. Paul St. was immaculate; the staff were incredibly friendly. The views of Fort Ricasoli and the Three Cities from the rooftop pool deck of the hotel were breathtaking – particularly at night. We had opted for a room with a terrace so we could step outside and listen to the street noise and feel the energy that Valletta has to offer, instead of choosing a bigger room with a Maltese Balcony. The enclosed Maltese balconies that line the streets from the second floor and up across Malta have their roots in the Baroque period influence that emanates through much of the recent history and culture of Malta; the bright colors and ornate woodworking standing out among the sandstone color of the former palaces of old Valletta. The colors and symbolism both found in Charles & Ron’s beautiful line of clothing and also reminiscent of the Baroque style of the works of Caravaggio.

That first day, the remnants of Euro Pride 2023 still hung over the city as much as any hangover might linger into the Sunday afternoon of a week-long of Pride celebration. Walking through Valletta, I could see the rainbow banners and balloons still up in shop windows, but Sunday Drag Brunch didn’t seem to be a thing here, at least not like Atlanta. I strolled through the old city to the Valletta bus station, boarded local bus #51/52/53 headed through Floriana to Hamrun, each considered different cities rather than neighborhoods; I was headed to Daniel’s Mall where I found I could get a local SIM card on a Sunday. It was almost too easy. Nobody stared. Not a single hint of “sir” on the lips of the kind clerks who talked me into saving $10 by purchasing a physical SIM instead of an E-SIM, even though my voice is perhaps a little too deep by American standards. On this day, running a simple errand instead of touring the grand palaces, I fell in love with the people, sights, and culture of Malta.

Karly looked at me, perhaps also a touch nervous as I sat down. We exchanged somewhat awkward pleasantries, then I asked if I could record, take photos and, of course, get a selfie with her. “Well of course, I dressed up for the occasion!”, she said gleefully, her dark brown eyes lighting up an incredible smile. And with that knowing smile she gave me, we both understood that we wouldn’t have to wade through or dance around the fascination that cisgender folks seem to have with our bodies, nor the transition trauma stories they want us to give them. Instead, two transgender activists sitting together can simply celebrate the emotional work of self-discovery and acknowledge the beautiful people they have each become with little more than a knowing smile. I see you Karly, I see you. And thank you for being you.

Things to Know about Visiting Malta

Image of Gozo. Courtesy of Jamie Anne Harrell

September may be the best time of year to visit Malta! Even a rare late summer swim can happen occasionally into October so skip the busiest part of the summer season and try to get here in the brief lull between summer and fall travel seasons if you can. In September, the weather is still great if not downright hot at times, even still as the EU summer travel season is winding down. And it’s also the best month to get fresh local Lampuki, known as mahi mahi, dorado, or dolphin fish in other parts of the world.

Getting around Malta is super easy! Public Transportation is great in Malta, and particularly easy for English-speaking tourists. Malta recognizes Maltese and English as official languages, and most locals are fluent in both. Google Maps has accurate public transit routes and times, bus stops are clearly marked, and routes are well-designed. Individual round-trip (2 hour) tickets can be purchased from the driver for 2 EUR during the day at 3 EUR at night, and an unlimited 7-Day “Explore Card” can be purchased for 21 EUR. Bolt, the EU version of Uber is also great, and typically less expensive than cabs, and also offers scooter service within certain areas. You can get from Valletta to Dingli Cliffs, clear across the island, in about 30 minutes by car or an hour by bus. And it’s very worth the trip! Additionally, there are multiple hop-on-hop-off tourist trains and bus routes available for $15 to $30 EUR daily.

Of the 5 islands that make up the Maltese Archipelago, Malta and Gozo are the 2 major population centers of the country. Comino which sits between the two is a dreamy tourist destination and site of the Visit Malta Blue Lagoon experience. But it can be very crowded at peak season, so perhaps instead, visit Gozo via the Fast Ferry from Valetta! Speaking of ferries, getting from Valletta to the Three Cities is fast and easy by Water Taxi, which is just southwest of the Gozo Fast Ferry located just below Fort Lascaris in Valletta. The water taxis go back and forth between Valletta and Birgo for 2 EUR per passenger, cash only. If you want to go to a different destination in the three cities, ask the Water Taxi operator if they are willing to take you. A drop-off at Kalkara marina might just cost an extra 3 EUR per person, which is significantly less expensive and much faster than taking a Bolt or taxi around the bay.

The coastline of Malta is rocky! Some bays have coastlines that look like beaches but are actually time-weathered rock! Sand beaches are typically found at specific tourist destinations, so unless you’re staying near one, plan a day trip if you want to enjoy the pristine blue waters. Make sure to take or purchase a pair of water shoes locally to save your feet a bit. Also, be careful; the darker areas of the rocky beaches are very slick and easy to slip on.

Malta has a rich history of being conquered by nearly every seafaring civilization across the Mediterranean from the Romans to the Moors, then the French and most recently the British. The country, its culture, language, and people are a mix of all of those who settled there before, with archaeological sites and cultural nuances remaining from each of them. According to Air Malta the Megalithic Temples of Malta have been dated to around 3600-3200 BC and are the oldest free-standing structures in the world, predating the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge. Many historic sites from Malta date back to several thousand years B.C., so make time to explore the rich history, architecture, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and other cultural influences of what has become modern-day Malta.

Legal Protections for LGBTQ+ and Transgender People in Malta

Image Courtesy of Jamie Anne Harrell from World Pride 2023

While the influence of the Catholic church in Malta can’t be missed and the country previously was quite conservative, the Malta Labor Party worked tirelessly over many years to make Malta stand out among EU nations as one of the first to guarantee LGBTQ rights in their constitution. As a small island nation with deep cultural and historical ties to the Catholic church, this was a big win for the country and over time queer people who left years ago are beginning to come back and reclaim Malta as their home. Most recently Euro Pride 2023 descended upon Malta, celebrating the legal successes of the nation for queer people.

In 2014, Malta passed a constitutional recognizing the fundamental rights and freedoms of all queer and transgender individuals; explicitly naming both sexual orientation and gender identity. Both articles 32 and 45 were amended to provide LGBTQ+ persons fundamental rights personal and freedom from discriminatory laws respectively. Also, in 2016 Malta banned the harmful practice of “conversion therapy” for queer people.

Malta has some of the best “right to transition” as well as intersex consent laws in the world. According to the Human Rights Directorate of Malta, The Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics acts of 2015 entitles all citizens to the recognition and documentation of their self-identified gender identity without any requirements for surgery and recognizes personal bodily autonomy prohibiting surgical and medical intervention for intersex children without their consent.

While minors under 16 require parental consent, anyone 16 and older has the right to all documentation changes simply by declaring their Gender Identity. There are no surgery or medical requirements for changing all documents including birth certificates.

Malta has depathologized gender identity and there is no requirement for psychological or psychiatric assessment. All aspects of transgender healthcare are provided under informed consent. Recently in 2022, the Prime Minister of Malta stated that the government will cover the cost of all gender-affirming surgeries for transgender and gender-diverse individuals.

As of 2017, Malta includes the X gender marker available for one’s Identity Card and passport.

Deep breath, while I break the 4th wall and give you a glimpse into my writing room. I’m literally holding back tears as I write this. No, they’re flowing. I cannot imagine how much better our lives would be if *everyone* had these fundamental human rights. What a beautiful world that would be! Meanwhile, here in Georgia, Florida and really all over the US, politicians are taking so much away from us and in particular from trans youth. How much more suffering will they create, and why? 

“You can’t legislate the acceptance of transgender people,” Karly had said to me over coffee at Charles & Ron. “Plus, even we need to unlearn what society has ingrained into us. We need to keep educating. Many local transgender people still don’t want to be visible yet due to our own internalized transphobia. But with my privilege, I’m able to be visible and help educate. Some people might not understand why I am who I am, but being visible opens the opportunity for questions and learning.”

Image of Valletta, courtesy of Jamie Anne Harrell

I’ve reflected on that for quite a while, mostly because I’ve used nearly those exact words myself. She’s right, the government cannot force society to simply accept transgender people. But what the government says and how it treats us is often transmitted into our daily lives, more than many people may realize. Even others in the LGB communities often don’t fully experience the same vitriol that is currently aimed at us. In the past maybe that was true, but today, transgender people are under attack. 

“I want to normalize being transgender,” Karly continued. “Locally it’s very safe, but the keyboard warriors still find a way to target us on social media. I received a lot of hate after my 2018 Fashion Week article. I try to be very visible for the trans community. But even I need time to just be me. That’s why I’ll switch off my activism when I’m on vacation, and I’ll just unwind and destress.” Read the full conversation with Karly here.

As we’ve seen here in the US, when talk shows make transgender people a political football, when we’re the subject of ongoing rants by Florida politicians who seek to eradicate “Transgenderism” (which isn’t even a word, really?), when agents of the government use the language of hate towards a minority group, the rise of suspicion and violence against us is a predictable outcome. I am misgendered today in Atlanta more frequently than I was in early transition shortly after I came out in 2015. I can’t explain the rise in microaggressions, other than that possible folks are just less trusting of us today than they were five years ago when most people weren’t so attuned to our lives or told to hate us so often. 

But instead, when the government, as Malta has done, says unequivocally, “we are proud of our LGBTQ citizens, we care for you, we guarantee affirming healthcare for you, we believe who you are just because you say so,”; when governments say that, it lays the groundwork for everyday people to welcome us into their stores, companies, families, and lives. They may not fully understand us, they may still have all of the typical questions about our bodies, and they may still deliver the backhanded compliments they think we like to hear (“you’re really pretty, I couldn’t even tell you were transgender”). They may still ask us about our “real” names (hint: mine’s Jamie), and their implicit biases may still create a higher unemployment rate for us; but progress happens. Governments may not control culture, but they certainly influence it. And Malta has done the work to help us change the perception of transgender people. Do some barriers still exist for transgender people? Yes, of course. And folks like me and Karly will continue to step up to show the world what Queer Joy and what Trans Joy, looks like as we take those barriers down one at a time. We could use your help.

Tips and Cultural Nuances

The Knights Hospitaller of the Order of Saint John (NOT the Knights Templar!) weigh heavily into local history, as they occupied Malta from 1530 to about 1798, transforming much of the island with military fortifications, government buildings, bringing Baroque architecture and culture with them. They constructed many of the towers, churches, and fortresses that continue to stand today. The Co-Cathedral of St. John was built in Valletta, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist between 1573 and 1578. It has Co-cathedral status since the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Malis is at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the former capital, Mdina. The Knights also established the Public Library and the University of Malta later in the 18th century.

Not only are there 2 Cathedrals dedicated to St. Paul, but there are also two completely different destinations named Mgarr in Malta. One is a village in the northwest region of the island of Malta, and the other is the port destination of the Fast Ferry from Valletta to the island of Gozo. So be careful which one you are going to… if you want to get to Gozo make sure you don’t try to take a taxi to get to Mgarr!

Local Catch of the Day

Lampuki is a very popular seafood dish in Malta that you’ll find served in most restaurants, particularly during the peak season in September. Also called mahi mahi or dorado in the US and Mexico and elsewhere, the common dolphin fish is a pelagic fish that arrives in Malta in late summer. It’s a very sought-after white meat fish in many coastal areas from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. If you’ve ever had fresh dorado in a restaurant in Puerto Neuvo, Baja Mexico, or Key West, Florida, you know what a slice of heaven awaits! Be careful, however, when you order it make sure to ask the server if the fish has been prepared skinless. Some Maltese restaurants will serve it with skin on, which creates a very different darker, and more oily or “fishy” flavor that may not suit the American palate, or the flavor we have come to expect from mahi mahi.

Local Cuisine

Another staple of the local cuisine is rabbit stew, beef olives (which are braised and stuffed beef slices though the dish actually has no olives), and a dessert of date fritters known locally as imqaret. A great place to sample home-cooked style local cuisine is at Ta’ Victor, situated in the heart of the fishing village of Marsaxlokk in the south. For 35 EUR per person, the set menu includes 16 different courses to choose from, followed by dessert which will likely include locally made imqaret. You can even make this signature dessert for yourself at home with this recipe!

Tipping

Service workers in Malta do rely on tipping more than is customary across much of mainland Europe. It’s common to from 5 to 10% for great service for most things that you would also normally tip for in the United States. It’s common to tip meal servers, drivers, and tour guides up to 10%, and even water taxi operators would appreciate something more substantial for the 2 EUR trip they provide. So, make sure to carry a few Euros in cash wherever you go as you may not have the option to tip via credit card in some cases.

Must-See Destinations in Malta

Co-Cathedral of St. John. Image courtesy of Jamie Anne Harrell

Co-Cathedral of St. John

Co-Cathedral of St. John – the nondescript rear entrance of the Co-cathedral of St. John, Patron Saint of the Knights of Malta, bears two empty niches where one might expect statues of Saints to adorn the walls. Two simple matching clocks hang on the front of the towers, of which one which appears to tell the wrong time (I’ve been told it tells the date actually). These pedestrian ornaments belie the true grandeur of the interior of the Co-Cathedral, where the influence of the Baroque period can be felt throughout. Each chapel is more ornate than the next, save for the Chappel of Germany which is beautiful in its simplicity alone. The austere decoration devoid of monuments tells the story of the final Grandmaster of the Order of the Knights of St. John through symbolism. The final Grandmaster was the German national Ferdinand von Hompesch, who surrendered Malta to Napoleon in 1798. The Order went bankrupt thereafter, and von Hompesch didn’t have enough money to plan his own funeral.

The true treasure of the Co-Cathedral, however, might be the collection of the paintings of a one-time member of the Knights of Malta, Caravaggio. Several of his most renowned works can be found in the Oratory of St John the Baptist. It’s in this chamber where we can see the depiction of St. John’s martyrdom through the eyes of new Baroque realism, and the intense contrasts of light and dark that are central to the paintings of Caravaggio. One of his most famous works, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is the centerpiece of the Oratory of St. John.

The Co-Cathedral of St. John is in the heart of Valletta, which is also full of amazing restaurants, shops, hotels, government buildings, the outdoors Malta Opera House, and night life that can’t be beat. Give Valletta an extra day or two while you’re there.

Mdina

Image Courtesy of Jamie Anne Harrell

The ancient walled City of Mdina was founded by the Phoenicians around the 8th century BC and centuries later became the Roman city of Melita. From the early time and through the Middle Ages, Mdina was the center of most governments of Malta, though the Knights recognized the need to have leadership and fortifications nearer the coast. They established Birgu, one of the Three Cities, as the bureaucratic center of the island. Fans of Game of Thrones may recognize one of the public squares in Mdina as the location of Ned Stark’s last stand against Jaime Lannister’s men, but visitors with more historical and architectural interest will take note of how the city blends the Baroque and Victorian periods side by side. The ancient structures of the old city are adorned with Maltese balconies throughout. The bespoke door knockers on most of the still occupied homes often show symbols of the families whose property has been passed down through the generations in the Silent City. Mdina, from its name to its architecture has been central to and influenced by nearly every conquering culture over the millennia.

Ramla Beach, Gozo

Ramla Beach, Gozo – while the Blue Lagoon at Comino Malta may be one of the most well-known tourist destinations of Malta due to the gorgeous blue water and a mix of rocky and white sand beaches, smart travelers looking for a more local and less crowded beach experience should take the Fast Ferry to Gozo (depart near the Cruise terminal and Water Taxi stand in Valletta) and visit the red sand beach that the locals of Gozo love, known as Ramla Beach.

The more adventurous who seek a secluded and nearly private beach experience should choose San Blas Beach in Gozo, where the closest bus station or taxi/Bolt drop point (Weraq, next to the San Blas Garden and playground) is nearly a kilometer away from the beach – with a steep winding single-lane road in between. After a beautiful day at the beach, you’ll have to hike back up that hill, but the reward of having a nearly private beach that you share with just a few other smart travelers along with some visitors who arrive at the secluded cove by boat will more than make up for the return trip. Make sure to bring cash for food and drinks at the family-owned San Blas Kiosk, as they don’t have internet service available for credit card processing. You can rent two beach chairs and an umbrella for 15 EUR for your day in paradise from San Blas Kiosk.

Call San Blas Kiosk for reservations: +356 7930 5364

Dingli Cliffs

Image of Dingili Cliffs, courtesy of Jamie Anne Harrell

Dingli sits near the highest point of Malta, nearly 800 feet above sea level. The cliffs themselves are over 400 feet tall in places, some parts rising straight out of the sea while others meander inland with local homes and villages dotting the hillside below. While the cliffs are several kilometers from the nearest town, a bus stop (Maddalena stop Route 201) along the Triq Panoramika features several port-a-potty restrooms and a kiosk offering much needed water and local snack foods. There’s limited shelter from the elements along the Triq Panoramika; during the summer and into the early fall, the wind, strong sun, and heat will dehydrate you quickly. Consider bringing an umbrella for relief from the sun while you enjoy the spectacular views near the St. Mary Magdalene Chapel, locally known as il-kappella tal-irdum, the chapel of the cliffs.

Southern Coast of Malta

Blue Grotto, St. Peters Pool, and the coves of Il-Hofra z-Zghira and Il-Hofra I-Kbira (Il-Ħofra ż-Żgħira and Il-Ħofra l-Kbira) – Along the southern coast of Malta near the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, you’ll find incredible views of rock formations, coves, and caves carved into the cliffs and rocky beaches by the Mediterranean wind and waves over thousands of years. These now make for excellent views and swimming holes that you can access often either by land or sea. On the other side of the Il-Hofra z-Zghira cove from St. Peter’s Pool, you can see the F-Hofriet window, a sea tunnel which is shallow enough to walk through but only accessible by water. As an island nation, boating is deeply connected to the culture, so a great way to explore these destinations is by private sailboat charter from Malta Med Charters abord the 54 foot sailing yacht “Xanax”.

Call Simon Bradburn of MaltaMedCharters.com (+356 9906 6369) for half-and full-day charter reservations aboard the beautiful Jeanneau D54 Sailing yacht “Xanax” departing out of Triq Marina, Il-Kalkara, Malta.

The Transgender People of Malta

On the final night of our stay in Valletta, my partner commented how I hadn’t been misgendered throughout our stay in Valletta. That’s rare compared to our adopted hometown of Atlanta, GA. Rare enough at least that she would comment on it. “One waiter misgendered me”, I told her. “But it was only when I had approached him from behind and said, ‘Excuse me’. He had replied ‘Yes sir?’ as he turned but corrected himself as soon as he saw me.”

As a transgender traveler, the only thing that sets me more at ease than seeing another visibly transgender traveler is seeing a local trans person just going about their day with family or at work. If working, not under-employed as too many transgender people are in the US, but working at their level, whether that’s as GM of a hotel or as a clerk at one of the local shops. Other than truly existential threats from radical politicians, employment discrimination is perhaps one of the biggest barriers we still face daily, both in the US and abroad. But when I see well-employed trans folks in the destinations I visit, it provides a window into a culture that values us as people; people worthy to live our lives to the fullest, and to have the same opportunities as anyone else. 

The transgender people of Malta are still somewhat less visible than I’ve seen in other destinations. I didn’t encounter any locals other than Karly who were openly transgender or nonbinary, or at least none early enough in transition or presenting gender non-conforming that I might think they were transgender. According to Karly, her research indicated that being “stealth” is still sometimes important in Malta to avoid work discrimination, but her activism aims to help change that. 

But that’s not so different than many places in the US, particularly for lower income groups or in groups where cultural biases are particularly strong; many of us are also stealth for safety reasons. Fortunately, there isn’t any significant recent record of reported violence against transgender people in Malta. It’s as safe a destination for us as any that I’ve ever visited.I did see a few other transgender travelers walking around Valletta. But what does a transgender person look like anyway? Who am I to guess someone’s gender identity unless they tell me who they are? After all self-identification is the only real way for you to know who someone is. But practically speaking, sometimes transgender folks can recognize one another. So often we hesitate to reach out and say “Hi, I see you”, because we also usually just want to live our lives without hassle, without being identified, outed, or “clocked” as transgender. Without anyone staring at us. But when the chance arises that I do see someone who is visibly transgender or gender non-conforming, I’ll at least try to say hello, lowering my pitch a touch deeper into that masculine range that I can still reach. “I love your scarf,” I might say in a darker-than-normal voice and exchange a smile. A pleasant smile that says, “I see you, and I hope you see me too.”

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