Children’s rights and right-wing wrongs

Earlier this month, I learned of the Żigużajg performance by Romeo Roxman Gatt and Martina Buhagiar, created for an audience 8-10 years old, and called Gender Boss. You can read about this performance from the artists’ point of view here: “Uninformed political opinions took space meant for children”.

Initial tensions

I learned about this performance, not through Romeo, who’s artistic work I have been following for some months, but via a by now infamous Facebook post penned by PN MP Julie Zahra. Zahra was raising the concerns of some parents who had approached her and were unhappy that this performance will be shown to children. Zahra claimed that children 8-10 years of age are too young to learn about gender, and that psychiatrists, anthropologists and other professionals should have been consulted about the show.

Together with my ADPD – Malta Green Party colleague, Sandra Gauci, i drafted a response to Zahra, and stated:

“I knew it wouldn’t be long for the anti-gender messages to rear their heads in the PN. Comments like these are divisive and disrespectful to us, the trans community, our collective knowledge and identities.”

March 5th 2023

Our response was covered by a number of newspapers and online news portals.

Unfortunately Zahra’s Facebook post turned into a cess pit for a series of hateful comments to the LGBTQI community, and in particular towards the artist Romeo Roxman Gatt. Whose artwork and photography started to be shared out of context, calling him all sorts of names, and worse. Zahra did not seem interested in moderating her own page, and of course a lot else happened beyond that. Another MP, Justin Schembri, also from the PN supported Zahra’s statements and added some of his own comments.

My review of Gender Boss

While online tensions died down, as a result of this backlash towards Romeo, Martina and their work, the performance itself was not very well attended. I chose to go together with some friends, including the daughter of a friend, and when we turned up I was surprised at the presence of security.

To summarise the show, it tells the story of a young tooth fairy and a young boogeyman who are not comfortable with the roles that they are expected to follow. They meet each other in a magical basement, they play, read books, dance and draw. They get to know each other, and allow themselves not to be limited by others expectations. Befor leaving this space they design upgrades for their outfits, Toothy gets new wings made from car doors, and Bogey gets a new tail. After the performance we were invited to participate in a creative workshop. We were given worksheets and pens to write or draw our own heroes, and the challenges they face.

All the noise around gender means that the performance could not be reviewed outside of this context. While watching it I appreciated Romeo’s style of blending the organic and mechanical, in set design, costumes, and movement. The performance was narrated by voice over, and unfortunately I felt that the quality of the sound could have been clearer and more comprehensible. I definitely appreciated that Romeo and Martina did not steer away from using their contemporary practice in a performance intended for children. The video work and music really brought more dimensions to the story which in itself is rather plain from an adult’s point of view. The true star for me was the dance and movement of the characters, as they explored the space and got to know each other. It was a choreography that was performed to perfection and also expertly blended organic and mechanical motions. As for the workshop, it was fun and well-lead, the audience could choose to share their works with each other, and also make their characters part of future performances by adding them to the set in crayon drawings on white sheets. I think that this interactive element was necessary to bridge the performance to facilitate creativity and inspire the imagination of the children and adults present. Which should be a core element for cultural spaces intended for children.

All of this was marred however by the presence of a journalist in the room, likely looking out for any of the dangers that the Maltese right-wing promised there would be. I hope he felt, like me and many others who watched the show, that the right-wing were in the wrong about this.

Documenting harms

ABBA party had disturbed earlier performances and filmed them. Ivan Grech Mintoff has admitted to watching the show and somehow he saw evil where there was only playfulness and creativity. The presence of ABBA party at the theatre however created an unsafe space for children to access culture. Because of their behaviour I have sent an e-mail to Ms Antoinette Vassallo, Commissioner for Children. I have asked her to investigate the ABBA party for intimidation and harrassment of children. Rather than issue her own statement in this regard, she has asked the police to investigate my claims.

In a similar vein I have also reached out to Professor Andrew Azzopardi, founder and co-chair of CROM – the Children’s Rights Observatory Malta. The CROM had published a Children’s Manifesto which they brought to General Election candidates to sign last year. Julie Zahra and Justin Schembri were amingst the signatories, as were other politicians including myself and my colleagues at ADPD. Unfortunately PN’s MPs either never read the manifesto, have forgotten whar was written, or chose to ignore it anyways – using it simply as a vote grabbing opportunity. There are 5 points in the manifesto which I highlighted, and on the basis of which I believe that Zahra’s and Schembri’s signatures should be rescinded. So far I have received a response from Profs. Azzopardi, assuring me that my request will be raised at the next CROM meeting of co-chairs. I thank him for his consideration.

Is this how a Children’s Rights Champion acts?

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