While travelling around Malta in search of stories and profiles of diverse characters for OutThere, all roads seemed to lead to one man, whose tireless work campaigning for a better, more equal and inclusive country has touched everyone.That man is Clayton Mercieca. Meet him.
I first encountered Clayton Mercieca out on the cobbled streets of Valletta. He was leaning on what I recall as a bollard (but perhaps it was something far more 18th century than that, considering the city’s historic architecture and infrastructure) outside 131 City Lounge on Merchants Street. This new, gay-owned, neighbourhood-bar concept, where everybody’s welcome, is spearheaded by our mutual friend, Terri Bonello.
Terri’s bar was in its first week of opening and, to showcase the space, he had offered it up for an Allied Rainbow Communities (ARC) social gathering, something that the LGBTQI+ rights organisation has prided itself on since its conception in 2015. ARC was founded out of a need to create a sense of community among Malta’s LGBTQIA+ people. It understands that being queer and in the closet can be isolating in a country like Malta, and a lot of its success has been centred around creating social and networking opportunities for the LGBTQI+ population in safe spaces.
The idea seems rather alien to me now. I suppose because London’s queer venues and events are far more about nightlife than need, commerciality rather than community. But here in Malta, such gatherings are that too, and are often a lifeline to so many, an opportunity to meet like-minded people – friends, chosen family, future love interests – a support network. As such, the place is rammed, with people spilling out into the street. Terri had told me that it would be busy, because many of Valletta’s queer, out folk see attending as a social duty, as well as an opportunity to catch up with friends, old and new.
Clayton sits slightly away from the throng. Partly because he’s waiting for me, but partly like a shepherd watching his sheep. It’s a strange analogy, I know, but it’s what immediately springs to mind. And, frankly, it’s not too far from the truth: Clayton is the president of ARC and the people filling the bar are his flock.
Young, handsome, intelligent and softly spoken (in the considered kind of way), Clayton makes a perfect poster-boy for the LGBTQI+ rights movement in Malta. He’s a millennial, part of the social-media generation and has used all the tools he has at his disposal to great effect, reaching out and rallying LGBTQI+ people all over the country to come together as a community, to meet and support each other (and I don’t mean that in an ‘Arab Spring’ kind of way).
A while ago I learnt never to make reference to a younger person’s age when meeting them for the first time. ‘You’re quite young for an activist’ is simply objectionable, particularly in this day and age. But I find that most people of Clayton’s age in the UK, for example, seem to care less about LGBTQI+ activism these days. But then, Malta is not the UK: the country may have catapulted forward in inclusivity in the community, but for the longest time it was the exact opposite.
Clayton grew up in religious, conservative Malta. While he acknowledges that it wasn’t as bad for him as for those before him, coming out was still terrifying in a landscape where homophobic and closed-minded people had the upper hand. Those in authority – from the police, to schoolteachers – would usually side with ‘gay panic’ on occasions where bullying or worse happened. Public displays of affection would incite cat-calling or violence. Parents disowned their children, or tried to convert them at the behest of the Church. It is all stuff that, despite the laws of the country coming on leaps and bounds, people are still terrified about today.
He tells me that he spent his entire teenage years struggling to accept himself. He had always longed for role models and guidance on ‘how to be gay’.
“Years of misrepresentation of the media, listening to deprecating jokes and Church dogma made me hate myself for a long time during the years when my straight peers were focused on far more trivial things, such as football and making an impression on girls – basically on being youths,” he confides. “I vowed that when I ‘grew up’, I’d be a big brother for those who don’t have someone to guide them.”
I offer Clayton a drink, but he politely declines. He’s had rather a long day, a long week, and perhaps even a long year. His husband Christian and their young son Sebastian await him at home. But, despite every reason to skip this ARC event to enjoy some time with his family, he is here tending to his flock – and talking to me.
Clayton’s selflessness has been a feature throughout his life. As an undergraduate, he majored in social work and completed a Masters in creativity and innovation. He dedicated most of his working life to public service in the field of EU funds and investment promotion and he worked for ARC for four years as a community manager before going on to become its president.
“In my younger years, I was always involved in voluntary organisations, mostly in youth activism,” he says. “In 2007, I was particularly active with Drachma, an LGBT Christian group, where I served for a number of years before taking on a community engagement role at ARC.”
“One of my biggest gripes in our community is the glorification of masculinity in character”
In doing this work, Clayton saw first-hand how laws could impact change at a societal level. A lot of people benefitted in many ways from Malta’s progressive legislation.
“I definitely saw and felt a change. Not just in feeling like a valued citizen and member of society, but in terms of safety too. Today, I feel that Malta is generally a very safe and welcoming country, but I hadn’t always felt this way. The fact that our government is pro-LGBTQ+ helps to move the needle on the whole country’s diversity narrative. This garners the support of the communities it impacts, but also of allies. It brings with it an influx of people who feel motivated and want to contribute positively towards our society. I feel safe and empowered to live my life authentically without fear today. But I am also aware of my privilege of being a Caucasian, cisgender male. Queerness is experienced and perceived differently and there are still some serious misconceptions here about non-binary and transgender persons and – on a wider level – women.
“We also cannot ignore the fact that there’s still ignorance and confusion in all spheres, and I think what we are experiencing right now is the friction between those wanting progress of inclusion to be implemented holistically without caveat and those who are resisting because they fear that their ‘traditional values’ will be lost. We need to achieve a positive and open dialogue for everyone – inside and outside the community – otherwise we’ll be stuck in this limbo for ever.”
ARC’s team of dedicated volunteers do many things under Clayton’s direction. Some are grand, such as Malta Pride, others are grassroots.
“We do small things, often in silence, to help individuals in need, from providing emergency funds for persons kicked out of their homes or without employment, to supporting minorities within minorities. We organise meet-ups and create spaces for every part of our rainbow family, understanding that as a community, we are ourselves diverse,” he says.
Malta Pride is a crucial part of ARC’s mission, because it is what raises visibility for the community. However, having worked as a volunteer leader myself in the organisation of WorldPride London 2012 (it turned out to be a bit of a disaster), I know that it comes with all sorts of challenges, from navigating politics and funding, to having to go backwards in the hope of moving forwards. It can be soul destroying at times.
But Clayton seems to downplay the challenges, telling me that one of his proudest moments was securing Malta’s bid to host EuroPride 2023. It was a dream he’d had in 2017 before joining ARC.
“When I brought it up, I remember that my peers were sceptical that this would ever be possible, but I always believed that if we pulled our ropes together, we could achieve it.”
Clayton applies the same philosophy to his personal life as well.
“Growing up, I never thought that I would have my own family unit. It is something that most heteronormative married couples have, but for me as a gay man, I thought I would have to miss out on it. I had already accepted the reality that I would probably be single for life and I learnt to enjoy my own company. However, on meeting Chris, things turned around and, after seven years, we tied the knot and two years later we had our son Sebastian.”
Clayton tells me that he’s motivated to create a better Malta for his son and he knows many people, particularly queer people, that want to do the same. In Malta, Catholic guilt is something that people grow up with and it’s not always an easy thing to shake off. This creates lots of internalised homo- and transphobia within the community, but also in society at large, resulting in a lot of prejudice. And even within the LGBTQI+ community itself, there is still sometimes a monocultural way of ‘being gay’.
“One of my biggest gripes in our community is the glorification of masculinity in character, with a muscly or toned body to match. It is something that’s rife here in Malta, stemming from our Mediterranean chauvinism, and it creates a lot of anxiety, mental-health issues and body dysmorphia.”
The challenge with a small community is that such problems infiltrate quickly. But with my glass-half-full approach, I think a small community like this one, which Clayton and his peers at ARC are helping to create and nurture, can also be a truly mighty force for good.