GĦ: Gender And/Or

Dictionaries define gender in social or grammatical terms: it is either associated with cultural meanings attached to being male or female, or the linguistic inflections associated with being masculine, feminine, neuter, and so on. In the Maltese language, one is either masculine or feminine; linguistically, a state of in-betweenness is not possible. Language follows everyday custom in this respect, with its traditional roles ascribed to men, women, and family, and expected from children, all gendered from an early age. Most cultural artifacts and the lives they portray and give meaning to confirm this role set. Tourist gadgets and sexualized souvenirs thrive on selling voluptuous feminine curves. Yet some objects are less exacting. Archaeologists inform us that a Maltese prehistoric “fat lady” or fertility goddess is actually more likely to be a representation of an obese male body. A “feminine” handheld tool like a fan is actually used by older Maltese men. Such turns of fate are as socially contrived as more self-evident stereotypes. In the same way, transgender individuals in Malta deconstruct the politics of truth regarding human sexuality at the same time as they appear to fit perfectly into the expected roles they have within the small community they have chosen for their more private moments.

Prehistoric clay statuette, 5 x 2 x 2.6 cm, National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta. Courtesy Heritage Malta.
Photo: Alexandra Pace.

Gilbert Calleja, 2010-13, photographs from the Liminal series. Courtesy the artist.
“We know we are close to some sexual frontier, to that chasm where meaning is about to break down. But we never know if we are really there. We want to know whether a man is a man, or a woman is a man, or if a woman is really a woman. But we don’t know: we think we are at the fault-lines of sexual identity, staring down at this chasm, this death of gender, this breakdown of meaning. Instead, Calleja’s work must make us reconsider: how important is it for us to know? Do we need this kind of finality?” —Matthew Vella

Women’s high-heeled shoes. Private collection.
Photo: Alexandra Pace