A gay rights group in Malta on Monday presented a petition to the country’s ruling party asking for formal recognition of the rights of same sex couples.

The petition presented to Malta’s ‘Partit Nazzjonalista’ (Nationalist Party) by the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM) was backed by 1,084 signatures.

It also requested the inclusion of an article in the Criminal Code regarding homophobic and transphobic violence, and a clear strategy addressing homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools.

The MGRM also wants gender reassignment surgery to be made available through Malta’s public health services and goods and services protection for LGBT people.

Education Minister Louis Galea, MEP Simon Busuttil and party General Secretary Joe Saliba were present at the meeting, which is part of a set of meetings being held before Malta’s General Elections on the 8th March 2008.

The Times of Malta reported that the PN said it was adamant that the definition of marriage was strictly that of a union between a man and a woman, and therefore same-sex marriage was out of the question. But they added that the Nationalist Party was committed to addressing the rights of cohabitating persons – whether heterosexual couples, gay couples or siblings.

The MGRM representatives made the point that the relationship between gay couples should not be equated to that between siblings.

Dr. Busuttil referred to a section of the PN’s electoral manifesto which states that the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality’s mandate will be extended to cover all grounds of discrimination.

He argued that this could also pave the way for research on issues related to sexual orientation discrimination including those surrounding the lack of recognition of same-sex couples and homophobic bullying in schools – issues on which research within the local context is lacking.

The MGRM representatives said that they had contacted the Education Division with a proposal for a survey on anti-gay bullying in schools. Dr Galea indicated that such studies should ideally be conducted by the education authorities.

The PN representatives declared themselves to be in favour of anti-discrimination legislation relating to the provision of goods and services and stated that they would be willing to support an EU directive to this effect.

With regards to access to gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy for transgender persons as part of the public health services, it was stated that this had not yet been discussed at party level. Joe Saliba acknowledged the importance of this issue as it related to one’s identity and therefore had a huge impact on the individual’s quality of life.

Gabi Calleja, MGRM Coordinator, stressed that trans people were among the most vulnerable and socially excluded groups, and that a government that had social inclusion high on its agenda should consider addressing the needs of this group as a priority.

The movement said that the position expressed by the PN representatives during this meeting laid the groundwork for further constructive discussion in future. MGRM hopes that this will result in concrete policy actions should the Nationalist Party be re-elected.

In 2004, Malta banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation after the Malta Gay Rights Movement lobbied for the measure to be included in an Employment Relations Act.

Malta, a British colony until 1964, has around 400,000 inhabitants and is the smallest EU state in terms of both size and population.

In 2000 the government was criticised by gay rights groups for openly homophobic statements condemning EU proposals to treat gay people equally.

According to a December 2006 Eurobarometer survey, only 18% of the Maltese population support gay marriage, and there is significant prejudice against the LGBT community.