The Albanian LGBT community continues to face social stigma, despite a progressive legal framework and investments from the international community
By SASHENKA LLESHAJ / TCJE.org*
It rained heavily that weekend, but they rode their bikes on Albania’s main boulevard anyway, waiving the rainbow flag that has come to symbolize gay rights around the world.
Members of Albania’s LGBT community, joined by supporters and activists, held their third annual rally against homophobia, riding bicycles through Tirana’s main Nation’s Fallen Boulevard on May 21.
“Our main message is that we are all equal and enjoy the same rights as the rest of society,” Xheni Karaj, one of the organizers said.
Yet, participants said, there were just as many foreigners in the group as there were Albanians; just as many straight gay-rights supporters as there were Albanian gays and lesbians in a group.
Though there has been more awareness in recent years, Albanian gays and lesbians still remain in the shadows of society. They continue to face social stigma in a country where conservative values prevail, despite the fact that the country has implemented a progressive legal framework to protect gay rights and the international community has invested heavily to foster acceptance.
Unlike other countries in the region where similar rallies have either faced violence or been cancelled for fear of violence, Albania’s was peaceful and lacking in any incident, though police had clearly increased their presence and accompanied the entire ride.
A generational shift
Yet the rally did not go ignored by those who oppose gay rights. Social media channels were abuzz with mostly angry messages characterizing homosexuality as “a disease” and as “un-Albanian.”
There was organized public reaction as well.
On May 21, 59 intellectuals and public figures from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia signed a “pro-family” petition, arguing for a “healthy family makes a healthy homeland”.
“No support should be given to public models that turn our society into a Sodom and Gomorrah,” the petition said, specifically targeting the LGBT community.
The petition was led by older respected public figures, like 78-year old Kosovo academic Adem Demaci and 84-year-old Tirana footballer Shyqyri Rreli, but also included young entertainers like Ermal Mamaqi, Sidrit Bejleri and Jonida Maliqi. Men who signed to petition outnumbered women by a large margin.
In the same spirit, the nationalist Red and Black Alliance party earlier this month also announced the start of what it calls a “Pro-Family, Pro-moral” campaign with its leader Kreshnik Spahiu targeting the LGBT community directly a in a press conference. He said homosexually represented “a virus” that could spread problems in Albanian society.
“Property, family are not safe from unemployment and crime today. That should be the priority of Albanian rallies,” Spahiu said. “We can’t rally for immorality.”
Monitoring public reaction, a generational difference could be seen relation to social attitudes towards the LGBT community. While the majority of LGBT activists and among the youth and young people are the ones to express more open stances on their support about the rights of the LGBT community, there is still a prevailing rigidness among the older population which tends to argue its position in relation to values, tradition, family and religion.
Global experience shows it is not unusual for family-based values to be emphasized by anti-gay fractions, as May 15 is the International Day of the Families, and many anti-gay activists and religious communities celebrate it as counterbalance for May 17, the Global Day Against Homophobia.
Albania has seen direct cases of hate speech in in the past, with no legal consequences for the perpetrators. Legality Movement Party leader Ekrem Spahia, then a deputy minister, called for “beating them with sticks” in 2012, referring to the gays, comments were met with bitter reactions from many international and national actors and civil right defenders.
His comments came after Albanian passed a new anti-discrimination law in 2010 ─ qualified as a very progressive law and in line with European standards. Spahia was sued under the law but no legal measure was taken against him. Hopes at the time were centered on a newly formed structure under the same law ─ the Commissioner on Anti-Discrimination. Yet, apart from public statements against hate speech, no concrete measures followed.
Experts say Spahia’s case put many question marks on Albania’s substantial commitments to really respect and actively protect the human rights of marginalized groups. The law on anti-discrimination, without willingness to move forward with law enforcement, looked good just on paper as a ticked box for the long list of EU conditions.
United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Albania Zineb T. Benjelloun says Albanian institutions have increasingly engaged in protecting and promoting LGBT rights. That spirit of respect for diversity needs to spread to all of society, she said.
“The Garden of Diversity … is a mark of Tirana’s spirit towards LGBT rights,” she wrote in an editorial last week, referring to a special space in Tirana set up by the UN to celebrate diversity.
The UN has been only one of the international bodies and civil rights groups that have long been engaged into supporting LGBT rights in Albania.
The Dutch and U.S. embassies have been front runners along with the Delegation of the EU to Albania. While the EU has constantly emphasized the need to respect human rights in order for Albania to progress with accession steps, its diplomatic body’s statements have been a strong public voice in supporting all of the initiatives taken by the LGBT community to promote its rights, including the latest one ─ the Gay Ride.
Yet the involvement of international organizations in promoting LGBT rights in Albania has not been without local detractors.
When the U.S. Ambassador to Tirana Alexander Arvizu took to Facebook to express his views against homophobia, he faced a deluge of negative comments from Albanians.
“I understand that change is difficult, but people need to respect each other’s rights… Gay rights are human rights,” Arvizu noted.
The responses included references to homosexulaity as a “mental illness” or “handicap.”
“The real Albanian that has Albanian blood is not homosexual,” wrote one commenter identified through his Facebook page as Dhimo Hoxha.
Such attitudes show that parts of Albanian society have a long way to go, activists say. It was back in 1990, the General Assembly of the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of diseases by stating that “homosexuality is not a disease, a disturbance or a perversion.”
A hostile region
Yet, if looking at the broader picture where the region is taken into consideration, comparatively Albania presents a better picture of respect for the LGBT community accounting for better stances from the governments and the general public.
For instance, the situation in Serbia is much greyer with officials standing against any initiative to conduct a Gay Pride parade in Belgrade after clashes took place in 2010. This record of violence is not even comparable to the Albanian case.
Furthermore, although religious communities in Albania do also promote a conservative set of values related to family and marriage between men and women, they have been careful in their statements and language used when referring to LGBT.
The head of the church in Montenegro, Metropolitan Amfilohije, recently stated that “by sending the floods on them, God was punishing his people for Conchita Wurst [the drag queen winner] of Eurovision and the upcoming gay pride marches in Belgrade and Podgorica.”
Even though the picture in Albania looks relatively positive, The European Social Survey conducted by the Open Society Foundation in Albania in 2013 showed a less optimistic picture. According to this survey, 53 percent of Albanians believe that “gays and lesbians should not be free to live life as they wish”. If this indicator is taken into consideration, then Albania would be the most homophobic country compared to the other European countries that were included in the survey.
Despite the fact that attitudes of Albanians towards the LGBT the fact that the rainbow flag was peacefully flown in Tirana on May 17, shows the first steps have been taken, human rights experts say.
But gay activists at the rally on May 7 say there are now many concerns to be taken head on — discrimination, unemployment — but above all alienation from family and friends.
Kristi Pinderi, one of the representatives of the LGBT community, that after the barrier of holding the rallies was passed, now people are starting to hear the real life difficulties Albanian homosexuals, because they, like many other Albanians face a series of problems that are only made worse by the fact that they are gay.
*Sashenka Lleshaj is a participant in the Human Rights Reporting Project of the Tirana Centre for Journalistic Excellence. This article is published as part of the project. Click here for more information.