By Mindy Michels, Ph.D.
Not exactly the place that comes to mind for most people when they think of hotbeds of gay activism. But in fact, this small, formerly communist nation is currently exploding with advocacy and public debate about gay issues.
Next week Albanian activists will host the country's first-ever gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) photo exposition, with invitations sent out to ambassadors and foreign dignitaries. More important than the presence of diplomats, though, is the fact that the exhibition is open to the public, and that the exhibition, part of the activities for the International Day Against Homophobia, will be covered by the media. Attendees will walk through a labyrinth of one-meter-square photos that evoke the feeling of being an LGBT person in Albania. Such a high-profile event featuring same-sex desire is extraordinary in this small, Balkan country. What is even more exceptional is the recent history leading to this moment.
Not quite three years ago, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues suddenly became Albanian headlines when Prime Minister Sali Berisha (who is still in office) unexpectedly declared his support for same-sex marriage at a televised meeting of his ministers. The surprising July 2009 comment came amidst his expected support for a comprehensive national anti-discrimination law.
There had been no advocacy for gay marriage by any human rights or LGBT groups. In fact, there barely were any existing LGBT advocacy groups in Albania. The proposed law did not cover marriage. The news threw the small nation into an uproar. Albanian media erroneously began calling the proposed anti-discrimination law "the law on gay marriage," and for days it was the main topic of conversation on talk shows and blogs and in cafes. It made international news, with headlines trumpeting, "Albania will be the first Muslim nation to approve same-sex marriage." To this day, international news outlets (including The Huffington Post) still sometimes incorrectly report that same-sex marriage is legal in Albania.
Fast-forward three years, and last month Albania again made international news when the Deputy Minister of Defense responded to the possibility of a parade for LGBT rights by stating, "My only comment is that they should be beaten with poles ... in other words, beat them with a rubber stick." Immediately, two LGBT activists protested the vice-minister's violent pronouncement, filing a formal complaint in front of television and newspaper cameras. In quick succession, the remarks were condemned by various Albanian and international officials, including the People's Ombudsman, the Prime Minister, the Commissioner for Anti-Discrimination, the European Union, and the American Embassy. Once again, gay issues were on the front page of every Albanian national newspaper and the topic of Albanian talk shows.
So we have two highly publicized, internationally reported incidents revolving around comments made by Albanian public officials regarding LGBT rights. Both comments were unexpected. However, in the case of the announcement by the Prime Minister three years ago, actual LGBT Albanians did not exist in the press coverage or in the eyes of the public. No activists came forward to thank the Prime Minister, there were no Albanian gay people in the media, and all public conversation was by ostensibly straight Albanians discussing the theoretical lives of gay Albanians. Today, to the surprise of the Albanian public, Albanian gay activists are stepping forward, showing their faces, and claiming their right to participate in the conversation about their lives.
What lies behind this remarkable and swift transformation? In 2009 fears about possible violence, discrimination, lack of acceptance, and, perhaps most importantly, the shame that it would cause family members meant that not one person in Albania would publicly acknowledge same-sex attraction. Today, there are LGBT activists openly protesting the homophobic and violent remarks of governmental officials. Young LGBT Albanians are giving presentations in college classrooms and going on television talk shows, educating students and the Albanian public about the realities of their lives. Leaders of LGBT organizations are speaking out in newspapers and on television. There is widespread publicity for the photo exhibit. What made it possible for such change to happen in three years, for these new activists to overcome the barriers to public action and dialogue?
Albanian society is not radically different than it was three years ago, and fear, potential violence, and concerns about familial shame have not changed. But what has changed is a feeling of community among these new gay Albanian activists. The work of volunteer NGOs such as Aleanca Kunder Diskriminimit te LGBT (Alliance Against the Discrimination of LGBT People) has reshaped relationships, creating a sense of kinship and connection between those who participate in their activities. Conversations with young activists constantly return to themes of the family and community they have created and are creating together. The movement effectively uses social media such as Facebook, allowing people to initially connect with perceived anonymity. Discussions, film screenings, parties, direct actions, and other events allow the opportunity for establishing friendships and shared identity. And, in a development impossible to imagine three years ago, LGBT activists regularly engage in interventions and collaborations with other human rights NGOs and the government.
While the grassroots LGBT movement in Albania is still emerging, it has given those involved in it the courage to vigorously speak on their own behalf. Benedict Anderson famously wrote that all communities are imagined. What the last three years in Albania has shown is that, while societal change in Albania will happen slowly, the power of an imagined community is real.
Mindy Michels, Ph.D. recently returned from living and working in Albania for four years. While there, her focus areas were LGBT rights and children's rights. For her work in Albania, she received the 2010 Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Overseas. She has spent the last 15 years working as a practicing anthropologist and an advocate for human rights.