12/26/2012 11:15 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

After Attacks, an Opportunity for LGBT Rights in Kosovo

This past summer, when I was conducting interviews for an article about LGBT life in Kosovo, a source told me, "We're all paranoid. That's part of the whole gay experience." On the heels of the attacks this month that targeted the magazine Kosovo 2.0 and the LGBT organization Libertas, the same source said, "The paranoia I talked about with you will just grow now. ... Everything regressed." It was a statement imbued with sorrow and frustration, and one that I hope proves incorrect. However, whether that happens depends on how the Kosovo government and public respond to the recent attacks. So far, in that respect, there is some room for optimism -- but there is also room for profound concern.

By now, what happened is well-known: On Friday, Dec. 14, a group of men stormed Kosovo 2.0's publicity event for its "sex" issue, which included my article and others with LGBT themes. They destroyed equipment and beat one staff member. Later that night, a large group protested outside a second event, a dance party, yelling, "Jasht, jasht pederast" (among other things), and forcing some attendees to flee and hide; the police escorted others away as the crowd jeered and shouted. Then, on Sunday evening, as Libertas hosted a small, private gathering at its Prishtina office, a group of men attacked and beat one partygoer in the street, forced their way into the building where the office is located, and threw some sort of gas into the premises.

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, Human Rights Ombudsperson Sami Kurteshi, Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi, the OSCE, the U.S. Embassy and others have issued statements condemning the attacks. Officials have promised to probe what happened, and they have firm legal ground on which to stand: Article 40 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, so long as it is not used for the "encouragement or provocation of violence and hostility"; Article 43 guarantees freedom of media; Article 44 protects the right to gather peacefully; and the country's Anti-Discrimination Law protects all people from discrimination, including on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

The responses to the attacks are certainly heartening. They came rapidly and hit all the right notes. Yet words, just like laws on paper, are not enough; they must translate into action.

Too often, in Kosovo (as in many countries), promises to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses are never fulfilled. In part, this is due to the numerous growing pains that plague the country's capacity for governance. But there are other, more personal reasons that can explain, in particular, a failure to protect the LGBT community and its supporters. This summer, I spoke with Kurteshi about why his office has not handled a case related to LGBT rights. He said it is because no one has ever filed one, but he also admitted that he cannot be sure what would happen with such a case. "We cannot promise to do too much," he said. "People who work here are part of society, too. ... [Perhaps] they cannot identify with [the LGBT community] and are maybe not able to do their best to solve the problem."

Kurteshi's comments indicate an awareness of the deep-seated prejudice that many in Kosovo harbor toward LGBT people. It is fair to assume the same sentiments exist in other government ministries, as well as among law enforcement. Overcoming biases within their own ranks will be officials' first task in responding substantively to this month's attacks. Prejudice cannot permit impunity.

The government's second task will be to use these events as a launch point for raising awareness about LGBT rights. Of course, no one should be under the illusion that the government can snap its fingers and eliminate bigotry or even discomfort felt toward the LGBT community. But all states have an obligation to impart information about and encourage respect for human rights. In other words, the government should not stop talking about these attacks; it should point to them as examples of that which Kosovo aspires to move beyond.

However, officials are not the only ones who bear responsibility. So, too, do those among the Kosovo public who profess to believe in human rights. Here, there is a troubling refrain. I have heard it since the attacks, and I heard it over the summer in the course of my research. It goes something like this: "Rights are good, and I don't have a problem with gay people. But why can't they just keep to themselves and not show us they're gay? Kosovo is not ready for gay people."

There are many problems with this argument. First, someone who says they support rights, whether an activist or not, cannot pick and choose which rights to respect. This implies that certain people are not worth the same treatment as others. Second, saying LGBT people should hide themselves -- something most of them already take great pains to do -- implies that they should not be allowed to exercise their full range of rights and instead accept living in silence and fear for the foreseeable future.

Third, saying "Kosovo is not ready" is not entirely inaccurate; as this month showed, conservative notions of family, religion and other institutions have strong roots. But it is wrong in the sense that LGBT people already live in Kosovo. They are not being created. They are Kosovars like any other, holding jobs, worshiping in mosques, cherishing their families and sipping coffee in cafés on Mother Theresa Boulevard. The "Kosovo is not ready" argument cannot be an excuse to preserve the status quo that suppresses and intimidates these individuals, because doing so means allowing forces of hatred to win the day. The situation will change only when there is ongoing dialogue and outreach, both formal and informal, that encourages tolerance and hopefully acceptance.

In a statement after this month's attacks, Libertas and Qesh, another LGBT organization, said, "Even though these actions created fear, [they] also made us stronger. From these incidents, [the] LGBT community will continue to fight ... and advocate for our rights." The determination of LGBT leaders must be met with both government action and public support. Otherwise, as my source told me, paranoia will grow, and hard-fought, incremental gains for LGBT rights will be lost.

This op-ed was originally published in the newspaper Prishtina Insight in response to a series of attacks this month on free speech and the rights of LGBT people in Kosovo.

Seyward Darby spent the summer in Kosovo working for Youth Initiative for Human Rights on an LGBT project and researching a related article for Kosovo 2.0. This op-ed does not necessarily reflect the views of either organization.