At a bar on the outskirts of Prishtina, Adem, an attractive young Albanian man, stands on a balcony with a drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. It is a warm July night, and the bar is buzzing with the energy of a party. To Adem’s right, two other men are kissing. To his left, a group of women are flirting. Inside, a mass of people, including one drag queen in a platinum-blond wig, are pounding the dance floor.
Adem, who is slight with brown hair and wearing a crisp, white, button-down shirt, smiles nervously and admits he almost did not come to the bar tonight. He had to down two drinks to work up the courage. “I told my cab driver to wait five minutes. I said I might be back,” Adem says. “I feared for my safety.”
This fear is understandable. The party is being hosted by a local NGO that works on behalf of Kosovo’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and the last effort to stage LGBT parties in Prishtina ended disastrously. Just over a year ago, an employee of Pure Pure, a club near the city’s stadium, began advertising the establishment as “gay-friendly” on GayRomeo.com, a popular international meeting and dating site. “People who want to stay and feel comfortable you can find peace in this place,” an electronic invitation read. But things took a bad turn when local media learned of the club’s effort to attract new clientele. The online outlet Lajme Shqip sent a photographer to Pure Pure to cover the story, upsetting organizers and attracting dangerous attention. Homophobic backlash appeared on the Internet, and, according to one source, a group of football fans arrived at the club looking for trouble.
Within a few months, the club was being renovated under a new name, and the employee who had advertised Pure Pure on GayRomeo was no longer in the country. “My family found out both that I’m gay and that I initiated the party. … After that, I was beaten at home,” the employee says. He also feared targeted attacks in public. “How would you feel if you were alone in a park and you were surrounded by 500 foxes? That’s how I felt.”
Such is life for members of the LGBT community in Kosovo. Deep-rooted antagonism toward people who do not fit traditional sexual and gender norms means being “out” can lead to social stigmatization and hostile encounters. Leading a “double life” is common: People are straight in public and with their families, but reveal other orientations or behaviors with friends and partners. There are no LGBT clubs or bars in Kosovo. Instead, people meet online or quietly through friends.
To be sure, there is no uniform LGBT experience. Some people have embraced LGBT identities or additional, unlabeled identities that fall outside conventional social parameters, while others do not want to be categorized based on their sexual behaviors or gender characteristics. Some eagerly embrace being part of an activist community, while others reject it entirely. Some have suffered violence and discrimination, while others have found pockets of acceptance. Some have hope for the future, while others wish only to leave Kosovo behind.
There are striking similarities among people’s stories, however, that paint a bleak picture of the LGBT community’s existence. Protection of LGBT individuals’ rights and efforts to encourage acceptance of their lifestyles have been mired amid family expectations, economic instability, government intransigence, and other realities of life in Kosovo. LGBT activism has begun to find its footing, but it faces uphill battles with the Kosovar public, law enforcement, and even the LGBT community itself. “The fact is that members of the community, unfortunately, have to work more than the straight community, prove themselves more than the straight community,” says Myrvete Bajrami, a lesbian who is out publicly and was willing to have her name used in this story. The future for Kosovo’s LGBT population, in other words, is anything but clear.
‘Culture of silence’
Growing up in a small city in the south, Marigona heard whispered rumors about men who liked other men. No one, however, talked openly about same-sex relationships. So when she started feeling attracted to girls as a teenager, she was confused. “I thought, ‘What’s going on with me?’” says Marigona, now 25 with a raspy voice and stylishly cropped hair. The one thing she knew for sure was that she should not share her feelings, particularly with her family. “I knew there was something I shouldn’t say,” she recalls.
Arben Fejzaj’s story is similar. Now in his early 30s, Fejzaj, who agreed to let his real name be used in this article, grew up in a village in eastern Kosovo. By the time he was a teenager, he was experimenting sexually with other boys. “We didn’t know why we were doing it, but we did it, and we liked it,” he says. The only word his community used to describe people like him was peder, which translates loosely as “faggot.” Fejzaj told no one about his attraction to men, and even after moving to Prishtina, he feared his family and their friends would learn the truth. “(In Kosovo), it really matters what people think about you,” he says.
Indeed, much of the bigotry directed toward the LGBT community in Kosovo stems from the importance placed on preserving the structure and appearance of the traditional Albanian family. (Kosovo is 92 percent Albanian.) Men marry women. Women have children. Men provide for their families and preserve their honor. These stereotypes have in many ways intensified since the 1999 war that led to Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. “The post-conflict context valorizes men as warriors and women as mothers,” explains Nita Luci, an anthropologist and professor at American University of Kosovo. The individual, in many ways, is less important than the unit. “People live here for others,” Fejzaj says. “Your family wants you to grow up and create a family and produce — keep the family growing.”
Stories circulate throughout the LGBT community of people, once their identities are known, being thrown out of their homes, beaten or verbally harassed by relatives, or forced to marry members of the opposite sex. Ahmet, a 19-year-old man, says his father and brothers abused him after learning he is gay, and his mother told him, “I birthed you. … I am married, so you will be married and have children.” Ahmet notes that in addition to safeguarding their families, Kosovars also do not want the social shame associated with having a gay relative: “You are known by your father’s name. So people are going to say, ‘The son of so-and-so is gay.’”
Further complicating matters for LGBT individuals is Kosovo’s struggling economy. A roughly 45 percent national unemployment rate means many people must rely on their families just to stay afloat. “(If) you have no income yourself, you stick with your family, because where can you go?” Fejzaj says. “You do what they say.”
Consequently, the vast majority of LGBT people do not talk about their identities with their families. “It’s a culture of silence,” says Hans, a gay man from the Netherlands living in Prishtina. “When you don’t speak about an issue, it’s not an issue.”
The family is not the only source of prejudice in the country. Kosovar society, which thrives on conservative values rooted in history, culture, and tenets of Islam (Kosovo’s majority religion), is also largely intolerant of LGBT individuals. Community members say they have been told by everyone from friends to university professors that LGBT people are sick, disgusting, or immoral, or that LGBT identities and rights are Western constructs imported into Kosovo. When Kosovars hear the word “gay,” Marigona says, “(they think of) two men having sex. They don’t think of them making love or loving each other or taking care of each other.”
These views sometimes manifest in attacks on LGBT people. According to the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA), a gay man was slain in a park in Prishtina in 2008. LGBT individuals, particularly gay men, have also been beaten in the street or in bars. “I had a friend who was going out at a club and tried to touch a guy, and the guy hit him,” Marigona says. Other people have experienced harassment or discrimination. Brahim, a young bisexual man, was thrown out of an Internet cafe after the employees discovered his sexual orientation. “They told me, ‘(The computer) doesn’t work for your category. … When you become a real man, you can come here.’ I felt really terrible.”
The psychological effects of Kosovo’s homophobia, whether experienced at home or in public, are daunting. Many in the LGBT community feel inescapable pressure to conform, at least outwardly. Several of the interviews for this story were conducted in private or in near-empty cafes. Once, a source asked that the volume of the conversation be lowered, so no passers-by could hear. Moreover, transgender individuals remain so hidden that sources for this article occasionally mentioned “knowing of” a trans person, but never meeting one. “The only way for a person to survive, not just financially but morally, is to be part of the general society,” says Alex, a 29-year-old gay man. “It’s like choosing between success and failure.”
‘Always lying and pretending’
For Dardan, a thin, soft-spoken gay man, dating is not easy. He knows there is little possibility of meeting a love interest in public. So he meets men online through Facebook (where he maintains an anonymous profile in addition to one with his name on it) and on GayRomeo. If Dardan, who is 24, identifies someone he likes, they will chat a few times and maybe talk via webcam. Then, if both are willing, they will meet somewhere for coffee or a drink. “You shake hands, you sit down, and then what I usually do is try to engage in conversation,” Dardan says.
The whole scene will assume the appearance of two friends meeting. Flirting, at least overtly, will be off limits. “Eventually, you kind of get to the gay factor somehow. But you don’t mention the gay factor,” Dardan says. “He may ask you, ‘When was the first time that you started this?’ … ‘Have you met a lot of guys who are like us?’”
Sometimes, if all goes well, they will find a place to have sex — a complicated decision, because so many young men live at home with their families. Sex in alleys or near one of Prishtina’s few cruising locations is an option, albeit a dangerous one. “I don’t have sex that often,” Dardan says. “I don’t like the secretiveness.” Whether sex is involved or not, the two men are unlikely to start a relationship. In fact, they may never meet again.
Dardan is one of many gay and bisexual men in Kosovo who operate in a clandestine dating world governed by unwritten codes of conduct, the most important being that no one talks about what transpires during a date. “You might meet a guy and do something with him, but then you do not talk about it,” says Brahim, who also maintains an anonymous Facebook profile. “You are dealing with people who would never want to be seen around with a person they are ‘playing’ with or being intimate with in reserved spaces,” Alex says.
Another code is that a man cannot “act gay” — meaning, he cannot display any gestures or expressions that might seem too feminine. “Some guys will tell you how to behave in public. Like, ‘Don’t move your hands like that,’” Dardan says. Similarly, Brahim says he is often asked by men he meets on the Internet, “Do you look very gay?” If they see him on a webcam and decide he’s too feminine, there’s no chance of a date. The risk of being identified as peder is not worth the possibility of a new romance or friendship. “We’re all paranoid. That’s part of the whole gay experience,” Dardan says.
It is not uncommon to find married men on Facebook or GayRomeo. Brahim, for instance, met a handful of times with a man who had a wife; they never had sex, but the man, eager for physical contact, asked if he could give Brahim a massage. “People are always lying and pretending,” Brahim says. Arben Fejzaj has an acquaintance who, after many years of activity in the gay community, married a woman in Gjakova. “He wanted to do something good for his family,” Fejzaj says. The acquaintance, however, has told Fejzaj he plans to keep sleeping with men.
Lesbian and bisexual women operate in a somewhat different manner. Though they meet on the Internet, they use dating sites and Facebook less frequently than men, relying more on friends to introduce them to possible partners. They also tend to engage more often in long-term relationships. In public, however, women operate under restrictions similar to those experienced by the male gay and bisexual community. “You can’t act like you are in a relationship when you are in a restaurant,” says Marigona, who has a girlfriend. “You can’t look at each other with love.”
Group socializing poses its own challenges. Before the Pure Pure incident last year, LGBT parties in Prishtina were held occasionally at hotels outside town or in the apartments of internationals. Only rarely were they hosted at establishments downtown, where they might have attracted unwanted attention. The same concern accompanies contact between members of different ethnic groups. “I’ve tried to communicate with people in northern Kosovo,” Alex says, referring to the region where a large portion of the country’s Serb minority lives. “The different societies did not allow us to see each other often enough and hang out, because (the Serb men) would have been seen with an Albanian in their town or village.”
‘We cannot promise to do too much’
On paper, Kosovo has legal protections in place for LGBT people that should allow them the freedom to date, love, work and live like anyone else. The constitution guarantees respect for international human rights conventions and says these instruments even “have priority over provisions of laws and other acts of public institutions.” Moreover, Article 24 of the constitution states that “no one shall be discriminated against on the grounds of … sexual orientation,” and Article 2 of the Anti-Discrimination Law reiterates this principle.
Yet Kosovo’s laws are far from perfect. Neither sexual orientation nor gender identity is considered a potentially aggravating factor in a hate crime. Same-sex partnerships are not recognized. And the country’s revised police law, passed in 2011, no longer classifies an action or incitement of action that discriminates against people on the basis of sexual orientation as a “serious disciplinary offence.”
Compounding these legal gaps is the government’s failure to enforce existing protections. According to ILGA in 2011, “There is still a lack of awareness on LGBT issues, which are not openly discussed. There is limited knowledge and understanding on the part of law enforcement officers about the rights of this community.” Several people interviewed for this article described negative encounters with police. A few years ago, after being attacked in the street, two gay men went to a police station where, one by one, officers came in just to have a look at them. One lesbian said in an interview that when she reported being kicked out of a bar for showing affection toward another woman, a police officer asked her indiscreet questions about her relationships, such as, “Who (plays) the man?”
Kosovo’s human rights ombudsperson, Sami Kurteshi, acknowledges the shortcomings of the country’s laws and institutions. In an interview at his office in Prishtina’s Sunny Hill neighborhood, Kurteshi says his agency, which is tasked with reviewing cases of human rights violations, has received no complaints from LGBT individuals in the three years he as been on the job. He believes LGBT people do not report to his office because “they do not believe in the institution” — likely a sign of general distrust of the government.
But even if reports began rolling in, Kurteshi admits they might not receive thorough or fair attention. “We cannot promise to do too much,” he says. “People who work here are part of the society, too. … (Perhaps) they cannot identify (with the LGBT community) and are maybe not able to do their best to solve the problem.” When pressed on what he is doing to ensure that his staff respects LGBT people’s dignity — which Kurteshi is quick to say he personally does — he explains that resources are too limited and other human rights problems too plentiful to offer any sort of education or training program.
It is no surprise, then, that some LGBT individuals have little faith in the government’s ability to help them. “There are a lot of other things they say they are going to do and they don’t do it,” Arben Fejzaj says. “They just want to, in the eyes of the others, the international community especially, they want to say, ‘We support this, we’re doing this.’ But they’re not doing anything.”
‘A comfort zone’
One Monday evening in July, a small party gathers on the patio at Pjata, a restaurant near the University of Prishtina. Tables covered in white tablecloths offer hors d’oeuvres and carafes of wine. The occasion is the official launch of Libertas, a new LGBT NGO named after the Roman goddess of freedom. Founded by two gay men from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, Libertas has set up an office in downtown Prishtina that includes a social space, conference room, and two beds that members of the LGBT community can use if they need a place to stay. A wall in its main room is adorned with both Kosovo and rainbow flags. One of the founders, who runs the NGO with a handful of Kosovar staff, welcomes the party’s guests, among them Kurteshi and representatives of the U.S. and several European countries’ embassies. Libertas, the founder explains, is “a place where people can come and be safe, not have to be someone they are not.”
Libertas is not the first LGBT NGO in Kosovo. Elysium, which was formed about a decade ago, today predominately offers HIV testing services. Then there is the Center for Social Emancipation, or Qesh (a play on the Albanian word for “smile”), which was started by a trio of LGBT people about eight years ago. Its goals at the time were to document cases of violence and discrimination against community members, lobby the government for legal reforms, and “create a safe, tolerant environment in Kosovo,” in the words of one of the founders.
But LGBT activism has experienced significant ups and downs. One of the founders of Qesh was attacked in Prishtina and later received asylum in the United States. The organization was largely inactive for several years. Some activists, meanwhile, have drifted away from the cause, claiming that Kosovo is not ready for an open, dynamic LGBT community — and that many in the community are themselves not ready for change. Some prefer the status quo to the stigma they might incur by demonstrating politically or coming out, while others do not believe their sexual orientation or gender identity should define them legally, socially or otherwise. “I found out that even with all the sacrifices I was making, I wasn’t really seeing results,” says Alex, who used to work with Elysium but now focuses on his career. “If you want to represent a community, that community must have the will to be represented.”
Qesh has redirected its goals for similar reasons. The organization went on hiatus for a few years — it revived several months ago — because LGBT people were not responding to its efforts: They wanted parties and social events, not rights advocacy. Myrvete Bajrami, an activist with Qesh, says there is also a split in the community based on who is open with their identities and who is not , which can complicate cooperative work. She says some community members have told her, “We don’t feel comfortable hanging out with you because you are too open.” Moreover, men and women in the community often do not see eye-to-eye. “Even the gay community is patriarchal. It’s a mirror of the society in Kosovo,” Bajrami says.
So today, Qesh focuses on dialogue with the government. It hosted a small conference in May, attended by Kurteshi and other officials, to open channels of discussion. “We work for (the LGBT community’s) rights … and we will monitor violations, but no organizing activities,” Bajrami says of Qesh’s plans. “The community itself needs its own process. You cannot really give to someone who doesn’t want to get.”
In contrast, Libertas was founded primarily to organize events and campaigns. Its Facebook page, which already has more than 400 members, boasts that the group plans to host everything from movie nights to human rights trainings. The organization is also designing a series of posters encouraging acceptance of LGBT lifestyles that will be placed at bus stops around Prishtina.
Libertas’ initiation into Kosovo, however, has already been rocky. The official launch at Pjata was supposed to be held at another bar, but at the last minute, the proprietor backed out, citing security concerns. Arben Fejzaj, who works for Libertas, says owners of bars are still nervous in the wake of the Pure Pure incident. The fear, it seems, is as much about reputation as it is about violence. “On the phone, (the proprietor) said, ‘Oh, I heard rumors. We’re scared of these people, fundamentalists who are strictly against people being gay. We’re afraid they’re going to attack us,’” Fejzaj says. “I asked, ‘Can you be more specific? Did anyone really threaten you?’ And he was like, ‘No, no, no.’”
The NGO is still weighing how to operate safely. Friends of the organization have suggested putting a security camera outside the office’s door, and employees have to carefully vet email and Facebook requests for Libertas’ address. The staff members themselves also walk a tight line: On the one hand, they are activists, but on the other, they want to keep their identities secret from the wider public and their families. “There’s a comfort zone,” says Dardan, who worked at Libertas for a few months last summer, “and I respect it.”
‘I could not sleep all night’
Libertas’ first major social event is the July party that picks up where Pure Pure was cut off last year. Every guest gets two free drinks, and a floor fan works in vain to cool off the crowd. A man heading for the dance floor shouts joyfully over the din of pop music coming from the DJ’s table, “This is the best (LGBT party) we have ever seen!” A Libertas employee is less sanguine. “Nerve-wracking is more like it,” he says, looking anxiously toward the front door, where a lone security guard is keeping a lookout for unwanted guests.
In Kosovo’s LGBT community, excitement and fear are never far from each other. So often in the life stories gathered for this article, anxiety has trumped hope or joy. “I wait for something to come one day, like love or rights,” says Ahmet, who has short-lived romances with men but continues to struggle with a family that insists he marry a woman. “I am so tired. I don’t know what to do.”
There are also stories with happy endings, however — events held without incident, relationships that resist social and familial pressure. And in some cases, there are new beginnings. Marigona surprised herself by coming out to her mother one night over the summer. “We went out for coffee, and I just told her,” Marigona says. Although her mother said they should not tell Marigona’s father or anyone else in the family, she did not reject her daughter’s revelation. “She was perfect … (asking), ‘So you were born like this?’” Marigona recalls, smiling. “I could not sleep all night because of the adrenaline.”