“Mum, Dad, I’m…”

By - 10.10.2017

Coming out in Kosovo.

On a sunny spring day two years ago I stood with my thumb out at the side of a road near Kukes in northern Albania, trying to catch a ride back to Kosovo. It was not long before a silver hatchback containing three 20-somethings looking, as my father might have described them, “trendy” pulled over. Conveniently, they were driving from Tirana to Prishtina. There, the driver was to speak that evening at a conference.

“Nice,” I said. “How come?”

“Wait, you don’t know who she is?” I was asked from the front passenger seat. “This is Albania’s first lesbian!”

She was, of course, not the first lesbian to draw breath in Albania, but she was the first to speak about it on television — a bold move in a country where just seven years ago 90.9 percent of people surveyed described homosexual acts as “morally wrong”.

North of the border the atmosphere is hardly more hospitable. Forget coming out live on air, the overwhelming majority of Kosovo’s LGBTI citizens have not even come out to their families. When a coalition of three NGOs organized a pride march through Prishtina last year, they told Agence France-Presse that they were marching for “LGBT persons who could not be part of the march because they are surrounded by homophobia and transphobia in Kosovo.”

Having not only come out to his mother, but the entirety of Kosovo on television, 21-year-old transgender man Lendi Mustafa is a minority within a minority.

Lendi Mustafa is one of the rare Kosovars that has not just come out to his family but to the nation, doing so in a television documentary. Photo Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

While his mother is relatively progressive when it comes to gender and sexuality — she has a harder time processing Lendi’s sister’s decision to don a hijab than his decision to undergo gender reassignment — Lendi knew explaining his identity to her would not be a simple process. As an adolescent, even he was not aware of the vocabulary of transgenderism which he would later come to define himself by, so what hope could he have had for her?

“First, I didn’t even know what trans is, so I tried not to identify as anything. I was in the closet and didn’t speak to anyone about it but what I knew was that I was physically female and started wondering if I was a lesbian and if that was wrong,” he says. “I tried to ignore that thought until I was about 15 and started meeting new people. I had three best friends who were lesbians but sometimes we used to make this talk that we would like to be men and stuff.”

“I told her I was trans but I had to explain in detail what that meant.”

Lendi Mustafa on coming out to his mother.

The internet helped shed light on Lend’s identity, illuminating details behind the ‘T’ in LGBT. It was something to which he could relate. “I spoke to my mum but couldn’t just say I was trans, I just told her I liked females,” he says. She was accepting, but also cautioned Lendi that “it could be a phase.”

“A year later, I said to her we need to talk again. I told her I was trans, but I had to explain in detail what that meant,” he says. Next, Lendi visited a psychologist, who in turn further explained the situation to his mother, who went on to become a solid source of support for him — worried about how to tell his sisters, Lendi’s mother told him to leave it to her.

“My mother tried to find easier ways for me to go through this. The first thing she said was try to change, maybe one day you’ll just feel comfortable in your body,” he remembers. “But I was 16 then and when I turned about 19 she saw my only trouble was that I’m not feeling comfortable and she said just tell me how the surgery goes — and while she’s still scared, she supports me.”

Waiting for the right moment

Lendi is in the minority, and for most Kosovars, coming out is something to be planned and hoped for with a mixture of trepidation and excitement.

Eighteen-year-old multi-instrumentalist Stephany Candela, who asked to be referred to by his drag name, lives in Prizren with his family. With plans to study music production in America, the wingspan of his musical tastes stretches from extreme metal to mainstream pop.

Stephany Candela is still uncertain how his parents would react to him coming out. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

The first person he came out to was his big sister, who he told in 2013. While she was supportive — “She didn’t question it twice,” he says — his sister worried their parents might not be so understanding. “She told me that dad would get really angry and maybe not accept you,” he says. “She said they’re not going to support it.”

Four years on, Stephany still doesn’t know for sure how his parents will respond to the news. But while he is still formally closeted to them, both sides have made informal approaches to the topic. “For example, my dad told me once, ‘You were always like this since you were a child, you have those kind of feminine gestures,” Stephany says. “I told him, ‘Yeah, to be honest, this is me, I can’t be anyone else,’ and he agreed.”

Stephany feels this is a positive reaction, but knows that his parents don’t have a positive opinion on the LGBT community, though insists that they always ‘keep it cool’ with him. However he is in no rush to come out either, preferring to wait for the optimum moment.

“I want to come out when I find the love of my life,” he says. “When I have a relationship, when that person makes me so happy — I want to use that chance to show my mum: Look how happy he’s making me. I want that to be the time when she can see what’s going on and she can feel the happiness [the relationship brings me].”

“I want to go a step forward and make this more normal and we can only do this by coming out.”

Stephany Candela

It seems that Stephany’s friends in the community, too, are waiting for the right moment. They are all yet to tell their parents.

However, in Tetovo — a predominantly Albanian city in the west of neighbouring Macedonia — there is an activist by the name of Bekim Asani whose social media presence Stephany takes hope and inspiration from. “I see him posting pictures with his mum, who wears a hijab, and she goes to the office and drinks coffee with him,” Stephany says.

While Stephany has not yet come out to his parents, he views doing so, both to them and the wider world, as imperative. “I want to go a step forward and make this more normal and we can only do this by coming out. You’ve got to be very kind and gentle when you explain this to people here,” he says, adding that it is important to “tell them a story which makes them feel a bit like they’re in your shoes.”

“I’ve had homophobes who I converted into being ok with it,” he continues. “Telling them a story that puts them in your shoes, warm the conversation up slowly, slowly and then at one point, tell them.”

Small town gossip

A.R. was born and raised in Prishtina and identifies as queer. He first became conscious of his orientation aged 16. He writes in an email of how Kosovo’s conservative family values led him to believe there must be something wrong with him, and how he prayed every night to help cure his ‘sickness.’ “I thought I was crazy and that it was just something temporary,” he writes.

The screening a few months later of the documentary in which Lendi appeared focusing on LGBTI individuals in Kosovo, “Mallkimi i LGBTI (“The Curse of LGBTI”) gave him some hope. “After seeing it, I realized that there were such people in Kosovo and organizations advocating and lobbying for LGBTI rights,” he recalls. “After this documentary, I began to feel more secure and fuller.”

But however he feels within himself, he remains nervous of coming out to his parents. “I have never seen a sign from them that it is my right to choose my gender identity, as well as to have emotional or sexual attraction for somebody of the same gender,” he writes, adding that he is particularly fearful of his father’s reaction. He worries that his father’s religious beliefs, alongside his fear of local gossip mean that he would struggle to accept his son’s sexuality.

“I think that when the time comes that I come out to him, he will either abandon me or will try to keep it a secret from others,” he writes.

Many LGBTI persons in Kosovo worry that coming out will mean losing the support of their family. Photo Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0

He holds more hope for his mother, recalling how following a TV show discussing transgender identities she showed a measure of compassion and tolerance. “It’s great that they were able to understand themselves,” he remembers her saying. “God wanted them to be this way.”

Albi* is about to embark upon a six-year medical degree at the University of Prishtina but has spent the first 18 years of his life in Gjilan. He too is yet to come out to his parents.

“Prishtina will be a new chapter in my life,” he writes as we catch up over Viber. Gjilan, he explains, is a small town where it has been next to impossible for him to date or give full and free expression to his personality as a young bisexual.

While he has not officially come out to his parents, Albi says there is a saying among the LGBTI community: “Your parents know before you do.”

“Even if I had it would be very, very discreet and scary,” he writes. “I have a lesbian friend who dated a girl whose family found out about this barely opened relationship, and the brothers of my friend’s girlfriend… used physical force on her and told her to stay away from the girl she was dating.”

Albi describes how the brothers pulled her hair and beat her with their fists until she was finally able to run away. “Things like this happen here in Kosovo and living in a small town nothing is secret,” he adds.

While he has not officially come out to his parents, Albi says there is a saying among the LGBTI community: “Your parents know before you do.”

Albi says his parents, who drop hints but never ask direct questions on his sexuality, are worried about the reputational cost of being openly gay in an environment such as Gjilan, especially as they are business owners and pillars of the community.

“One time I shaved my legs and my mom didn’t like it at all,” he writes. “She said, ‘Is there something you want to show people, something that they’re not aware of?’”

Albi agrees with his parents that now is not the right time to come out, saying he would rather wait until he has his independence and, ideally, a partner. Nonetheless, he often wishes that his parents would step forward and tell him they are aware of his sexuality. “Of course, I think every gay kid wishes that,” he writes. In the meantime though, he just wishes that they would not judge him for his behaviour or the company he keeps.

He also believes that his parents are more afraid of other people’s opinions than their own. “I really think most Albanian parents would accept their child, but they would worry [about] what other people think and say,” he writes. “Friends of my mom have asked what’s my problem… posting [online] about ‘faggots’. Two days ago, I had this maniac girl who came to my mother [and said, please don’t] let [your son] hang around with my cousin… because he is degenerated and gay — that’s one of the weirdest things that ever happened to me!”

But while Albi insists that “a couple of old people talking won’t stop me,” the very real threat of prejudice and homophobia translating into physical violence is something that “should worry every LGBT person in Kosovo, not only me.” He adds that this danger undoubtedly plays a part in his parents’ reluctance to fully embrace his identity: “No parent wants to see their kid treated bad.”

The threat of violence is real. In 2015, the National Democratic Institute, an American NGO, conducted a survey of Kosovar LGBTI individuals in which 81 percent reported being verbally abused and 29 percent having been beaten or otherwise assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“All I got was positive messages from old friends and they were like: ‘Congratulations, you’re brave for coming out.’ I’m still waiting for the threats!”

Lendi Mustafa on coming out on national television.

However, parents and community members alike may take courage from Lendi Mustafa’s experience of coming out to the nation in a televised documentary.

“It was a one-second decision. I was talking to a friend of mine and she said someone is doing a documentary about the LGBT community, they’re looking for a transgender person. She told me I can hide my face and voice and I said I can not do that because I didn’t really want to hide,” he says. “I spoke to the journalist and he was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”

When he remained resolute, the journalist took him to meet with civil society members (many of whom Lendi already knew socially) to have them explain the risks of coming out as trans in front of the whole country.

“I had to tell my story but [also] give information about transgenderism and I was really waiting for threats and stuff,” he recalls. “All I got was positive messages from old friends and they were like: ‘Congratulations, you’re brave for coming out.’ I’m still waiting for the threats!”

But while Lendi’s is a success story, he recognises that his experience is far from universal. Asked what advice he would give to parents of LGBTI children, he responds: “The biggest problem when it comes to parents is that they speak so openly about how much they hate the community. There’s nothing I can really do for them, I can’t teach parents to be more accepting towards their children,” he says. “But I think this advice should go to the [LGBT] community, when they come out they should first try to get closer to their family and explain that they don’t feel as everyone in their family feels, and then they can come out.”

He cautions young community members not to rush the process of coming out, however tempting it may be: “Age is so important, most teenagers when they turn sixteen have this urge to come out but they should be careful because they’re going to live with this pressure for the next three years.”K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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