TIRANA, ALBANIA – This past week, dozens of LGBT activists from countries in and around southeastern Europe gathered at the Tirana International Hotel for a precedent-setting event: “Stop the Violence: LGBT Rights are Human Rights,” the first LGBT conference ever sponsored by the U.S. government in a foreign country. Over two and a half days filled with panels, meals, cocktails, and even an art exhibition in Tirana, Albania’s capital city, the activists, most of them young, shared stories and best practices on topics like engaging with law enforcement and using social media. They also talked with U.S. Embassy representatives from their respective countries about how the LGBT community and American officials can work together to advance the principle of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s now-famous statement “gay rights are human rights.” It was no coincidence that the second half of the event’s title echoed this statement, the essence of which often imbued the conference with an air of excitement, resolve, and joy.
But the first half of the conference’s title, “Stop the Violence,” was a reminder of the stark contrast between the event and the reality of life for many of the activists in their home countries, most of which are still working to transform into well-functioning, accepting democracies.
Consider Albania. In this small Balkan country, just two decades removed from the fall of a communist regime that was largely intolerant of difference, the LGBT movement is scarcely three years old, boasts only a few hundred active members, and faces continuous challenges. Rewind to March, for instance, when the country’s Deputy Defense Minister Ekrem Spahiu announced that, if the LGBT community in his country attempted to hold a Pride parade, “they should be beaten with truncheons.” Two months later, when a small group of activists staged a bike rally on the International Day Against Homophobia in heavy rain and Tirana’s chaotic traffic, their route was further disrupted when people waiting on the sidewalk threw homemade smoke bombs into the street.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the LGBT conference in Tirana, while not a secret, was also was not widely publicized. “I’ll be honest, most Albanians don’t know this conference is going on,” a representative of the U.S. embassy told me. “We didn’t push it. If we had, we might have faced some negative response.”
The same could have been said in most any country in the region if it had hosted the conference, as an image of Europe posted on the wall outside the event’s main room revealed. The “rainbow map,” prepared by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Association (ILGA) earlier this year, indicates how well-constructed national laws are to protect and provide for the LGBT community. Generally speaking, as one moves east across Europe, the situation gets worse and worse. On a scale of -12 (terrible) to 30 (excellent), Albania receives only a 6, as do Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. Kosovo, Poland, and Greece rank at a 2, while Russia, Macedonia, and Moldova are at -4 or lower.
But weak legal systems are only part of the picture. Homophobia driven by traditional norms, nationalism, and religion is an enormous obstacle for the inchoate LGBT communities. In 2008, for instance, activists who had gathered on a bus to stage a demonstration in Moldova were trapped inside by hundreds of angry, screaming protesters, many of them religious. (The vast majority of Moldovans are Orthodox Christian.) Nine phone calls to the police went unanswered. Since then, the LGBT community has focused more on unplanned demonstrations like flash mobs, which, according to one activist, only attract backlash afterward “from the bigots and homophobes who missed the party.”
Another activist, Zdravko Cimbaljevic of the group LGBT Forum Progress in Montenegro, one of the former Yugoslav republics, reported a beating based on his sexual orientation to a police officer who did not want to recognize that he was gay. In particular, although Cimbaljevic’s attacker had called him “faggot,” the officer did not want to put the word in his report. “‘Why do you need that?’” Cimbaljevic recalled the officer asking. “People don’t want to believe there is a LGBT community in Montenegro,” he added.
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