The second in a series of 52 interviews with Albanian women in the public sphere #52GraShqiptare
Xheni Karaj 34 years old, one of Albania’s most prominent LGBTI activists and a feminist. She studied psychology at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Tirana and has been instrumental in the start and development of the LGBTI movement in Albania. Karaj is also a co-founder and executive of the Aleanca LGBT organisation, STREHA residential shelter, and is the author of SkaNdal, a documentary of LGBTI history in Albania.
Tell me about yourself as if we are meeting for the first time?
I was seven years old when I first realised I liked women. I didn’t understand that I was a lesbian because I didn’t know what that was, I just knew what attraction and butterflies were. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I knew that what I felt had a name, even though most people at the time just referred to LGBTI people as paedophiles and other negative words. That was the environment back then.
I didn’t have problems accepting myself, I had problems understanding myself as I didn’t have a name for what I felt and who I was.
Then, when I was 14 I remember watching Top Channel at around midnight one night and the film ‘Gia’ with Angelina Jolie came on. I remember it like it was yesterday-my whole world exploded. My god, I felt so good that I could see physical contact between two women and that I could identify with who they were- lesbians. After that, every night I would sit and wait, watching the same channel, just hoping that it would be shown again.
As I went through my adolescent years, I didn’t feel like the others. I was constantly afraid that people would realise what I was thinking and feeling and that they would not understand me. I felt so alienated and I began to turn in on myself.
I started having a lot of psychological problems such as depression, anorexia, insomnia, and suicidal thoughts because I had so much anger in me and I didn’t know what to do with it. It was like this ball of rage that had nowhere to go except inside and it started to destroy me. These years should have been the best of my life, but instead, it was a time of huge darkness.
When I was around 18, I came out to my best friend but to my surprise, he told me that he already knew and had been waiting for me to tell him- I was so relieved! I realised that sometimes we get so lost in ourselves and get so consumed by our fears that we don’t give others a chance to accept us, instead just thinking the worst.
I remember, I used to play out scenarios in my head of how I would tell people and I would just feel this anxiety inside me which resulted in not having the courage to do it for years. The reaction of my friend made me realise that being a lesbian was not the end of the world, but I knew I still had a huge challenge ahead of me.
Back then, I only knew a handful of other LGBTI people. There was limited internet access, no parties, no organisations, and certainly no ‘out’ people. We used to meet via social media portals, in fact, that is where I met my first girlfriend. During the two months we spoke online, I was still worried that she would actually be a man- it was only when I first spoke to her on the phone that I could be sure.
How did you become an activist?
I never thought I would become an activist. I started activism at the age of 21, without even really knowing what it was or what it meant.
I started because of two American friends that came to live in Albania, a lesbian couple with a young son. They lived here for two and a half years in 2009, and never met another lesbian (until meeting me) – they couldn’t understand why there was no other ‘out’ people and no community.
A mutual friend- one of the few who knew I was out, set up a meeting and off I went, aged 21, not sure of what to expect. They were in their 40’s and one of them had experience in the US as an LGBTI activist. They started to organise dinners at their home and we would discuss and chat- it became like a family and they understood us because they too had passed a time where they weren’t out.
I started noticing that my mental health was improving, I guess because I was sharing my thoughts with people and realising more and more that I was not alone.
We started thinking about what we could do in terms of creating a community so we started a FB group called the Gay and Straight Alliance. Within two months, the group had over 500 members.
The American ladies house became like a commune and the group of us visiting them got bigger and bigger. Then in 2009, we decided to do our first bit of activism.
We printed off posters with “homophobia is a social disease” written on them and posted them at night, around Tirana. The police caught us once but said “well done for bringing attention to sexually transmitted diseases” they, and many others didn’t even know what homophobia was. We put these posters up, not just to make a statement against homophobia but to let people know that we exist- this was a time when people denied that there were any LGBTI people in Albania- we wanted to show them otherwise.
It was the best night of my life- I felt a purpose and most of all I felt that all of that anger that had previously been destroying me was channelled into something positive.
From then on, that was it. We contacted Sevim Arbana and she let us use her women’s centre in Selite for activities and meetups. At first, a few people came and we saw such a high level of loneliness, isolation and fear amongst them. For years, everyone had felt that we were the only ones in the world- that we were alien and not normal. Everyone sat with their eyes down, not speaking, not making eye contact but what made us stronger together was this shared background of fear and isolation.
Gradually, over time we started to understand and accept ourselves, we became like a family and we wanted to make a change in society and to reach others like us.
From there we started doing more street art and graffiti all over Tirana. At this time in 2009, we only did things at night. This was also when we made our first public statement as a group, welcoming Sali Berisha’s announcement that he was going to introduce gay marriage in Albania. While it never happened, it was still good for us to gain attention for LGBTI people, even though we were still not out ourselves.
How did you come out and what was your parents’ reaction?
Once we made that public statement, journalists started contacting us for interviews. I would use different names and give interviews by phone but occasionally I would go and meet a trusted journalist that I knew would keep my anonymity.
In 2010, we did the first action in the daytime- Doctors of Homophobia- and we distributed info sheets in Tirana. It was our first face to face action. I was very scared, we had a lot of people spitting at us, shouting at us, and being confrontational but we were happy to be out there and we felt empowered and after that, we couldn’t stop.
Then one day, I agreed to go on television to talk about lesbians as long as my face was covered. We made it clear to the journalists before the show that they had to change our voices and ensure our faces were covered because as we explained, this was a matter of our lives and jobs. Sadly, when they aired the show, they covered our faces but had not disguised our voices so when we spoke, everyone knew it was us.
I was so fucking afraid. I was working for a state institution, AMA and was scared that I would lose my job. I was also afraid for my family as they didn’t know and I was scared of how people would react to them.
My aunt saw the show and heard my voice…she fainted when she realised it was me. Then, I went home and I saw my aunt, my mother, and my father at the dinner table and it had the atmosphere of a funeral.
I sat down to eat and my mother started to say strange things like “oh you want to change the world”, and then my aunt said that she had seen me on television and asked me if I was a lesbian. I answered “of course I am a lesbian, you heard me talking for two hours about women loving women”- it was like a dramatic comedy. My mother was crying, my father was pacing up and down, my aunt was asking crazy questions- they said that I was bringing shame on their name and their family.
After some discussion, they said that they would accept me on the condition that I gave up activism because they didn’t want the neighbours to know. At this point, I asked her if she remembered how sick and depressed I had been before and I told her that what changed is that I had become an activist- I couldn’t go back to that previous life.
She told me “you are not going to change the world Xheni” and I replied, “I know, but maybe I can change the life of someone else”.
Now they knew, the burden was lifted. I felt like it was the first time I could have a sincere relationship with them and show them who I really was. It was liberating.
Then, a friend of mine, Kristi Prendi who had been involved in the LGBT movement started to become more prominent even though he was yet to come out. It was May 2012 and the time of the very first Gay Pride in Albania and he was invited to the TV show ‘Opinion’. Kristi invited me to go with him to sit in the audience for support and I promised my mother that I would be quiet, not speak, and not cause any trouble.
The show was a disaster and quickly became very aggressive- one member of the panel, Murat Basha told Kristi during the ad-break “if you speak to me like that again I will cut your throat”. He also told him “if my son becomes like you, I better shoot him and go to jail”- and it made me very angry. I thought to myself, silence is not a solution and I cannot stay quiet any more.
I told Blendi “give me the microphone” and all the cameras turned on me. I told him “the reason the community struggles and its people live in the shadows is because of the hate from people like you.” Blendi said “oh we have a lesbian in the audience…” and from there that was it, I didn’t know what was going to happen with my life after that moment.
After the show, I didn’t want to go home, I didn’t want to go to work- my friends couldn’t believe what I had done, my phone was going crazy, I felt so anxious, so tense, and so scared.
The moment I stepped into the street, people were shouting and pointing at me in the street- it was like the walk of shame “look at the lesbian”. It was like that for months. I received threats, abuse, harassment and my parents were inundated with phone calls.
Extended family, friends, neighbours- everyone had something to say about it and it was very hard for them. I felt a lot of guilt about it; this pain that I had caused them, the attacks, the gossiping, the snide comments- it was a terrible time for them.
I told my mother “you have to understand that when people see you vulnerable they will destroy you if you show people you are proud of me you take the power from them and they cannot hurt you any more.”
Now, thankfully we have passed through those difficult times and my parents support me completely. They don’t care what people say and I thank them for that every day because there is no way I could have achieved anything without their support, and of course, their bravery.
Thankfully my boss was also supportive. She called me into her office and told me that if I encountered any problems in work, in the institution, or from colleagues, I had to tell her immediately. She surprised me, I couldn’t believe it- she saw beyond my sexual orientation and I was so thankful I could finally be myself.
If you could go back and speak with your younger self, what would you say to her?
I would tell her…I would tell her not to be afraid any more, not to feel alone any more……not to be scared…not to hide who you are…I wish I could have that conversation with her.
I would tell her that things get better and never give up- you have to be a fighter. There is so much power inside of you, trust others, take your anger outside of you to do something good with it.
You cannot live in a lie- it damages you and your family. You have just one life, you have to live it truthfully. I knew what the consequences of hiding your true self were because I suffered from it for so many years.
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.