Rremida Shkoza is an Albanian-born, US citizen. She is a real estate broker and lives in North Carolina with her wife.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go back to Albania to do research for my memoir that I am currently writing. It was the third time I returned to Albania since my family and I escaped in 1991.
During that trip, I was in a new relationship with the woman who is now my wife. She came with me to help me collect stories for my book. A few days before the trip I received a call from my father. He immediately said that if I told any of my family members about my sexuality it would kill him.
Five years before this conversation, I came out to my father over email. I kept my distance from him for a week to let him think about what I had revealed. Then we spoke in person. It was then, for the first time, that my father told me not to tell anyone about my sexuality. I was understanding… I was not what my father wanted me to be. He was extremely disappointed in me and I in him.
For years I kept my distance from my family, so many times I had been accused of being a cold person. Too proud and independent, or perhaps I am too American – I found myself being judged. I have missed so many family events, and my family missed so many years of knowing me. There was an impenetrable wall between my queerness and my identity as an Albanian. Yet, like the image of the two-headed eagle looking away from each other, it is still connected as one.
My time spent in Shkoder during my last visit with my family brought me back to a time before my family was scattered across the globe. It was filled with connection but also filled with strife because my girlfriend and I had to hide the fact that we were together.
I had anxiety attacks often, stricken with fear of being found out for who I truly was. I felt like an outsider in my family’s presence. Every day I told my partner not to touch me and to keep her distance from me. She knew the situation before we left the United States for Albania. She was understanding, but the emotional distance was painful in a way that we hadn’t foreseen.
My uncles and aunts liked her very much but had no clue who she was to me. We felt like impostors. Hiding our joy and love for each other meant they didn’t fully see either of us, we didn’t fully connect or see each other. It felt gutting. I felt oppressed by the same people that fell victims to the oppression under the dictatorship of Hoxha.
I was ready to leave and to never return. I felt I had no true place with them, nor with my family back home in the US. During the plane ride from Tirana to Rome, I had this image of a table. A table surrounded by all of the women in my family laughing, talking and reminiscing. I did not have a seat at that table. I did not belong. I was not invited.
For years I saw myself as a defect and liability. Out of everyone in the family, I was different and that difference came at a cost. For years I tried to fix my self by pretending that I was something different, even at times wishing that I didn’t exist. It took years to see myself as a whole, as worthy, as acceptable, as loved.
Internalized homophobia slowly ate away my self-worth, my spirit, and my dignity. It took years of fighting for self-acceptance, as well as immense courage and strength to relinquish the weight and burden of internalized homophobia.
Remembering the image of the table that sat in my mind as I left Albania for the last time, I built a new one for all LGBTQ+ Albanians without a seat… and for myself.
I created SOFRA, an Albanian LGBTQ+ organization on Facebook (closed group) for people around the globe. It’s a community to connect, to share stories, to heal, and to create a global connection. Our community is growing every day with the help of Sofia Marcelli and Arber Kodra as fellow administrators, along with the hard-working members such as Davey Joseph.
I invite you to take a seat and join us at SOFRA.