From: Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
The Government Has Failed LGBTI Albanians

Today is IDAHOT (International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia) and tomorrow the activists from Aleanca LGBT, Pro LGBT, and Streha organize, already for the 7th year, a Tirana Pride.

In 2012, we organized the first Tirana (P)ride on bikes, with the idea that the event would be safer on bikes than walking (this was the time of the violent pride marches in other Balkan cities). We teamed up with biking activists and Ecovolis, and organized the first ever pride event in Albania – and the first in the world on bikes! We were welcomed with fireworks, bombs, and torrential rain (video). No politicians, no ambassadors, no big flag. Just a bunch of scared, soaked activists on bikes racing across the Bulevardi i Deshmorëve, which had been completely blocked off by the police. It was great. It was exhilarating. And no one got hurt.

The next year, the sun came out, and with the sun came the allies, ready for a day out in support of the good cause and social media snaps. Looking back at the video footage, I distinguish former National Ombudsman Igli Totozani and former US Ambassador Donald Lu. There was never anyone from the government, there was never anyone representing the European Commission – neither Ettore Sequi nor Romana Vlahutin ever showed up. Also always absent was Erion Veliaj, who became Minister of Social Affairs in 2013 and then Mayor of Tirana in 2015.

So it is curious to see that precisely today, the two people actively posting about IDAHOT are EU Ambassador Luigi Soreca and Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj:

What is remarkable about both posts is that they don’t feature a single person. Where are the LGBTI people of Albania? Why are LGBTI rights celebrated with some fancy colors and anonymous landmarks? The answer is of course: because LGBTI people are still too weird, too queer for mainstream Albanian politics or society (and the European Commission is so sensitive to those “sensitive” issues, wow!). Popular Albanian media and entertainment features enough brothers and sisters – entire casts are made from folks as queer as a latte macchiato – but none of them are out.

I remember the time when my partner and I were publicly outed as a couple by journalist Alban Dudushi in an act of selfish desire for entertainment and drama (he got neither). Someone from the community happened to be in my line of sight at that very moment, and I could see the blood drain from their face. I later wrote about the experience here in a rather convoluted way, but their paralysis remains burned on my retina. None of that has changed.

In 2013, on the heels of the election of the Rama government there seemed an opportunity for change. The Council of Europe had a budget, the Ministry of Social Welfare, then led by Veliaj, was willing to engage, and as local project manager I was able to coordinate the drafting of partnership legislation and a first-rate gender recognition law, both revolutionary and visionary in their own way. The final presentation of the legislation at Tirana Hotel featured unheard-of bipartisan support from both PS and PD, Chamber of Notaries, and civil society, as well as a core team of international diplomats willing to lobby at the highest level. And this enormous opportunity was wasted.

It was wasted by then Minister Veliaj, who at this crucial moment left his post to campaign and rather courted the electoral support of bland homophobes such as Ermal Mamaqi. It was wasted by the Rama government, which was unable to bring the law to the floor of Parliament in spite of being approved by the Parliamentary Commission. It was wasted by the internationals who moved on to deal with other urgencies.

The end result is that the Rama government has an absolutely dismal record as regards the protection of LGBTI rights in Albania. It has implemented zero legislation (the anti-discrimination law was passed by Sali Berisha, imagine!), has wasted the money of two consecutive LGBT Action Plans without the Council of Europe making a single fuss, and destroyed the only governmental institution, the Ministry of Social Welfare, that ever pretended to care. Veliaj even bragged to unwitting foreign diplomats he had passed the partnership law: one of his many lies.

The 2018 annual report recently released by Aleanca LGBT, Streha, and Pro LGBT paints a bleak picture. There is a decline in reports of homophobic violence due to a decrease in trust of the police, with police officers reportedly “mock[ing] and ridicul[ing] victims of violence.” Furthermore, “complaint procedures at the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner are not user friendly to the LGBTI community.” The drop-out rate from schools due to bullying is “alarming,” while access to the labor market of LGBTI people, especially those out or outed, is severely limited. As a result, 30 cases have been documented of LGBTI people leaving Albania to request asylum elsewhere.

The authors conclude:

[O]ur daily experiences and our work makes us believe that Albania remains unsafe for many individuals of LGBTI community, where they are at risk from domestic violence or external violence and they could become victims of unusual forms of punishment, which are the legal foundations for refugees to claim asylum under the Geneva Convention. Further- more, this year we have documented three cases of violence which were reported at the police, but which were not considered for further investigations and prosecutions, thus indicating that the police lacks the will or the capacities to protect LGBTI people.

The report also shows the remarkable way in which the LGBTI organizations have been able to create the facilities denied by the state, by offering HIV/AIDS testing, counceling, career advice, art therapy, and many social activities – despite and not owing to the policies of the Rama government.

So when I see Ambassador Soreca and Mayor Veliaj waving the pride flag on their profiles, my only response is: this flag does not belong to you, you do not deserve it – and you certainly do not deserve the support of the many LGBTI folks in Albania who have created and continue to create their lives in defiance of the political and social status quo upheld by both the EU and the Albanian government.

PS. After I reminded Erion Veliaj of his broken promises on Twitter, and the fact that he has blocked Historia Ime, the main Albanian LGBTI outlet, he blocked me. N.B.: this is an adult man, who runs the capital of Albania. If you think Rama is an egomaniac, petty crook, wait till this guy occupies the Prime Ministry – you haven’t seen anything yet!