Xheni Karaj is one of the founders of the Aleanca LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender), an organization that fights against the discrimination of the disrespected LGBT community in Albania, where homosexuality is still regarded as a disease by a majority of the population. Xheni is the first Albanian lesbian who had a public coming-out.

Caused a lot hubof controversy in Albania: Xheni Karaj. Picture: Philippe Stalder (September 2015)
Caused a lot of controversy in Albania: Xheni Karaj. Picture: Philippe Stalder (September 2015)

Since LGBT members are not only discriminated in public life but also in the job and even in the family, LGBT activists used to agitate anonymously. Until Xheni Karaj participated in the national TV debate “Opinion” about LGBT issues in 2011. THE AUSLANDSCHWEIZER met this inspiring young woman in Tirana and talked with her about the impact of her organization on the society, her personal coming-out as well as the political background of the issue.

How did your organization Aleanca LGBT come about?

This organization was created in 2009 by me and my friends, mostly young Albanian lesbians. In the beginning we were working pretty much underground, since we were afraid of losing our jobs or families. In the first years we would just organize actions during the night, like spraying slogans in the streets, painting benches in rainbow colors or put up posters that we have printed in our daily jobs. This community center did not exist back then, so we had to meet in our houses, bars and parks. It was a closed grass-roots movement.

How is the public sentiment towards homosexuality in Albania?

You have to know that Albania is a very traditional society. Until 1995 homosexual activities were punished with 10 years of imprisonment. Still today the predominant perception is that homosexuality does not really exist in Albania. Also there are no coming-outs by public figures.

About equality: Do you give a damn? Video: YouTube / ALEANCA LGBT (13. September 2012)

How was it to find out that you´re gay in Albania?

I realized that I´m into girls when I was about seven years old. Although I could not understand what was going on. We had no information about LGBT issues you know? I heard people talking badly about “fagots” but there was no such word for girls. And then I accidentally watched “Gia” in TV when I was 15. I was so happy to see a movie about a lesbian, I could not believe it. I watched the same channel every night, hoping they would replay the movie. During my whole high school period I did not get to know anyone who was gay or lesbian. I actually thought that I´m the only gay person in Albania. I felt so isolated and I was scared too.

How did your family find out that you´re gay?

That was like a tragic comedy. In 2010 I went to a TV debate about LGBT issues. They told us they would cover the faces and change our voices. However, they only covered the face. My aunt was doing laundry at home while the show aired in the background. Of course she would immediately recognize my voice. When I came back to my house she was there and it was a very strange atmosphere, like at a funeral. Everyone was crying and my father asked me whether I´m trying to be modern. After that he would not talk to me for a couple of months. I felt relieve and pressure at the same time. They told me that they still love me but that I must not come out and leave activism. I said that those are the two things that are never going to happen.

What triggered your decision to leave the underground with your organization?

In 2010 prime minister Sali Berisha proposed an anti-discrimination law, which was supposed to allow gay-marriage. Back then this was a pretty unbelievable thing to do. It was very progressive and a big surprise for everyone. After our community was formally accepted we felt strong enough to leave the underground.

Albania´s only LGBT hub: The organization´s centre. Picture: Philippe Stalder (September 2015)
The only LGBT hub in Albania: The organization´s centre. Picture: Philippe Stalder (September 2015)

However, the law was a requirement for EU-membership rather than a reflection of the Albanians´ sympathy for the LGBT community. But still, it allowed us to open up our community center and with the help of international organizations and foreign embassies we were able to start a public dialogue with some of the state institutions.

Do you know whether it was just a PR-stunt in order to apply for EU-membership or did Berisha actually care about the LGBT community.

Unfortunately, that´s how laws are usually made in Albania. There might be some politicians who are more open and supportive but the average Albanian is quite homophobic. We have had many cases where politicians openly called up for violence towards homosexuals. But still Berisha´s statement was positive, it was a symbolic message from the PM. It also gave us the possibility to talk with journalists – although just anonymously back then.

What are the exact functions of this center?

As the movement grew it became very difficult to continue doing activism underground and we needed a proper place to meet and discuss on issues such as the coming-out or to screen movies. In the beginning it was just a safe place where couples could come on a date and hold hands freely or transgender people could wear wigs and high-heels here. Nowadays we offer a more complete service. Our social workers do art therapy with the kids and offer psychological and legal help.

Art Therapy: The kids´ paintings. Picture: Philippe Stalder (September 2015)
Art Therapy: The kids´ paintings. Picture: Philippe Stalder (September 2015)

We also consult transgender people who are interested in doing the physical transition. We advise them not to take the hormone pills that you can get in the Albanian black market because they are very bad. However, there are good transition-specialists in Serbia.

Together with our partner organisation pro LGBT we opened the homeless shelter last December which now is the biggest service that we do. Kids who got abandoned by their families after the coming-out can stay at the shelter for six months where we help them to finish their education or to learn a profession in order to become economically independent and live on their own. This year we had eight cases who moved into the shelter.

How has the situation changed since you started with your activism?

After 2010 the legal situation changed a lot with the anti-discrimination code as politicians started to be more outspoken on the issue. It´s of great symbolic value in the public discourse. However, it is not enough. The public opinion has not changed a lot.

 

 

There is a big gap between what the politicians do as a requirement from the EU and the actual public opinion. The implementation of the laws still needs to be improved. Still, many hate crimes are not being reported, because the victims fear a coming-out or discrimination by the police.

How do you try to shape the public discourse?

By participating in it. We go to TV debates, we organize a pride on bikes each year, we go and talk to pupils in schools in different cities and we try to connect our movement with environmental-, women- and disabled-organizations.

Shaping public discourse: Xheni Karaj and Kristi Pinderi provide an insiders’ account of the country’s LGBT human rights campaign. Video: YouTube / humanrightseurope (15. November 2015)

Recently, we organized a fund raising event where popular singers were supporting our cause which they probably would not have done five years ago. So, things are changing but slowly. Now we are trying to create up contact points in other parts of Albania.

Albania is a very patriarchic society. Is it worse for the gays than for the lesbians?

I would say yes. At least on a physical level. They are much more likely to be attacked on the street than lesbians, since Albanian men can not demonstrate their strength by attacking women. But on a social or psychological level the lesbians might suffer more. The pressure to marry and to start a family weighs more on females than on the males. And also economically the gays are doing better. They usually earn more money and can live more independently. However, gays are more involved into prostitution than lesbians. However, I guess for the transgender people it is the hardest because they are easily identifiable.

Do people recognize you when you walk through the streets?

Yes they do. Since I am not anonymised on TV debates anymore people regularly recognize me. But usually they react just verbally. Although I used to answer with a joke I was afraid to go out at night in the beginning. I even bought a car.

What about the center?

In the beginning we were very scared. There is no sign at the entrance but the neighbors understood fast what has happened.

No signs at the door: The LGBT center´s entrance in Tirana. Picture: Philippe Stalder (September 2015)
No signs at the door: The LGBT center´s entrance in Tirana. Picture: Philippe Stalder (September 2015)

But we only had one bad incident where someone cut the cable from our camera. And once an old lady threw something in our garden. I expected that someone threw garbage or shit but it was actually a package with chocolate and a letter in it. The letter said: “The measure of love is to love without measure.” Now we are good friends.