To say that being gay in Albania is hard would be an understatement.
There are very few people who are openly gay in this country, and the few who are brave enough to do so generally live in the capital (where progress happens faster and many things are more modern). So living in Shkoder it’s safe to say that I haven’t come across anyone who is, “out of the closet”.
But this week with my students we invited an Albanian organization to come and do an after school activity with us about diversity and stereotyping in an effort to change all of this. A little bit of background – Albania is a very traditional country that places a lot of significance on social acceptance through conformity. After 50 years of a communist dictatorship telling people exactly what was right and wrong, it’s hard for people to break the mold. In more ways than being openly gay, it’s difficult for people here to be different whether it’s music tastes, fashion, haircut, desired profession, or political opinions. And even though my students like to tell me that bullying is an American thing and Albanians don’t do that, I beg to differ. It’s hard to watch people get ostracized from groups or teased for being different, regardless of what country you live in. It’s a human thing, not an American or an Albanian thing. In my opinion, the beautiful part about being human is that we’re all unique, and I say we should embrace that not cover it up.
So anyway, back to my school activity. When it started I was literally shaking with nervousness/fear. This could be the end of my relationship with some of my students and with my community as a whole for that matter. Was I pushing the boundaries too much with this one? My students are so open-minded and respectful that I thought, why don’t we address a real issue this time. I wanted to move away from conversations on saving the environment because they all know they should do it (whether they take their own advice is a different story!). I wanted to tackled something that was tricky to talk about and makes them so uncomfortable that it forces self-reflection and consideration. Because only then can we really change the world. And after all, my student group is called “Change the World,” so why not?
The session started with the speakers explaining prejudice, diversity, bullying, harassment, and stereotyping. We all talked about ways we’ve been isolated by society and how it made us feel. So far so good. And then the conversation shifted. We started talking about the LGBT community in Albania, how we treat them, and how they must feel. My heart was pounding. “Please be polite. Please don’t say anything offensive. Please be respectful,” I keep repeating my head. And surprisingly, they were.
Okay, of course there were a few people who were visibly uncomfortable and wanted to leave. So I announced that anyone was free to leave at any point, and they all stayed. Baby steps. There were a few people who rolled their eyes and pulled out their cellphones. But the majority listened attentively and even raised their hands to ask questions.
And then the speakers actually came out to my students. For the first half of the presentation, my kids had no idea these 3 individuals were gay. And for that hour they were enjoying their company and laughing and talking. Why should it be any different now that we know she’s a lesbian? Yet all of the sudden the room was silent. I could see their eyes widening in disbelief. But when the speaker told her own story and the struggles she’s surpassed, they all clapped. And inside, I couldn’t have been prouder.
This woman in front of them had come out to her parents in high school when they saw her speaking about gay rights on national television. Her aunts, uncles, mother, and father cried, screamed and disowned her. They said she was going against nature and inhuman. Her father said he’d be the first to kill her for disgracing his surname and her mother wanted to force her to marry a man to cure her of this disease. As she told her story I watched the faces of my students soften. In fact, I’ve heard many of my favorite students utter these same words about gay people. But now gay had a face, and they couldn’t openly express their hatred. I watched as they struggled to grasp their own opinions and hoped that I had done the right thing by bringing them here today.
Across Albania, students are yanked out of school and sequestered in their houses when their families suspect them of being homosexual. Openly gay people, like this woman, can only leave their houses at night in the cover of darkness to buy groceries for fear of being attacked and beaten during the day. Gay rights are unheard of here, because gay is unheard of here. How can you have rights for something that doesn’t exist?
It’s not easy being different. But this woman fights every day for her right to be herself. And for that, I applaud her. I look at the faces of my students and I know that someday in the future, life will be better for everyone in this country and if they have anything to do about it, people will be free to be who they are.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”