As May 17, 2013 approaches, we spoke with Kristi Pinderi – activist, archeologist, historian and all round LGBT policy expert – about the political context for LGBT rights in contemporary Albania, and the new project he’s involved in: championing the uncovering of historical records of communist repression of sexuality and gender expression in Albania. We also took the opportunity to touch base about May 17, last year – when Albania’s IDAHO ’gay bike ride’ was attacked with explosives. And plans by LGBTQI groups in Tirana, for May 17 this year.
Could you explain a bit what life is like for LGBT people in Albania – on the one hand you have some quite progressive legislation, yet on the other violence was an issue at your events for May 17th last year?
With regard to the legislation it is almost becoming a myth that we have quite progressive legislation. Yes we do have an anti-discrimination law which also includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity, not only sexual identity. And that is important because in theory a teacher, for example, who is transgender, and decides to go and teach wearing a dress, I can’t imagine what the reaction would be, but the law protects that need, if there is a need like that.
From the other side, what we have noticed especially in the last year is very slow work on the hand of Anti-Discrimination Commissioner. We have a lot of complaints regarding the job that that institution is currently doing and we thought, okay. During the first two years, as it is a new institution, we could say let’s give time to them, to adjust themselves in this new position and figure out how they could do the job. And of course our duty was to offer them full help – comprehension, you know? But then afterwards, after complaining and complaining and the fact that the Commissioner was treating that institution in an extremely bureaucratic way, there is the right somehow – come on – to protest against that; not against her personally but with some of the ways she was dealing with the issues.
Then, regarding the violence. I have a mixed feeling. Because on the one hand yes we had of course some problems – it was minor problem last year actually, the violence. What we can say about the violence is that I believe it’s a hidden violence. It’s a not reported violence we don’t have situations like in Belgrade for instance or in other Balkan countries where extreme violence against activists is almost like a normal attitude. But what we have is non-reported violence especially within families.
I’m not saying that there is no violence. I am saying that the violence is so sophisticated, that it’s a financial violence for instance. When the parents find out about their children, the first thing they do is like, okay, we won’t give you any money, we’re not paying anymore for your university and if you want to leave the house we will not pay you rent for another house, and we will not let you get a job in this city.
We have had cases of violence especially from brothers, against their younger brothers, extreme violence sometimes and the problem is that the community is quite unresponsive and not willing to report that violence. And I can understand it because we don’t have enough infrastructure; how to address that kind of violence. So yeah, this is now the general situation.
Regarding the politics it’s quite interesting because we have a very right-wing Prime Minister who actually was the first one who, during the meeting of the government, said that okay, we are in favour of same-sex marriage. The way he said it was sort of like joking. And what we understood afterwards was that it’s just a strategy to attract people’s attention from the real problems.
We had a change to meet him very quickly some months ago and he said something very interesting you know, because he is a very tough man and an old man: saying listen! We have decided: we are a free country and you have to go further, you have to be free. (So it was funny and weird you know because it’s us who have decided not them!). But anyway, his intention was good. His intention was positive.
And then from the other side we have a left-wing party which is not really willing to communicate about LGBT issues in public. They do have a specific paragraph at the page 54 of their programme – political programme – stating that they support the family as a tool to improve the society; and by family they recognise not only the traditional families but partnerships and all the other alternative families. It doesn’t explicitly refer to LGBT people but it is clearly understandable that this is also referring to LGBT people. So what we want to do this year, before the elections in June, is that we will try to make them – at least 40 party political representatives – to take a stand, a public stand, on questions like same sex marriage, the right to adoption, gender reassignment and gender recognition.
We will send them official questions… and at the end we will present, before the election, all the results in a press conference. And it will be sort of a guide for the LGBT community to vote in a smart way.
You’re busy at the moment with a really interesting project – uncovering archives about the repression of homosexuality during the communist regime in Albania. Could you tell us a bit more about that project, how you started that?
What we did is that, okay – especially me personally because I’ve studied archeology and history – I was curious to know if there were any specific documents related to LGBT people and so we met with the director of the state archives, who is an important historian. And she said there are plenty of documents but you have to check for that. She said, I don’t want to interfere in that, I will help you by establishing the right infrastructure for you to search but then it’s your job to do it. So what we did is that we were like three of us going there every day for at least one month and checking all the files where we thought there might be any information about LGBT people. And we started from 1920. The idea was to focus on the communist regime which was in power from 1945 to the 1990s. Then we saw that there were more documents even before this.
So we started with the documents of 1920, we found for example, the first document that criminalised homosexuality by law and it was the correspondence of the Minister of Internal Affairs with the Prime Minister at the time. And then we found that there were plenty of documents categorised under “unnatural crimes” and “unnatural sexual relationships”, for example. And there were personal stories like, love stories that ended violently. For example there was the case of one 15 year old boy who was in love with an 18 year old boy and the younger one broke off with the older one, and suddenly they were there at the police station. So we have the police record for that you know. And it was really interesting to see the terminology that they were using. They were clear for example, who was the active and who was the passive guy. And that is shocking for us because it was 1920, when 90% of Albanians were not able to read or write.
Then we extended the research. We found the first document of Muslim communities complaining about increasing cases of homosexuality, in their specific regions. And sometimes there were cases of hunting for homosexuals in the schools, or sometimes there were cases that if two people were in conflict one guy was going to invent a homosexual case in order to put the other one in jail. Cases like that. So what we said is that there are plenty of cases like that okay, we will need some funding to do something serious with this. For example, what we want to do is first of all identify all the documents and then to publish a book, but like a bibliography you know – to help students especially to go on and do their own research. Then the second step to do is to plan an exhibition of that. And the third step is to also make a documentary and take that opportunity to start to identify some of the old people – especially gay men – still living in Albania and to talk with them about their time during the communism and about their issues. And also to give them the possibility to tell their story you know – to create an oral archive.
And just to get some perspective, there’s not yet been any research like this on the history of homosexuality in Albania?
No. Never. There have been attempts, some successful events to do something similar in ex-Yugoslavia, so they are coming together because now they are like independent countries but they are coming all together and because they have the same let’s say system of archives it’s easier for them but not for Albania, Albania is completely blank.
Does this uncovering of this history say something about the strength of movement now; could you put a date on when these sorts of projects began to become possible?
There was a vivid underground movement at the beginning of the 1990s. And they succeeded – probably not the movement itself but because of the international pressure – Albania did decriminalise homosexuality in 1995. Then after that moment there was a stop until the beginning of 2004, and in 2004 there was a group of gay men that with the support of COC in the Netherlands they started a small capacity building for themselves. In order to make some things like they did a website they did regular meetings and tried to have some parties in the community to make the community to come together. It’s not that they failed but probably it was, the demands towards them from the COC were probably too much. So that thing went down.
And then suddenly in 2009, because of facebook, there was a group of young lesbians – they opened a group on facebook and they started to communicate there then they decided to meet each other and the met. There was also an American couple, and one of them was working here at the embassy so, they went together and established this friendship group. And we have a phrase in Albania that if you discover one lesbian then you have discovered all of them! Because the females are much more close to one another, not like the boys.
And then after this, when the prime minister said this mixed statement about same sex marriages. The day after all the religious groups came together – the Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox – and made a press release saying that this is abnormal and they would contest about that, and blah blah blah. And it was my first meeting with the leader of this ladies group. It was the first time that we were together in a cafe, and while we were talking in the cafe we saw the titles in the big screen at the counter, of these religious statements, so I said to her okay let’s do a press release. So we opened our lap tops and opened an email account and sent that press release to all the newspapers and journalists. And within 10 minutes we saw our press release up there on the television titles, for the first time. So that is the first time that an LGBT movement went, let’s say, public.
After that the organisations were more mobilised. We got registered at the court and so on, and then I left for Kosovo for some months. And when I came back here there was another project for LGBT people, where I started to work. And in a way, from 2009 until at least IDAHO of last year, 2012, things were going fast, you know? And I could say that one year ago we made a very full, visible, appearance to the public – going to the debates on television, writing articles, having faces you know? Of LGBT people going and talking to the people. So here we are now.
And, just to close, what are your plans for May 17th this year?
In Tirana there will be some very nice events this year. We will have the exhibition Article One, it’s from Sweden, it’s a big exhibition coming in a lorry from Sweden with personal objects of LGBT communities, during the 1960s and 1970s. Like for example the first radio where a couple was listening to the first time a programme for them. Or t-shirts from people from the community. And we will combine those objects with personal objects of people from the community here, for the first time and we will have a big exhibition at the national museum in Tirana, where historians will be there – the Minister of Culture and so on.
This was organised by the group, Alliance Against Discrimination and they are the ones who are really making this happen, as well as other events, together with the Unstraight Museum of Sweeden who are also, let’s say, the original minds behind this idea.
There will be a series of workshops and we will invite some very tough lesbian activists, from Kosovo and from here as well, and they will talk about how lesbians are challenging the system. Then we will have some discussions about media and art, and how these two can be combined, for our activism. And we will also have some discussions about how to change things within the system using the government and state bodies etc. We will also give our “Ally of the Year” prize. And then also another, very nice event that we want to make it a tradition now is the gay ride as we call it, like we did last year, we want to do it again, hopefully without rain and with more people.