Open lectures on LGBTI rights in Albania’s high schools face homophobic backlash

By Amarildo Fecanji

Tirana, 30 March 2018 - A series of open lectures on homophobic and transphobic bullying held by local LGBTI organization Alliance against Discrimination LGBT in Albania's public high schools, have encountered significant public backlash in the country. Several openly anti-LGBTI politicians and public personalities made statements on their social media accounts which were then followed by further discussions and debates in mainstream media. Major national broadcasters followed suit making it one of the most debated topics of the past two weeks. Among those making homophobic and discriminatory remarks were Mr. Ylli Manjani, former Minister of Justice who during his service in the Ministry blocked and ignored important legal drafts such as registered partnerships and legal gender recognition. Other known anti-LGBTI politicians like Tritan Shehu and Mesila Doda followed suit. 

The Ministry of Education and Sports issued a statement a week ago, stating that contrary to media reports, it was aware of these lectures and that they were conducted in the framework of the LGBTI National Action Plan 2016-2020 which among other things aims to combat stereotypes based on sexual orientation. However, a while later, in a controversial statement, the director of Tirana high school “Sami Frasheri”  Ms. Teuta Dobi publicly opposed such lectures, despite the fact that several weeks earlier LGBTI activists had given a lecture at her school. LGBTI organizations publicly denounced this case and sent an official letter to Premier Edi Rama, who still has to issue a reply. 

While homophobic and transphobic hate speech ensued in social media and news portals, it was also encouraging to see how several mainstream TV channels interviewed high school students who attended these presentations, and many other portals remained objective during the debate. Students gave positive reviews about the presentations and deemed them very helpful in order to understand the challenges their LGBTI peers face and why a more supportive environment is needed. During and after lectures, many teachers and psychologists expressed their support for these lectures as well. 

The Albanian public, along with most Balkans and Eastern European countries, continues to maintain very negative attitudes towards LGBTI people. Meanwhile, LGBTI people continue to express dissatisfaction with their lived realities According to the 2017 World Bank survey, 3 out of 4 LGBTI persons have experienced psychological violence while attending school and almost 70% of all LGBTI youth have experienced physical violence at least once. Two out of three LGBTI persons have thought at least once about committing suicide. Such statistics are illustrated by the hundreds of cases that LGBTI organizations follow through every year with young LGBTI people reporting violence from their peers, ridicule and harassment from their teachers and school administration. LGBTI people living outside the capital, in smaller towns and villages report even harder conditions. Moving to Tirana or seeking asylum abroad are usually the only ways to escape violence and discrimination.

LGBTI organizations, are almost exclusively the only spaces where LGBTI people can feel safe and ask for support. Unfortunately, Tirana is the only city where LGBTI organizations operate. Recently an SOS Helpline has been put into operation, while the LGBTI Shelter – the only one operating for this community in the whole country -  provides services to at-risk LGBTI youth. Demand from members of the community is always much higher compared to the shelters' capacities, which continues to depend heavily on private and foreign donations. So far no public institution has any programs or capacities through which to offer LGBTI specific services. The situation is similar be it in education, employment, housing, health, prisons etc. 

Ironically, Albania is recognized and lauded by the international community - including recent EU Progress Reports - as a country with progressive legislation concerning LGBTI rights; it has comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation since 2010 and has amended its Criminal Code. Since then, however, no significant changes have taken place which would seriously impact the lives of LGBTI persons. Important draft laws on registered partnerships and legal gender recognition are still in Ministry shelves, while last year at the peak of the debate on the country’s justice reform, the Democratic Party (center-right), the biggest opposition party in the country, threatened not to vote the entire reform package, unless sexual orientation and gender identity where scraped from the proposed grounds for protection from discrimination by the Constitution. 

While Albania is to be commended for making some positive steps with regards to LGBTI rights, such as the above-mentioned legislation, the training of officials – especially law enforcement agencies and social services – and the recent approval of the National Action Plan, a lot more needs to be done to address pervasive negative attitudes, and lack of proactive measures by institutions in charge of human rights issues and anti-discrimination policies. This situation has left the LGBTI community in a paradoxal state, where by law they are protected, but in practice they are as vulnerable and as discriminated as pre-2010. 

ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey, expresses full support and solidarity to the LGBTI organizations and community in Albania who have to face such tremendous challenges with modest to no support from public institutions. In cooperation with our member organizations in Albania we will continue to monitor the response of the government and public institutions on this issue, hoping that the country will remain faithful to the laws, agreements and commitments it has expressed nationally and internationally.