In Kosovo the constitution grants homosexual people many rights; the government is already expecting the first same sex marriage. In reality however, they cannot even kiss on the streets without putting themselves in danger. What’s going on in this yet very young state?
Adnan Rahmani is freshly shaved and already refrigerated a bottle of decent white wine. Apple cider as well, just in case, since he doesn’t know what his date prefers. Today is the first time they meet. They have been writing each other on Grindr for several days now. ‘Top4Bottom’ is his nickname in the app, a hint to his sexual preference. Every three weeks, he invites another man into his 3-bedroom-apartment. His dates are routine. Candles in the living room. Drinks in the refrigerator. The uncertainty if the other guy looks completely different than in the photograph. He is applying his perfume when the doorbell rings. A final glance into the mirror: small-built, broad nose and short, wavy hair. Knitted jacket and blue jeans. 33 years old, 5 foreign languages, high-income earner. “Joop! Homme?” his visitor asks, when he smells Adnans scent while greeting each other. In the living room, they take up seats across from each other. “To be entirely honest,” the visitor says, “I imagined you to be a bit taller.”
Slowly, darkness descends over the streets of Prishtina. Superterranean power cords remind of spider webs. Adnan narrates. In his firm he is a successful manager, who does not have a wife because he travels all the time. Only at home he can remove this mask. It has been like this for 13 years.
In Prishtina, the capital, there is not a single gay bar, never has there been any gay-pride-parade. Conservative and homophobic agendas are common in society, even though the Kosovarian population is among the youngest in Europe. 70 percent of its 1.8 million inhabitants are younger than 35. The generation is marked by territorial and political upheavals. Member state of communist Yugoslavia, war from 1998 to 1999, Nato-bombings, independence from Serbia, pre-accession candidate for the EU. All of this has happened in only 20 years. During wartime, this generation was confronted with brute violence, whereas today, they are supposed to live according to European values. Not everybody appears to be ready. Conservative Albanians propagate that homosexuality was “imported” by American soldiers after war and claim that “their nation” is heterosexual. This is one side to the story.
The other one is the new constitution. It is the only one in eastern Europe to allow same sex marriage. This makes Kosovo a role model for the LGBT-community, at least on paper.
When trying to get to the bottom of contradictions between political claims and actual reality, one will encounter whitewashing policemen, hopeful government officials and scared LGBT-activists. That is why you have to throw yourself into the city’s nightlife; meet people in hotel rooms, on rooftops, at cellar parties and while strolling around. Many cancel before there is any real encounter. They never call back or even block you on social media. Others talk quite frankly for the first time. Since they are scared to be exposed, their names have been altered in this story.
It feels like spring in Prishtina, even though March has only just begun. It is the end of the semester, the city’s gay-clique is having espresso and smoking cigarettes at the hip cafe “Half and Half”, relaxing after their week of exams. Some study fine arts, others sociology or graphic design. They are quite popular, many people like their new profile pictures on Facebook. However, most of them do not know their true identity.
Everyone who is sitting here, hasn’t come out yet. There is Tarik Kastrati, 21, who does not want to disappoint his muslim parents, living in a village 45 minutes from Prishtina. He has dark, thick hair and wears a Nike sweater combined with rolled up trousers and white socks. His calm nature does not seem to match his best friends liveliness. Sara Rexhepi is often interrogated by her sisters and cousins about her love life. If this subject comes up, she always lies and claims Tarik to be her boyfriend. Her ex-girlfriend Sihanna is sitting at the table with them. Since they have separated, they hardly talk to each other. Sihanna’s parents know she had an affair with an actress. Their mind was put at ease when she ensured them, she was bisexual. Blerim, 18 years old and the youngest among the group, is sitting next to her. He is constantly arguing with his father, since he cannot stand his son’s extravagant style- piercings, black contacts and plucked eyebrows. He pierced his nose himself. There is no tattoo studio in Prishtina.
On the weekend, several of them will go visit their parents in the countryside, this is what they’re talking about right now. They will have to fake it again. “I’m too young to get married, but in 5 years tops they will ask why I don’t have a wife yet,” Tarik says. “Sometimes I wish I could just erase my feelings.”
The café is located on a boulevard in the city centre, it is a pedestrian zone, approximately 500 meters long, paved anew with bright cobblestones. The government building’s mirror glass is glistening in the sun. At a closer look, one can see potholes and splashes of paint, relics of the most recent demonstration. The centre seems quite chic compared to the outskirts of the town with its’ sagging wires and incomplete sidewalks. Today, employees of the EU, Nato and UN are seated inside those dark brown concrete buildings, which have originally been constructed for an interim administration. A bronze equestrian statue is reminiscient of the bloody conflict between Serbians and Albanians. Many families have fled the country because of the war. The young adults who have stayed, want to travel and study abroad. But just going to Berlin or Vienna for a couple of months is impossible. Kosovo is the only country of the Balkan states which has no visa liberalization. Young people feel patronized by western politicians and isolated from Europe. Homosexuals feel twice incarcerated: In their own country and inside the illusory world, maintained for their families.
There are two major discrepancies between the gay clique and Adnan Rahmani, the man who seeks other men on Grindr: They want a real relationship. And they want to fight for their rights, even if slightly tentative. Which is why they have taken notice of CEL, the Centre for Equality and Liberty. It is one out of three NGOs in Prishtina that support the LGBT-community, financed by a Swedish civil rights organization. Their office is a safe space, where people can openly talk about their problems. Out of fear of hostility, their address is not published on the internet. The first visit feels kind of illegal, as if you were buying drugs.
A woman is watching the street from her balcony. “3rd floor, final door in the corridor,” her voice sounds through the telephone. Her name is Rajmonda Sylbije, she is one of seven employees in the three-bedroom-apartment. There is a button for SOS calls, which can be used to alert the police. Additionally, some of the employees are wearing watches that send signals to their co-organization in Stockholm. They are scared. Scared of what?
Back then, Prishtina had been shattered by several homophobic assaults. The magazine “Kosovo 2.0” published an issue about homosexual lifestyle. “It was the first time for someone in Kosovo to write about us,” many recall today. It was a mistake though to publicly announce their release party. Hooligans and radical Islamists raided their event, destroying the interior, chasing members of the LGBT community to their doorstep and beating them up.
Rajmonda Sylbije believes that in spite of all that has happened, one should not hide. Every afternoon from Monday to Friday, she sits in the kitchen and helps young people come out of the closet. “The greatest problem,” she says, “aren’t politics, but their own family.” In Kosovo, the extended family constitutes the most important social and financial network, since youth unemployment is at 60 percent and a social system is hardly existent. “Especially men are pressured and expected by society to get married at a certain age,” Rajmonda says. She and her colleagues know of many homosexual men who prefer to live unhappy marriages with women rather than openly talk to their families.
A study conducted by CEL examined how people’s immediate environment would react to them coming out. The result is quite shocking. 41 percent of those polled would try to heal their child. 38 percent believe that an “ordinary family” is incapable of raising homosexual children. 45 percent think of homosexuality as a disorder.
“Do you know Queer as Folk?” Rajmonda’s colleague Faik asks in the NGO’s kitchen. “It is a gay-lesbian series from Canada, which could be purchased in several stores in Prishtina in 2005. Back then, there was a rumor that the DVD only made it to Kosovo, because of American Nato-soldiers, who are stationed here.” More than a third of the Kosovarian population believe, homosexuality is an illness imported from western countries. There are no homosexual celebrities, such as athletes, politicians or musicians in Kosovo. Instead, the classic role model, shaped by male dominance and sexism still prevails. In each and every bus and café, one can see music videos featuring half-naked women with too much make-up on, dancing around posing men.
Social taboos imply that assaults on the community are not to be reported to the police. Until today, there has been but one trial, which took place in 2012 after the release of Kosovo 2.0. “People don’t trust Kosovo’s corrupt legislative,“ Rajmonda Sylbije is certain. Just like 19-year-old Alban, slightly pimpled face, unsettled eyes, a lion head tattoo on his annulary finger. He is sitting inside some mall close to the stadium, his story is almost drowned by the sound of myriad voices. “They were three, pushing me around, calling me Pederr, which is the Albanian equivalent of faggot. Afterwards, they chased me and punched me in the face,” he says. Why didn’t Alban go to the police? “It would have raised questions, my parents have already been presuming there is something wrong about me.”
The man in charge of LGBT-cases introduces himself as Captain Salih Dragidela. He is a short, bald policeman, approximately 50 years of age. He had been working for Yugoslav forces until he was appointed LGBT-commissioner of Prishtina’s police in 2007. “Ten years ago,” he says while opening the door to the interrogation room, “my boss used to openly rant at homosexuals.” Today, such behavior is no longer tolerated among police forces, he claims proudly. He fetches two sheets of paper, stitched together, from a briefcase: They list every single offense against LGBT-people since 2012. 14 in their entirety. About half of them revolve around online bullying. One reported act of vandalism, two physical assaults. How high is the number of cases yet unknown? Dragidela does not want any part of it, Kosovo is a modern country.
While society appears to be stuck in tradition and prosecution ceases to help, at least politicians have realized their country is in need of change. Since late 2013, Habit Hajredini has been working in room 602 which is located inside the mirror front governmental building. He looks upon the city’s prefabricated buildings, mosques and crooked power poles. A framed wedding portrait showing himself and his wife in a red dress sits on his desk. Following the assaults on magazine Kosovo 2.0, he has become something like politic’s upmost LGBT-lobbyist. His business card states he is the director of the division “Good Governance” subordinate to the prime minister. He is currently working on a campaign showing men with men and women with women. Bureau 602 has many similarities to NGO CEL: Work is conducted slowly and cautiously. “With all its economic problems, Kosovo just hasn’t seen the time for same sex marriage yet,” Hajredini says. Right now, it is more important to acclimate society to a new reality, just like feeding a stray dog, prone to biting, with small niblets. With TV-debates and parades against homophobia for instance. “And of course, education plays the most important role,” Hajredini says. Tarik, who has come along as a translator and accordingly exchanged his Nike sweater for a button-down shirt, raises an eyebrow. “Are you familiar with the book Kriminologija?” he asks. People who study law at the University of Prishtina use it to prepare for their exams. In this work, the professor who wrote it declares homosexuality an illness. “That book is used as a standard reference at university,” Tarik says. “I know,” Hajredini acknowledges, suddenly appearing slightly helpless.
Yet one thing is without doubt: In Kosovo, homosexuality is legal. However interpretations concerning same sex marriage vary. Section 24 of 2008s constitution adjudicates same rights to Homosexuals and Heterosexuals. Does this apply to marriage or civil union? No, it does not. A family law, passed in 2006, explicitly interdicts same sex marriage. To this day, there is not a single same sex couple, which is married on paper. However, this circumstance implies that the family law is not conform to the constitution. That means it could be contested and taken to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. The president of the constitutional court recently stated that it is highly unlikely to lose such a trial. Still, no one has ever tried.
“We are all still waiting for the first homosexual couple at the registry office,” Petrit Selimi confesses in his office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His palms are buried inside the pockets of his grey suit, a small robot made out of Lego bricks is sitting on his desk. He is the deputy state secretary, his predecessor Hashim Thaci has recently been elected for president, which is why Selimi, who is only 36-years-old, is conducting all official functions. He is anxious to present an open-minded and modern image of Kosovo. He frequently pointed out Kosovo’s alleged openness towards homosexuality on his Twitter account. On the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17th for instance, the government building shone bright with rainbow colours. Among few other Kosovarian politicians, he participated in a march against homophobia. Selimi is part of a generation, which had to fight for their position amongst socialism, war and Europe. In his opinion, the LGBT-community is supposed to do the same and fight for their rights. He enunciates what Habit Hajredini would not dare: The current government is not determined to adjust the family law to the constitution. “Do you believe that this is how you win votes in Kosovo?” Selimi asks. Real politics are less progressive than euphonious Tweets.
Sara Rexhepi believes, the discussion should not be pinned on the question about same sex marriage. “I don’t even know if I want to get married,” she says and pulls her hood over her red hair. It is a Saturday night. Cold air rushes over her skin while she climbs out of a roof window with her best friend Tarik. The city lies ahead of them, glistening from myriad lights. At night, Prishtina’s prefabricated buildings resemble skyscrapers. “Almost like the New York skyline,” Tarik jokes.
Tarik lived there for one summer, still he is glad to be back. “Because of the food,” he says, “but also because of the folksiness here in Kosovo.” In Prishtina you are always surrounded by people – yet still lonely. He would talk to Sara about his relationship with a man if they were alone, but not with his roommates gaming downstairs. Both of them have experienced the difficulties of finding a mate when you’re unwilling to make use of dating apps. They know how it feels to watch an ex pretend to be straight all of a sudden. However, when they meet friends, Tarik und Sara do not differ from them. “Tomorrow night for instance, we are throwing a party and we will have to fake it again, because we expect classmates and friends from the countryside where our parents live.” One single kiss could destroy their facade.
The following Monday it is raining. Tarik is hungover. After the party, they went to the hip club “Megaherz” and danced until morning. Sara has taken some MDMA and kissed a girl in front of everybody. They all applauded. In Kosovo, it is easier for women than it is for men. In their eyes, two women kissing are hot. Two men dancing are abnormal.
While Sara is spending the day in her pajamas, Tarik is headed for the city’s registry office. At approximately ten twenty a.m. he draws the number 0166. He is waiting among many others. Even though it is just an experiment, he is nervous. At counter number one he says: “Hello. I would like get married.” The clerk examines his male companion. She seems confused, throwing helpless glances at her colleagues and says: “This is impossible in Kosovo.”
Text by Franziska Tschinderle
Photos by Martin Valentin Fuchs
Translation by Laura Schaeffer