Xheni Karaj: Because of people like you, people like me have to hide

26 of April is Lesbian Visibility Day, a day celebrated every year to raise visibility of lesbian women and their challenges.

Over the Rainbow

  • From March until June 2021, connected to important Human Rights Days, The Norwegian Helsinki Committee will be sharing stories from some of Europe’s brave and energetic human rights defenders.
  • Our aim is that young people in Norway will learn more about and get engaged in the situation for LGBTI persons in Europe.
  • The initiative, “Over the Rainbow”, is carried out in collaboration with the online news portal Framtida.
  • Stay tuned for interesting stories, events and even a competition or two!

– Lesbians have always been at the forefront of fighting for LGBTI rights, women’s rights, human rights, says Mina Skouen, who is responsible for Equal Rights in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

–  Many are met not only with anti-LGBTI attitudes, but also run the risks associated with breaking gender stereotypes,  and being woman human rights defenders. This day is important to show young lesbians that they can have an enormous impact in society.

One of the people who already have done this, is Xheni Karaj from the LGBT organization “Aleanca LGBT” in Albania. We are happy that she wanted to tell us how she became Albania’s first publicly open lesbian– and used this to inspire a movement.

The first pride parade in Tirana in 2012 was carried out by 12 people on bicycles, being attacked with tear gas. Now there are more than 500 people taking part every year. Photo: Loreta Cuka

Living a double life was not an option

– I decided to become an activist when I realized that having a double life was not an option for me, Xheni says, about when she created her first initiative in 2009, 21 years old. It was a Facebook group called “The Straight and Gay Alliance Against Discrimination of LGBT People in Albania”, in a time when most people thought that there were no gay people in Albania and considered homosexuality a disease spread by the west. Hundreds joined the group in no time, proving them wrong.

This was the first step from being a small group of friends, into forming a community.

– At the time I was working for an Albanian governmental institution, but I was not yet openly lesbian, due to fear of losing my job, Xheni recalls.

– I would print A4 posters to raise awareness on LGBTI issues using my office printer, and would then go out with the other activists in the streets of Tirana during the night to fill the city with those awareness raising posters.

This is twelve years ago, and much has changed. For her, for Albania and for her community.

– I will always remember the first Pride when I rode my bike in the main Boulevard in Tirana and I felt free and powerful for the first time in my life. Photo: Eriona Cami

I would put a bullet in my son’s head

The European umbrella organization ILGA Europe, measures the human rights situation for LGBTI persons every year, and for 2020 Albania comes in as number 28 out of 49 countries examined. The country is struggling with widespread homophobia and transphobia.

Xheni explains that the situation for LGBTI people is challenging in all spheres of life; at home, in schools and workplaces, when in need of public services, and on political level. Discrimination and  violence are part of everyday life.

– Only a small percentage of LGBTI people in Albania can come out to their families, she says.

– Many of those who boldly take this step, are either violated, threatened, or are evicted. People that have not come out at their jobs, live in a constant fear that their sexual orientation will be discovered and that they will remain without a job.

Still, within this climate – the LGBTI community is now strong and visible, with open and vocal spokesperson.

– I hope and dream that the future generations of LGBTI people will live their lives freely and fully, without fear and discrimination. I hope parents will accept their kids and love them unconditionally

 

Xheni’s first step was not planned. A 2012 law that granted LGBT persons protection from discrimination caused massive political protests. From filling the streets with posters against homophobia during the midnight hours, the community suddenly had to tackle the media spotlight.

– I started to give interviews to the media but as I was not out to my family, I would do it with my face covered and name changed, she said.

In May 2012, at a political show called “Opinion” in the national channel TV Klan, things changed. Murat Basha, a leader of a right wing conservative political party was spewing out violent comments against LGBT people, with another pioneer of the Albanian LGBT movement, Kristi Pinderi, in the panel, and Xheni in the audience.

Basha said to Pinderi, that “If my son becomes like you, I better shoot him with a bullet in the head”. For Xheni, this was it. Knowing that so many people from the community were watching the show and hearing these threats, she took the microphone.

– It’s because there are people like you in this world, that people like me have to hide and live a double life. But not anymore! I cannot stay in the shadow and that is why I am fighting.

This is how she became the first publicly out lesbian in Albania.

– One day is not enough to reflect on all the life experiences and challenges that our lesbian sisters face all around the world. For me every day should be a day to give voice and a face to our stories as in many countries they haven’t been told and heard at all, and in many others they have been told by twisted mouths and evil minds, says Xheni. Photo: Private

There is nothing better than changing the world

– I hope and dream that the future generations of LGBTI people will live their lives freely and fully, without fear and discrimination. I hope parents will accept their kids and love them unconditionally, says Xheni.

And in the meantime, the Albanian LGBTI community, the organizations, and the activists there has comfort and support to offer. The shelter Xheni was part of establishing in 2014 for homeless LGBTI persons have so far had more than hundred persons staying there, on their way from a family that disowns them, into making a life for themselves.

The first pride parade in Tirana in 2012 was carried out by 12 people on bicycles, being attacked with tear gas. Now there are more than 500 people taking part every year.

And from never giving up, successful stories can emerge. Like the story of Anxhela, a Roma transwoman who is a long-time beneficiary of Aleanca LGBT. She was homeless, and suffered countless transphobic attacks.

– Many times she needed health assistance she couldn’t go to the hospital on her own as none of the doctors would treat her, very often they would use derogatory language and laugh at her face. For many years we have been taking her to the hospital so that in our presence the doctors would treat her with dignity and respect.

After a particularly brutal attack in 2019, and with the engagement of Xheni and other activists, mobilizing both national and international engagement to her case, Anxhela finally got social housing, and could finally close her own door, after 27 years on the street.

– I’m motivated by the stories and faces of every LGBTI person that I meet on everyday bases in my work. Amazing, courageous, beautiful people that challenge the conservative and unaccepting Albanian society with their powerful existence, says Xheni.

– The role of young people in a society is like the role of the heart in a human body. As the heart pumps blood and makes all organs work, young people pump revolutionary ideas, energy, dreams, imagination, strength, passion into our societies.

 

– All the ingredients are in there; and ready to create social movements that can really create a better and just world. I think young people should be more aware of their strength and channel it in the right way. And there is nothing better than changing the world.

Do you want to know more?

If you were inspired by Xheni’s story, and want to learn more about being LGBTI in Albania, you should watch the documentary Ska Ndal by Elton Baxhaku and Eriona Çami, which is available on YouTube. Here you will find Xhenis story, as well as the story of the LGBTI movement in Albania. The TV-show where Xheni came out on national television is also part of the documentary.

Lesbian Visibility Day was first commemorated in 2008 and is now an important part of the LGBTI calendar.  It is an annual event occurring on April 26, dedicated to increasing visibility of lesbian women and the challenges they face.

If you want to know more, you can hear the CEO of Stonewall talk about the day here. If you want to know more about being a lesbian in Norway, you can check out organizations Foreningen FRI, Queer Youth, PKI, Queer World, and Salam Norge.

Covid 19 has bee difficult for the LGBTI community, being under lockdown with families that  do not know or respect their sexual orientation or gender identity. But even at home, you can find space for Pride! Video by Historia Ime, Aleanca LGBT and Pro LGBT.

For more information, contact:

Employee

Mina Wikshåland Skouen

Senior AdviserEmail: [email protected]Phone: +47 90 82 50 76
Read article "Mina Wikshåland Skouen"

Employee

Lasse Thomassen

Communication AdviserEmail: [email protected]Phone: +47 947 945 61
Read article "Lasse Thomassen"