The Unofficial View of Tirana (90)


Albania’s “first” gay marriage. Photo by Jutta Benzenberg.

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

This morning I woke up to a rather surprising headline: “first gay marriage in Tirana.” The article referred to the marriage ceremony recently held in the residency of the UK Ambassador in Tirana, between Donald Holder and Michael Kane, the latter of whom I happen to know personally. Although I am of course happy for the two newlyweds, the way in which their marriage has been made public, not in the least by media affiliated with the LGBT movement, left me with a profound uneasiness. Those who have followed this column for the last few years, are aware of the slow and painful process of effecting actual legal and social change in Albania as regards the position of LGBT people, and an important part of that struggle has been a consistent emphasis that LGBT people are not “foreign” or “imported,” but rather form and have always formed an integral part of Albanian society. The media cycle around this “first” gay marriage threatens to undo this work and risks to affirm the persistent falsehood (around in Albania ever since former PM Sali Berisha declared in 2009 that his government would approve “gay marriage,” and later mistakenly claimed that changes to anti-discrimination legislation passed a few years implied such a legal construction) that Albanian marriage is already open to same-sex couples, which is explicitly not the case.

The reality of the situation is quite the contrary. Although a legislative proposal that was drafted in 2013 to open civil partnerships to same-sex couples, granting them the right to regulate their relationship on a contractual and equal basis in front of a notary but without any of the protections offered to married couples, no significant legal change has happened during the Rama government. Initially, this proposal seemed to have strong support from civil society, international organizations, and, most importantly, former Minister of Social Welfare and Youth Erion Veliaj, who openly advocated the legal change back in May 2014. However, now that he is poised to became the next mayor of Tirana in the municipal elections this month, his promise turns out to be a lie. For more than a year the law has bounced back and forth between institutions, seemingly because of opposition within the Ministry of Justice which deemed it “not a priority” (in spite of a very clear verdict from the European Court of Human Rights in the case Vallianatos et al. vs. Greece and the hallowed “roadmap to EU accession”), and utter inaction from the side of Veliaj who seems to merely have tried to show of his progressiveness and open-mindedness to foreign donors. Instead, he now poses smiling on pictures with rightwing homophobes such as PD (sic!) council member and second-rate comedian Ermal Mamaqi.

Socialist Party candidate mayor Erion Veliaj and Democratic Party council member Ermal Mamaqi.

So how did the Albanian LGBT organizations develop from an activist position that actively lobbied and struggled (I remember the smoke bombs, physical threats, and verbal violence all too well) for a partnership law that was by all means politically possible and would mean real improvement of the legal status of LGBT couples, and an elegant gender recognition law draft that could have been one of the most progressive in the world, into a tame celebration of “gay marriage” on – nota bene – foreign soil, feeding into stereotypes and discourses it worked so hard to counteract? Yes, we had a very successful fourth Gay Ride this year, but on the posters I read stuff about love and rights and that’s all very nice, but without a bite. Why do we not publicly retract our support for Erion Veliaj? How did the movement devolve from direct action – postering, graffiti, street actions, and pressurizing politicians – into charity events for foreign dignitaries with the worst of the worst Albanian “pop music” can offer? When did we lose our teeth?

It is all too easy to point at the corrupting influence of foreign money or “professionalization” of NGOs. It is rather the comfort of nice and stable salary and the eternal option of political asylum in a pretty and tolerant Western country should things get a little bit too exciting that takes the pressure off and nudges everyone to sleep and complacent inaction. If anything, marriage is just a symptom of that attitude. So reading this news and drinking my morning coffee, I once again became convinced that the only way out of this lethargic pool of conservatism is a struggle for the abolition of marriage, and not its “opening” or “extension.” For how can we fight for equal rights when the very law that is supposed to protect everyone equally, at the same time “traditionally” protects the privileges of two random people even better?

About the Author:

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Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular blog on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.