This abrupt opening and closure of a pioneering gay-friendly venue in Pristina has highlighted the embattled status of this maringalised community.
The media furor surrounding the rapid opening and closure of Kosovo’s first gay bar has exposed the precarious position of the gay community in this deeply conservative, mainly Albanian land.
The Pure Pure Club briefly hit the limelight in September when an online news portal revealed that it was being advertised on a popular gay website as “Pristina’s first gay friendly bar”.
But the venue closed soon after this unwanted publicity and is now being renovated under a new name, leaving Kosovo’s beleaguered gay community feeling more isolated than ever.
Doomed by publicity:
It’s Saturday night and across the bars and clubs of Pristina, young people are partying, much like their peers elsewhere in the Western world.
But while these trendy youngsters dream of visa liberalization and of easier travel to the EU, young gays in Kosovo have nowhere to go out and share dreams with potential friends and partners.
Beni and his partner pretend to be “best friends“in order to protect themselves.
“You can’t tell anyone [that you are gay],” he said. “Most people here think it is a sickness and not normal.”
Beni has to be careful to avoid detection. “I know how to act around people,” he explained.
“The less effeminate a homosexual man in Kosovo is, the less he is likely to end up in a situation.
“You have to know how not to come across as too feminine, because then people notice and you can get into trouble.”
Most homosexuals in Kosovo meet each other through social networks aimed such as Gaydar or Gayromeo, organizing secret parties, often in private residences.
But in September, a member of Gayromeo announced the opening of a gay bar and restaurant near Pristina’s football stadium called the “Pure Pure Lounge Bar”.
The information was picked up by the news website Lajme Shqip, which sent a photographer along to snap those attending the event.
“We are at risk – you should know this,” one of the organisers told the photographer, according to lajmeshqip. “Someone could bomb us here or set fire to the whole place,” he added.
While there was no attack on the bar, the publicity did attract unwanted attention and a barrage of homophobic abuse online.
Pure Pure has not reopened since, and is currently being refurbished under a new name, “Pepper Chill Bar”.
A waiter at the Ling bar, opposite the now defunct Pure Pure, told Balkan Insight: “I heard that it was a gay bar but I never went inside.”
He added that most bars in the area were struggling to stay open because they were failing to attract enough customers.
“Facebook Bar, a place for Pristina football fans, closed down because they could not afford it anymore,” he said, mentioning one recent casualty.
Another waiter at the same bar said a former colleague had worked at Pure Pure and had waited during a birthday party that doubled up as a gay event.
“He told me that every kind of person attended this party,” he said. “Gay couples were coming in and coming out holding hands.”
The publicity surrounding the bar’s status not only led to a flurry of homophobic online comments but also angered the local gay community.
“It was ridiculous,” a bisexual man who asked to remain anonymous complained. “Gays are a marginalized group, so you know the consequences that those people may face – some of whom have families.
“It was reckless to publish information like that in the name of a sensational story,” he added.
“I’m just glad they did not publish any pictures from the venue. I guess the journalists must have had a heart.”
The same man added that any publicity was destined to be the kiss of death for such a venue.
“It was way too risky to go once it was made public. Then it was doomed,” he said.
Living a lie:
Beni grew up in Peja, a city in the western Kosovo. He says that lack of a proper sex education made it hard for him to understand his sexuality and recognize it at an early age.
“Living in a place like that, it was difficult to know who I really was and where the feelings I had came from,” he said. “I started dating girls to see if I could really like someone.”
Beni failed in his attempts to fall in love with a member of the “right” gender. He soon gave up on repressing his feelings but knew he had to keep it a secret from everybody who did not share his sexual orientation.
“Here in Kosovo, everybody knows everybody. I know one guy who told a family member [about his sexuality], so they forced him to marry a woman and reject his feelings and desires,” he said.
Civil society groups working in the field of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights say they remain marginalised and stigmatised in society.
According to LGBT activist Sarah Maliqi, “Because of the high level of homophobia in this traditional society, in which homosexuality is considered shameful and a taboo, these groups are often forced to hide their sexual identity.
“Otherwise they risk becoming outcasts and in cases where their identity is revealed they also risk becoming victims of physical and psychological abuse.”
How far this physical and emotional abuse can go was shown in a shocking incident back in 2005, when Gramoz Prestreshi and his friend, Lorik, were beaten up by a gang in Pristina .
Both men called the police to report this crime, only to find out that it was the first time anyone in Kosovo had ever reported a “hate crime based on sexual orientation”.
In an interview in 2007, Gramoz recalled that the police started “joking” with them by calling them “faggots” and that even the doctor appointed to take care of their wounds was deeply hostile.
“You are sick people. I don’t want HIV in my clinic,” he had said.
Gramoz was granted asylum in the US but the consequences for Lorik were much more tragic. He committed suicide shortly after the incident.
Laws aplenty on paper:
In theory, Kosovo’s government has outlawed all forms of discrimination in paragraph 24 of its constitution.
But issues related to LGBT rights are ignored in practice, campaigners say.
Minister of Culture Memli Krasniqi told Balkan Insight in 2009, when he was a government spokesman, that same-sex marriage was “not relevant in Kosovo’s social context. It does not exist as a primary, secondary or tertiary issue to focus on.”
As far as broader civil rights for gays were concerned, however, Krasniqi said that “the government supports the law against discrimination, which includes discrimination against them”.
But A.D, a gay-rights activist in London, whose family comes from Kosovo, says gays in Kosovo remain caught in a Catch-22 dilemma.
“The problem is that for a homosexual to sue his offender, he would first have to openly admit that he was homosexual,” he said.
The second problem was that he would have to provide evidence that he had been abused or beaten on account of his sexuality, “which the offenders can easily deny”.
Maliqi says that despite all-encompassing nature of the law on discrimination, LGBT people receive no protection in society.
Not much has been done in awareness-raising in public security institutions, and there are many cases when public officials have no professional background and understanding of the rights of sexual minorities, and often, their behaviour results in mistreatment of LGBT persons.
High levels of youth unemployment, up to 70 per cent according to some indices, also mean that young people are financially reliant on parents or older siblings. This also has a major impact on the ability of gay people to ‘come out,’” she explained.
“The LGBT community lives a double life,” she continued. “They don’t have the freedom to stand up for their sexuality because of a fear that their families or friends will not understand and that institutions won’t protect them, and also because they often are financially dependent on their families.”
Beni agrees. “I know already what my parents think of homosexuality,” he said. “They despise it and label it as sick and whenever something about it comes on TV they switch the channel immediately.”
Slight change in outlook:
Sociologist Linda Gusia, from the University of Pristina, says homophobia is a reflection of Kosovo’s traditional, patriarchal society but the situation is changing.
“Sexual identity and sexuality are now discussed in Kosovo and are thought of as more than just a means for reproduction,” she said.
“But changes that have to do with sexuality still meet conservative resistance and fear,” she cautioned.
“Traditionalism combined with the economic situation have an impact in fuelling a fear of anything or anyone that is considered different.”
Maliqi thinks the situation could change faster if the media and civil society worked together to promote LGBT rights.
“The media should start to treat this topic in an unbiased manner and engage with professionals in these fields,” she said.
“Civil society and the LGBT community should work more towards encouraging a debate on the rights of the community as well as universal human rights.”
For now, understanding of homosexuality remains fairly limited among the general public, including the younger generation.
Armend, a 22-year-old from Pristina, reflects the homophobic views expressed by many others. “I don’t care about them and their problems, I don’t want to know about them,” he told Balkan Insight.
“As long as they don’t run around spreading homosexuality they can do whatever they want in their homes,” he added.
Besnik, 24, from Mitrovica, believes gay people are contaminating society with their imported values.
“It’s probably because they can’t get girls or couldn’t while they were young,” he jokes. “Then they start doing perverted things with each other because they saw it on Western television or heard it from the internationals.”
Beni has encountered these views many times. “They think homosexuality did not exist here before and that the international community brought it in,” he said.
“They think homosexuality just ‘happens’ to people who are sexually experimenting with the same sex and that for some it becomes a mental issue and they end up being gay.”
Some young Kosovars are a little more tolerant, however. Petrit, 27, from Pristina, describes himself as open-minded.
But he said he would still feel wary about the idea of being friends with someone who was clearly gay.
“It is simply the fact that people might mistake me for being gay if they saw me with someone who is,” he said. “I would not want that”.
by Kaltrina Ademi – BIRN Pristina
Source – Balkan Insight