Arber Kodra’s early ventures into lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activism stirred an untapped energy within him, but he might not have taken it this far if it weren’t for his mother.
“My mother is my best friend,” Arber explains, and his affection for her is as clear in his voice as if he were singing. He remembers his terror coming out to her: a sickening fear that he would lose the person most important to him. But she surprised him with her loving acceptance and affirmation. (Arber narrates that experience in the video below.) She too became an activist: she was the first Albanian parent to publicly discuss the experience of having an LGBTI child. When the U.S. Embassy hosted a regional LGBTI workshop in Tirana, Albania’s capital, in 2012, the organizers invited both Arber and his mother to speak. “Yes, I can handle this,” she said.
It was her first time speaking publicly on the topic, and she was nervous, but nonetheless delivered a powerful and heartfelt speech.
“You cannot imagine. All the people came to hug her and tell her it was the best speech they had heard from a mother. And all of them cried,” he recalls. After the conference, many of Arber’s friends contacted his mother to talk. “A lot of them cried,” he says. “They write to me and say, ‘you are lucky for the mother that you have.’ Looking at the LGBTI community and their fears regarding this—everywhere, not only in Albania—they struggle not to lose their parents’ love.”
Arber’s first taste of activism had come a few years before. When his boyfriend invited him to an LGBTI activist event in 2008, Arber shied away. But a week later the invitation was still on his mind, and he told his boyfriend he wanted to go. “We were hanging posters on the walls for World AIDS Day, December 1st. It was 2 am—we were freezing, but we were afraid that someone would see us and beat us.”
After putting up all their posters, the young activists shared a collective high from their fear, enthusiasm, and adrenaline. The group went to a bar to get drinks, warm up, and get to know each other, in particular what each person was doing in their lives and why they had decided to show up. They discovered a shared vision.
“We all wanted to do this because we wanted to bring change in our country,” Arber says. That small group wanted to build a movement in Albania. Over the years they progressed from working in the shadows—conducting their campaigns at night, creating videos that never showed anyone’s faces—to creating a community center and advising governmental institutions on law and policy.
Inspired by the success of his mother’s speech, Arber and four colleagues formed a new organization, Open Mind Spectrum Albania (https://www.facebook.com/OpenMindSpectrumAlbania/), in 2013 to address human rights broadly but also to focus on family issues.
“From this personal story I had the idea to create this family group, because I had my mother and I knew what she can do,” he says. OMSA’s first effort was a forum for parents to learn about how to accept their LGBTI children. It was a challenging project, and Arber and his colleagues were afraid that no one would risk their privacy and show up. “But they all came,” Arber recalls with a proud grin. “And it was the first biggest victory we have had regarding parents.”
OMSA is hoping for more such victories, but is struggling for lack of funds. “After that, we did this on a voluntary basis,” Arber explains.
OMSA also links organizations. Its members collaborated with Pink Embassy as co-creators and in a working group for the first Tirana Pride in 2014, and they are still involved. As OMSA’s executive director, Arber also sits on the board of a new organization called ERA (http://www.lgbti-era.org)—the LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey—which includes 27 groups from across the region. OMSA has many volunteers and activists helping out, although there were more people involved when they had more funds.
Albania is a coastal Balkan country bordering Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. It’s an upper-middle income country that provides universal healthcare and free primary and secondary education to its population, which is about the size of Utah’s. Since the fall of the communist regime in 1995, homosexual sex has been legal, but many LGBTI rights victories have come only in the past few years as the country has sought membership in the European Union.
While same-sex partnerships are still unrecognized, intersex people are unprotected from coerced surgeries, and transgender people cannot access trans-specific healthcare or change their names or gender markers, LGBTI people are now legally protected from discrimination in employment, education, healthcare, housing, and public accommodations. But there is a great disparity between formal recognition of rights and actual change. “Our system of laws is very good, but to implement them is another thing. So we have the anti-discrimination law, yes,” says Arber. “But it is not widely known.”
Through OMSA, Arber and other activists are working to make sure LGBTI Albanians know their rights. His mother cheers them on.
Contributed by Leah Entenmann
November 19, 2015