„Semi“ – the brave
Living openly gay in Kosovo’s homophobic society
by Nadine Kreuzahler, Emilie Sok, Dardan Zhegrova
Semi is walking on the streets of Prishtina: eyes wide open, hands waving, loughing out loud – a low-key lifestyle is not Semi’s cup of tea. The 24 year-old former tv presenter does not hide being gay at all. He faces problems every day, but still wants his voice to be heard. This is not without risk in Kosovo where homosexuality is still a big taboo.
The involuntary underground: Being gay in Kosovo
It is a warm October afternoon in Prishtina. Ismail “Semi“ Cakolli, 24 years old, enjoys a coffee in the sun. He is sitting on the terrace of his favourite bar in the centre of his hometown. The bar is crowded. Semi pulls out a pocket mirror – and starts putting on some lipstick.
“Here I feel safe. But I know a lot of stories of friends who had problems in public spaces and coffee shops just because they are gay“, he says. “One of my personal dreams is to open a gay bar and to tag mark friendly places here in Prishtina“.
Semi is an exception. There are not many gay men who display their sexual orientation like him. They are afraid.
Though Europe’s youngest state has one of the broadest anti-discrimination laws, homosexuality is still a big taboo in Kosovar society. According to the 2010 poll by the Gallup Balkan Monitor and US Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 90 % of the interviewees believe that homosexual acts are morally wrong. More than half of gays, lesbians, bi-, transsexual and queer people (LGBTQ) fear for their safety. Between 2006 and 2010 four homophobic murders were reported.
And it is not exclusive to rural areas. Last year some people from the local nightlife scene tried to open a gay bar in Prishtina. They chose the area next to the stadium and right behind the independance monument in the centre of Prishtina. The three metres high yellow steel letters are promising Kosovo to be “New Born“ – but evidently not in matters of tolerance towards lesbians, gays, bi-, transsexuals and queers. The first gay bar of Kosovo existed only for one single night. Angry citizens threatened the owners with damaging the place and even with throwing bombs.
“The society is not ready for this“, says Ismail „Semi“ Cakolli. He used to work for Radio Television Kosovo (RTK), the national broadcasting service of Kosovo, as a presenter and reporter of a weekly TV youth programme. In 2008, he decided to come out. One year later Semi quit his job. “Some personal problems with the producer-in-chief and some pressure coming from people calling me names,“ he reasons. Despite these experiences, Semi does not want to hide. Three months ago he founded a Facebook page for LGBTQ issues, called “LGBT movement”.
The need to be careful
He is not the only one dealing with LGBTQ rights. There are some NGOs engaged in this in Kosovo. Libertas is the latest one. It is hidden behind a neutral steel door in a lively side street in the center of Prishtina. After entering, a tiny hand written sign saying “Libertas” shows the adept visitor the way up to the office. “We never publish our adress“, says a “Libertas” spokesman who wants to stay anonymous. “Some people know where they can find us, and people who don’t know, have to meet someone who knows. We have to secure ourselves from people wanting to harm us.”
Fighting for awareness
Strong traditional and religious values provoke prejudice and judgement in the Kosovar society where 90 % of the population is Muslim. “But prejudice come also from catholics all over the world“, the “Libertas” spokesman points out.
“Most gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgenders do not display their sexual orientation in public. They lead low-key lifestyles“.
Semi shows up regularly at the Libertas office to help out, hang around, and take part in group discussions the NGO offers. „We just want to live our lives as we want to live it. It is this what we are fighting for“.
Visiting a minority inside a minority: Roma transsexuals
In the municipality of Fushë Kosovo lives a handful of transsexual Roma people. When former TV journalist and gay rights activist Ismail „Semi“ Cakolli visited them for the first time, it was for a party. Afterwards, he kept in touch with them. He was touched by their poor living conditions and decided to help them. He regularly looks after them, brings food, clothes or medicine. At the moment, the 24 year-old is planning to make a documentary about the transsexual Roma people in Fushë Kosova.
Kosovo’s anti-discrimination law, Article 2a, says
“The regulation of the issues dealing with non-discrimination is based on these principles: The principle of equal treatment shall mean that there shall be no direct or indirect discrimination against any persons or persons, based on sex, gender, age, marital status, language, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, political affiliation or conviction, ethnic origin, nationality, religion or belief, race, social origin, property, birth or any other status“.
The constitution of the republic of Kosovo, Article 24, says
“No one shall be discriminated against on grounds of race, colour, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, relation to any community, property, economic and social condition, sexual orientation, birth, disability or other personal status.“
• 90.9% of people surveyed in Kosovo believe that homosexual acts are “morally wrong”
• 57.5% percent “strongly agree” with the statement that “[h]omosexual relations are always wrong”.
• Between 2006-2010 four “homophobic” murders were reported, although authorities have not “classified any murders of recent years as homophobic”
• In 2006, Kosovo abolished homsexuality as a mental disorder.
• Male sexual activity became legal in Kosovo in 1970.
Sources: Libertas Kosovo; 2010 poll conducted in the region by the Gallup Balkan Monitor and US-Country Reports on Human Rights Practices