“If there is a sudden decrease in cabin pressure, your oxygen mask will drop down automatically in front of you. Pull the mask towards you to start the flow of oxygen,” a female voice instructs as our flight prepares for takeoff in Frankfurt, Germany, on May 30, 2017.
My partner Erjon and I are about to fly overseas with Velo, our three-year-old Shih Tzu. I can sense that Velo is feeling hopeless inside this giant Boeing. His cage, in a pressurized area of the cargo department, has enough space for him to turn around and lie down, but I still feel helpless and worried for him.
Erjon is smiling while trying to help other passengers find their seats. He helps an old man carry his heavy handbag, and assists the woman with him with reading the seat numbers. Erjon is taking this so seriously that I think the old couple might already consider him their flight attendant.
This is what makes Erjon, Velo and I a family: we are three different beings, flying towards a common future after fleeing Albania, one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, where Erjon and I have been fighting for LGBT rights for the last eight years.
Being openly gay activists and a couple as well, our lives were in danger. By the time we left, we were receiving dozens of death threats on social media every day — threats we couldn’t ignore. The false sense of security we had built around us suddenly started to crumble.
After years as an LGBT activist in Albania, I realized I had done all I could to change myself and my country, and there was nothing more I could do without putting myself and my family at serious risk. It was time for a change.
After getting a Canadian visa and consulting with a close friend in Vancouver, we decided to start a new chapter of our lives far from our country. It felt beyond far; it felt like we were heading towards the end of the world.
It is 1998 and I’m in my second year of high school. As a young teenager, I am supposed to be surrounded by friends, playing football and gossiping about the girls. Instead, I find myself hiding behind a First World War–bunker at the lake of Ohrid, at Pogradec. This is my small hometown in the southern part of Albania.
Unfortunately, being different was not noticed only by me but also by a group of older teenagers, one of whom took pleasure in bullying me for several years. I hide in the bunker to stay safe.
I also stay at the bunker, pretending I’m outside spending time with friends. I remember my mother and grandmother being worried and often asking me: “Why don’t you go out? Why don’t you have friends? You are not a girl to stay inside home all over the afternoon.”
But being alone with myself had a positive side: it pushed me towards books. It made me love reading, and I aspired to become a writer (later on, I became a journalist).
In order to pass the time, I would walk slowly towards that isolated bunker. I walked no less than half an hour to reach my destination and even more to go back home. I stared at the lake, the birds, and at the shadow of the sun hiding behind the hills as I cried. Will I ever be able to save myself from this? I often asked myself.
I find my hometown amazingly beautiful. But the peaceful Lake Ohrid, the oldest and the deepest lake in Europe, home to many endemic species, made me feel like a tiny little bird inside a golden cage.
When I turned 27 years old in 2009, almost a decade after the time I was hiding in the bunker, I suddenly accepted that my life was meaningless, hopeless and aimless.
The inner struggle to hide myself finally came to a head and the burdens of questions needing answers became too big to bear; up until that moment, I had tried to be who I was expected to be, what my family, friends and colleagues considered “normal.”
It was during the summer of 2009 that I finally realized that I didn’t have the strength to keep up this game of hide-and-seek I had been playing with myself and everyone around me. I felt drained, and I started crying myself to sleep, looking for courage in a bottle of alcohol and trickling my anguish by writing my story and sharing it day after day, page by page to the people I trusted most.
That trickle turned into a drizzle, and that drizzle into a light rain of words that filled pages of a notebook every day: pages that were passed still shrouded in secrecy away from the ever watchful eyes of my family, to the friends and relatives I felt closest to me.
I cried myself to sleep during the day, battling the crying by drinking in the afternoon, and writing up a storm at night that brought sweet relief.
That relief slowly grew into an understanding of who I was, every day a little bit more, until I finally came to that blissful moment in my life where I recognized myself, and I felt good. I was finally who I was meant to be.
I came out to my family, to their sheer shock and disappointment. That same month, I met a kindred soul face-to-face, my now very close friend and confidante Xheni Karaj, who was the only lesbian I knew.
I wrote to her on Facebook after following a closed group she had created for the LGBT community. I asked her to meet and she agreed. The next day we sat down for a cup of coffee like the two strangers we were to each other.
It was the summer of 2009, when the right-wing Democratic Party of Albana had won the elections for a second time but the political opposition was accusing Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha of election fraud.
In order to distract the public from the scandal, Berisha suddenly announced that his government would propose a law legalizing same-sex marriage.
We hadn’t known each other for more than an hour when Xheni and I caught the headlines on the news: Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic leaders were releasing a joint press release in opposition of gay marriage.
“Let’s do a press release,” I suddenly proposed to Xheni. I had believed for many years that being gay was wrong. But in that moment I finally understood that it wasn’t me who was wrong, nor people like Xheni. That was the moment I finally wanted to fight back.
We wrote our press release, opened a new email account with no real name on it, and sent it to all the media.
Within minutes, our press release was added to the news. The media published our reaction, stating that: “A gay and lesbian association expressed optimism and demanded from the government to adopt an anti-discrimination legislation.” We also pointed out in that press release that, as far as we knew, there was no real initiative to introduce any same-sex legislation in the parliament.
Our first victory made us understand that we had one major thing in common: both Xheni and I wanted to do something that mattered with our lives. We became activists.
Over the next few years, Xheni and I grew to know each other better and to meet other like-minded people. We met on a daily basis and we would talk, discuss, party together, and enjoy each other’s company. We had started our own group without even noticing it.
Late one night, after one of our passionate discussion sessions, a group of us went out and painted the walls along Tirana’s main streets with sayings like: “I am a boy and I am in love with a boy” and “I am a girl and I am in love with a girl.”
Tirana woke up the next morning with many walls covered in our graffiti. We recorded what we did that night and posted the footage online on Facebook and YouTube. The following week we painted the park benches opposite the presidential residence with our rainbow colours.
We also organized gatherings, street actions and underground parties for gays and lesbians. At one of these parties in 2010, I met Erjon, who would become my partner and who I am still with today.
He too came to understand and love himself for who he is, and started to keep a journal in which he wrote his life experiences and which he posted online on a Facebook page that attracted hundreds of gays and lesbians.
As I take a look back and compare today’s reality with the reality of five years ago, I can’t help but notice there are some marked achievements the LGBT movement has reached in Albania.
Xheni and I both came out publicly and led the LBGT movement in Albania. I led an organization called Pro LGBT, and Xheni still leads her group called Alliance LGBT.
Through these organizations we co-organized the first Pride parade in Albania. We also opened the first residential shelter for homeless LGBT young people, introduced LGBT issues into the political debate and, perhaps most importantly, we managed to encourage thousands of young people that life will get better.
Erjon’s diary is the first and only human-rights portal in the Albanian language, with thousands of unique visitors each day. The footage of our graffiti actions was made into a LGBT documentary, the first of its kind in Albania, which has also won international recognition and numerous prizes.
Our organizations are now structured throughout the country allowing us to demand accountability from our politicians, as well as lobby for legislative amendments.
The once underground parties have been transformed into much needed services for our communities. In December 2014, we opened the first residential centre for at-risk young homeless LGBT members in Albania (to which some celebrities donate and support), and an LGBT helpline, which we successfully launched through Kickstarter, is coming soon.
It took five years of our combined work for all we have achieved, but it took over 20 years for me to understand and accept myself for who I am.
I believe the strongest motivation for me to stay in my country was my mother. I wanted to show to her that I was strong, and that I could deal with whatever situation arose. When she became chronically ill with renal and heart failure I had a another — a stronger — motivation to stay in my country.
But when she finally passed away last year I suddenly realized that her love and protection had empowered me with a false and unrealistic sense of security. And I started to understand that my own life was in danger.
I could no longer take public transportation and was hesitant to go out shopping or to restaurants as people would recognize me and confront me, often calling me “immoral” and warning “that God would punish me.”
I received numerous messages on my personal Facebook account threatening to hang me, or saying, “Hitler should wake up and take care of people like me.” Others threatened to burn me with acid.
Five times, people shattered the mirrors on my car during the night. Each time, it was only my car that was vandalized — all the other cars in the neighbourhood were left alone.
I was once with Xheni waiting our turn at a gas station in Pogradec, my hometown, when a man confronted me. He called me a faggot and told me to stop saying on television that I was raised in Pogradec, as it brought shame to the town. He grabbed me by my throat, spit on me and told us to leave.
A few weeks later, I heard from others in town that he had accidentally killed himself with an assault rifle.
Once Erjon and I were driving back from Kosovo, next to northern Albania, when our car broke down. We had to stop in Rreshen, a city in the north of Albania, but we could not get any of the hotels to rent us a room. Finally a man who owned a small restaurant rented us a room in his house and advised us to stay inside until morning.
LGBT people are still at risk in my country, and especially gay men and transgender people, who are more often targeted with violence. My mom passing away did not change me or the situation around me; it only made me realize how risky it was.
I remember when I finally shared my fears with Xheni. We stood there at that small bar, having many drinks, crying, laughing, and making plans for the future. We realized that an ocean might soon separate us but it could not stop us from working together to keep up the fight for LGBT rights.
On May 30, 2017, Erjon, our dog and I safely landed in Vancouver. It will for sure be a different chapter but what makes us strong is the fact that for the first time we can live freely as the family we are.
For my entire life I had accepted in silence what others thought about me: that being gay was a crime, a tragedy, or at least very bad luck. I tried to force myself to be someone else, but found I could not change who I am.
Instead, I slowly accepted and understood myself. I thought that no one should experience the pain and isolation that I had encountered in my life. For that simple reason I dedicated myself to the activism which turned out to be also a healing process for me.
I decided to overcome my fears and my mental and physical isolation and I did it through activism. Suddenly, my fears were not mine; my struggle was not mine, neither was my loneliness; they now belonged to a movement, and in sharing the struggle I not only saved myself but helped save many others.
It’s made me realize something fundamental about identity: sooner or later we all have to meet, understand and accept our inner selves. I beg of you not to postpone that meeting.