Knowing who you are is a precondition to having a happy life. It is important to know yourself, your feelings, your dreams and desires, and then try to live up to them. Just imagine how you would feel if you knew your dream had no chance of ever being a reality. Think about what your life would be like if what you want is different from what you do and you are forced to lead a double life.
Alesio Kola is living such a life by keeping his sexual orientation secret from others. In fact, his real name is not Alesio. But he only feels free and comfortable to talk about his innermost feelings only if he uses an assumed name. When I ask him about his sexual orientation, he struggles to give an explanation. At the age when everyone discovers their identity, Alesio, a teenager, realised that he was different from his friends in the way he dressed, in his demeanour and way of thinking.
“I am not able to say for sure whether I am gay or bisexual. I have had experiences with both females and males. In the beginning, I was not quite sure what I really wanted. At school, I realised that my sexuality was different from the others’, but I would try to convince myself that this was nonsense. I just couldn’t accept myself and who I was. Anyway, my first relationship was with a man. Initially we got to know each other as friends and later we became closer. When our story finished I was really angry with myself and could not believe what I had done.”
The biggest challenge he faced came from within – he had to come to terms with accepting who he was and allow himself to do what he felt like doing. This was the source of his dilemmas, question marks, insecurities, prejudices. Alesio tells me how, to begin with, he did not even know what the word ‘gay’ meant. Over the years he has experimented sexually in an attempt to discover who he is and now he knows what he wants.
“There is not much difference between being in a relationship with a boy or a girl. What makes the difference is the feelings. I feel more attracted to males but I don’t think it is a problem for me to be in a relationship with a female either. However, if I had to choose between a handsome male and a pretty female on the street, I would definitely pick the male. I would only choose the female if I was forced to.”
Alesio is 23 years old and has been living in Tirana for five years now. He left his family home because of the constant arguments with his brother. His brother would constantly criticize him incessantly and did not approve of his choice of clothes. Alesio was not courageous enough to tell his family about his feelings, so he decided to leave. He often goes to see his family in Elbasan but is determined to keep his way of life and sexual orientation a secret from them.
“My family does not know about my sexual orientation. My brother had his suspicions, which led to us having numerous arguments. I would dress differently from others and he disapproved of my style. He wanted me to do what he told me to do. To me, the life I lead is normal but my family wouldn’t understand that. They would think it absurd for a man to be with a man. No matter how hard I may try to explain to them that it is normal, they would still would think of it as abnormal. That is why I’m doing my best to keep it from them and I’d rather they never learned about it. I know how prejudiced they are and I don’t feel I am able to face them, I’d feel too embarrassed and ashamed. If I tell them, they will look at me and won’t be able to see that I am still the same person, and they would not love me the same as before. Most of all, I feel embarrassed towards my mum. I love her too much and don’t want to cause her any pain.”
Alesio tells me that even in Tirana he leads a relatively restricted existence. He has not come out openly; he tries to keep his dress style “sensible and respectable” and has given up on the sort of clothes he likes to wear. Especially in his neighbourhood he tries to be as inconspicuous as possible so that no one can suspect or realise he is different.
“In the past, I would encounter discrimination in the street. People have said offensive things and harassed me. So now I just keep myself to myself and try not to exaggerate in the way I dress. Because whenever I dress differently, or have my eyebrows done, I know I will get it from people. There are many young men in Albania who like to dress well and in style and for this reason alone, people immediately assume they are gay, even though they may not be. That is why I lead a secret life and cannot come out openly about my real sexual orientation. Not that I care much what other people say. But I still don’t want them to pry into my life. I don’t want to be one of those who is abused or verbally attacked.”
After finishing his university studies, he tried his hand at a number of jobs: from car wash assistant, to supermarket shelf stacker and call centre operator. Presently he lives alone in a rented accommodation and is out of work. He says that when people know you are gay it is very difficult to be offered a position. If you can keep your sexuality a secret the chances of getting a job are higher.
“There is no freedom at all in life; it is us who try to make it free. Still, it is hard to escape discrimination. Employers simply won’t hire you. You may think, I am trying to be respectable and keep myself in check, in both my dress style and demeanour, but there are still things that may give you away and the other person may understand who and what you are. There are certain traits that set us apart and some people are able to tell. On the other hand, there are others who cannot tell or who couldn’t care less. What they care about is a job well done. Things in Albania are still rather difficult, but we are trying to adapt ourselves to this way of life as best we can.”
Even though he is unemployed at present, he has never asked his family to help him out financially. He does not tell them that he is struggling and always tries to send something home, even though they are not in any financial need. Alesio says that at present he is being financially supported by his boyfriend.
“In fact, I have two relationships going on in parallel. I have real feelings towards one of them. The other one is primarily a business relationship. I get a reward for what I offer to him; he pays for what he receives. There have been two occasions in which I have had sexual relations with well-known, public figures. They would come to my place, as I don’t do hotels and I don’t go to their houses. On the other hand, I have real feelings for this young man from Prishtina. He lives between the two countries, both here in Albania and over there. I initially met him in the social networking websites. We made plans to leave Albania, but they did not materialise.”
When I asked him whether he felt used by the persons who paid to have sexual relations with him, he says he did not. “There is no reason why I should feel used. Each of us gets out exactly what we are looking for out of it.” He says he leads a normal life and considers himself nothing but a normal person.
“I am friends with gay men and lesbian women. Some them I am very close to and we meet up in each-other’s houses. Others, who I don’t know that well, I meet in coffee shops. I lead a normal life and I am a normal human being. My general wish is for young people my age to have more freedom and be able to lead the life they want. A freedom that goes so far as to enable them to be free to go out openly as couples, just like a man and a woman do. I wish that things like kissing your boyfriend in the street would be considered normal.”
At present, the only place in which they feel free to be who they are is the LGBT Alliance. There they feel they are among equals, they can form friendships, share their problems and get support. “The Alliance provides a lot of support, they accompany us to the police station whenever we would like to report something, they help us with legal proceedings, they provide us with condoms. They help as best they can with the resources they have. They have helped me immensely”.
He says that he has no definite plans for his future. His dream is to leave Albania and share his life with someone he loves. If he remains in Albania he is not sure what will become of him.
“In the past, the notions of being gay or lesbian were unknown but now people are aware what it is about. Perhaps they will eventually come round to accepting us. If I don’t leave Albania and if I cannot share my life with a man here, I shall be forced to marry a woman and lead a double life. I wouldn’t tell my family. I am not sure what the future has in hold, but this is how I feel and what I think at the moment. Even if my family come to learn about who I am from other people, I will never admit to it. I don’t feel ready. I don’t feel like doing it. Those of us who have lived differently, who are used to this way of life, who have travelled and seen the world, see this as a completely normal way of being. But they don’t.
In Albania 76 % of those surveyed claim to have been subject of discrimination due to their sexual orientation. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in collaboration with UN-Albania, are implementing the Free and Equal Campaign in partnership with LGBTI civil society activists. The Campaign raises awareness of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination and mobilizes people in Albania to stop the violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
The Free & Equal campaign has released a variety of multimedia content which call on all people to respect the rights of the LGBTI community. The campaign included media training sessions on how to ethically and adequately reports issues related to LGBTI rights, a chain of stories featuring LGBTI people and a number of sessions called “Let’s Speak Openly about LGBTI rights in Albania”.