“Yes, I am a lesbian, but I am a human being first,” this is how Briselda, a young woman from Tirana, starts telling her story for Dritare.net. She became aware of her sexual orientation ten years ago; she was only 15 at the time. She presents as a calm and collected young woman with no complexes or inhibitions. Briselda thinks that the main problem in Albania is not homophobia per se, but generally the way people regard and build relationships with each other.
Briselda spent her childhood moving back and forth from and to Italy and Albania, and the constant transfers between the two countries made it difficult for her to settle and fully identify with either culture. This was further compounded when she realised she was not attracted to men like many of her female friends were. Briselda felt attracted to women.
It has been several years now that the 25-year old and her family have settled in Albania and she is pursuing her studies to become a physiotherapist.
Briselda does not wish to be regarded a victim, she does not raise her voice in protest or plead to be accepted – to her what people do in their own bedrooms should not be important. What is important is the human being. This is the appeal of a young woman who happens to be a lesbian, but who first and foremost is a human being just like you and me.
Dritare.net- What does a normal day in your life look like?
My day starts at 07:00 or 09:00, depending on when my lecture starts on the particular day. I usually am at the University until about 5 PM, after which I go home and take care of my dog. In the evening, I may go out with friends, or stay at home and read or watch a movie. I am a keen traveller and I like visiting various new places, so whenever I find some free time I like to go away from Tirana.
Dritare.net- Have you ever been in a relationship with a man and how was it?
I was in a relationship with a man once, but it did not last very long. I was not able to engage in any meaningful way. I felt a lot of respect and affection for that man but there was no love or physical attraction on my part. At the time, I did not know that this inability to engage was due to my being attracted to women. I was still at a stage where I did not quite know what was going on with me.
Dritare.net- When did you become aware that you were not attracted to men and that it was not the sort of relationship you were looking for?
I first became aware of it when I was 15. I was living in Italy at the time and it all started like a game I was playing with a close female friend. We hung out together and we would kiss each other on the street, as a way to shock or attract the attention of other people. Then, with time, I began to like the game we were playing. I felt flattered by the attention I was getting from her and I wanted more. However, she was heterosexual and had a boyfriend.
At this stage things started to get more complicated. I was gradually learning and discovering more about myself, but she refused to go any further with the relationship. Later I started going out with other women and that is when I became fully aware that I liked the company, the presence, and the hugs of a woman, rather than those of a man.
Dritare.net- What sort of things did you tell yourself at the time when you had not quite accepted yourself yet?
It was very strange. I did not suffer that much at the time because I was lucky enough to have very good friends around me who accepted and supported me during that entire initial period. Truth be told, though, that is by far the most difficult period in the life of LGBTI person, when you are trying to understand who you really are. Even though they would tell me that it wasn’t a problem and that all was well and good, I still would ask myself what was going on with me, was this feeling real? I did not try to impose any barriers on myself, I went on a search for the reasons why I was attracted to women and, on that journey, I managed to find out who I really was.
Dritare.net- Who was the first person you came out to and how did they react?
The first person I told was my friend in Albania and she was happy for me. She was happy that I was happy. Perhaps I have just been very lucky to have always had understanding people around me, whose only concern was what was best for me. I have never felt prejudiced by people in my friendship circle. This gave me the strength to then tell my family less than a year later.
Dritare.net- How did your family react when you first told them?
By that point in time my family and I had lived in Italy for most of our lives and my parents are not your typical Albanian parent with a typical Albanian mentality. Of course, initially this was a bit of a surprise to them but they never made any attempts to stop from being myself in any way. They have always been a great support to me.
Dritare.net- What about social activities, where do you hang out, how do you meet each-other?
When I returned to Albania I came into contact with the Pink Embassy, whose premises I frequented quite regularly. I attended meetings, sometimes I would also write articles for them. Now I have much less time at my disposal for social activities and I have not been in touch with them that much. As far as meeting or getting to know new people, we are no different from anyone else: we meet people at bars, libraries, schools and universities, various online platforms, etc.
Dritare.net- Are you in a relationship now? What is it like being with a woman, how is it different from being with a man?
I am not in a relationship at present, it is not something I am looking for at this point in time. I am focused on other objectives now: to finish my education and start building a career. A relationship can be difficult and requires hard work, irrespective of whether it is with a man or a woman. I have to say, though, that women can be stronger and more resilient, but at the same time they are also much softer and gentler and require more dedication and attention.
Dritare.net- Is it difficult to find a job if you are open about your sexuality, or do you feel forced to keep it secret?
Like most young Albanians people who speak Italian fluently, I found a job at a call centre in Tirana. Given that everyone else around me knew I was a lesbian, I did not think it made any sense to hide it from people at work. Everyone knew and no one was bothered or annoyed by it. Sometimes we would also joke about it; I had a very close relationship with the people in my team.
Dritare.net- What does it mean to be a lesbian in Albania?
It is hard to give an answer to this question, because to me it is no different from being anything else. In my life, I have been lucky enough to always have had the support of my friends and my family, from the moment I first came out to the present.
The fact that I am a lesbian does not make me feel any different; it does not prevent me from making decisions, or wearing jeans, or going to bars and cafés, or enjoying my Friday evenings, or studying. When I eventually become a physiotherapist, I am sure this will not prevent me from exercising my profession.
I know that I am no different from else in this world. And I will not allow anyone to treat me differently; rather, I will not allow myself to seek to be treated differently.
Dritare.net- What has been the single most difficult situation you have ever faced?
Because of the circumstances of my family, the greatest difficulty I ever faced was linked with the need to move schools frequently when we moved to Albania from Italy, or the other way round. Every time I had to start from scratch; I had to make new friends and adapt to a new environment, social or otherwise. I am a positive person, I don’t usually dwell too much on negativity and I won’t allow adversity or disparaging words about my sexuality get the better of me.
Dritare.net- What sort of hardships does a LGBTI person encounter in Albania and what do you think needs to be done in relation to legislation, public attitudes, and employers?
In relation to social attitudes and mentalities, it is quite easy; just don’t discriminate against people and don’t treat them differently. Employers must hire those who are deserving and possess the required qualifications, not those who have connections. The health care infrastructure is another issue that needs to be looked at. These are the main issues we have in Albania. If these are resolved, there will be fewer hardships not only for the LGBTI people, but also for all Albanians generally.
Dritare.net- What are your thoughts in relation to the inflammatory homophobic speech used by some public figures on social networking sites?
By doing this they just put their ignorance on display for everyone to see. You may not approve of something but there is no need to use hate speech. What I think, though, is that in Albania the main objective of the people who use the terms ‘homophobe/homophobic’ is to help increase the number of clicks on their social media profiles; it’s one of those things attention seekers do. Just ignore them, I say. Let everybody mind their own business and pay no attention to negative comments. Ultimately, a great majority do it just for the show.
Dritare.net- What is one aspect of Albanian attitudes towards the LGBTI and particularly towards lesbians that you can’t stand?
As I said earlier, I don’t allow negative comments to affect me, I try and stay away from them. I know that in Albania there are a lot of homophobes who still think that a traditional, patriarchal, family is the only way. There have been occasions when I was initially very close to certain people who then immediately shunned me after learning about my sexuality. This has to stop.
Dritare.net- What is one piece of advice do you –a human being first and a lesbian second, as you self-described – have for the Albanians?
What people do in their own bedrooms is their own business and should not concern anyone else in any way. Try to be true to yourselves and to your friends, your family, and to other people you come across in your lives.
Each person’s sexual orientation is a private matter. Who we are and what we are able to do, on the other hand, is something that can be shared with people we interact with in our everyday lives. What is important is not to cause anyone to hurt; we are all human beings./Dritare.net
* The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in collaboration with UN-Albania, are implementing the Free and Equal Project, which Dritare.net has also subscribed to. This project aims to raise awareness against homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination.