by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Albania - Europe's poorest and least developed country - passed a comprehensive anti-discrimination law guaranteeing the rights of its LGBT citizens on February 4. The vote in Albania's Assembly was 70-0.
The new law reportedly prohibits discrimination based on "gender, race, color, ethnicity, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, political, religious or philosophical beliefs, economic, education or social status, pregnancy, parentage, parental responsibility, age, family or marital condition, civil status, residence, health status, genetic predispositions, disability, affiliation with a particular group or for any other reason."
The Albanian LGBT organization Aleanca Kunder Diskriminimit LGBT (Alliance Against LGBT Discrimination) hailed the new legislation on its bilingual English-Albanian website gayalbania.org.
"The [Aleanca] enthusiastically welcomes the approval of the Anti-Discrimination Law and we consider the law a powerful and solid legal instrument for the protection against any form of discrimination, direct or indirect."
"As one of the categories that directly benefits from this law, we, the representatives of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, take the opportunity to express our gratitude to all the members of parliament who supported this legal initiative, as well as to the media that objectively covered it."
"We would like to particularly thank the working group and the Albanian human rights organizations that have for many years engaged for the conceptualization and drafting of this law."
"This law is not simply a fulfillment of requirements that Albania has undertaken for EU integration and visa liberalization. Above all, this law is a victory for democracy and for human rights for all Albanians," the Aleanca said.
In 2008, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg reported that LGBT Albanians faced routine intolerance and violence.
"An open discussion regarding homosexuality remains taboo in Albania," Hammarberg wrote. "LGBT persons are routinely subject to intolerance, physical and psychological violence and seen by many as persons suffering from an 'illness.' ... There have also been cases of mistreatment by the police."
Albania applied for membership in the European Union in April 2009. All EU members must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination against LGBT persons.
Lilit Poghosyan, Policy and Programs Officer for ILGA-Europe (the International LGBT Association in Europe), expressed the hope that Albania would set an example for other EU hopefuls.
"We congratulate Albania on this important step towards EU integration and elimination of all forms of discrimination. We hope that the new Albanian anti-discrimination [law] will be a good example for other countries in the region aspiring to join the European Union and have not yet adopted similar laws," she said.
"Moreover, we hope that Albanian example will influence Macedonian authorities to revisit their recent decision to delete sexual orientation from the list of banned grounds of discrimination in their anti-discrimination bill currently being debated. Macedonia is a candidate country for EU membership and is under obligation to provide protection against sexual orientation discrimination."
Albania is a parliamentary democracy in which the party that controls a majority in the Assembly makes up the government. Prime Minister Salih Berisha's center-right Democratic Party holds 68 seats in the 140-seat parliament, and governs with the cooperation of smaller centrist parties.
The center-left Socialist Party, Berisha's principal opposition, controls 63 seats. They and their leftist allies are currently boycotting parliament in protest against alleged voter fraud in the 2009 parliamentary elections, so there are only 71 voting members.
Berisha announced in July 2009 that his government would support same-sex civil marriages, although he did not introduce a new marriage law.
Legalization of same-sex marriage would require a change in Albania's Family Code, and changes to the Family Code require 84 votes in the Assembly. As long as the 63 Socialists continue to boycott parliament, it will therefore be impossible to amend the Family Code.
American-born Lesbian Mindy Michaels, who lives with her partner in the Albanian capital Tirana, told the Gay blog Pam's House Blend that the Aleanca - while still small - was using grassroots organizing techniques to bring visibility and respect to Albania's LGBT community.
"Day by day, through word of mouth, through the Facebook group, through media coverage, through lectures at universities ... they are finding other people, creating community, and building a group of people who want to try and make a difference," Michaels said. "I cannot begin to tell you how inspired I am by them. The steps are small, and there is a long way to go, but something has started."
Michaels also credited US Ambassador John Withers with supporting the LGBT community.
"Since  he has personally met with key LGBT group and human rights organization leaders, been the primary speaker for a public International Day Against Homophobia lecture, written an op-ed for an Albanian newspaper, and supported numerous other activities designed to build support for LGBT human rights," she said. "His actions and statements have been personally inspirational to us, and incredibly inspiring to the Albanian activists."
While modern Albanians are probably descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants of the Adriatic coast where they still live, Albania became an independent country only in 1912. After more than 25 years of political turmoil, Italy occupied the country during World War II.
Albania emerged from the war under a Communist government so hardline it rejected even Stalin and Mao as too liberal, and so isolationist its only international ally was North Korea.
Communist Albania collapsed in 1990, but the new democratic Albania almost collapsed as well in 1996 when the vast Ponzi scheme on which the national economy was based fell apart, bankrupting the country.
Perhaps 70% of Albanians are of Muslim background, but because the Communists closed all religious institutions and executed most of the clergy in 1968, few modern Albanians are actively religious.
In addition to a national anti-discrimination law, Albania also has a national government-sponsored healthcare system.
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