Out Leadership’s Managing Director, Global Equality Initiatives, Fabrice Houdart with Amarildo Fecanji, the executive co-director at ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey about the state of LGBTQ+ equality in Montenegro.
Last year, Montenegro became the first non-EU country in Europe to pass the same-sex partnership law. This was a great victory for the LGBTI community in the country and a great message of encouragement for the movement across the Western Balkans region. For the last ten years, achieving legal recognition of same-sex couples has been a major goal for the movement in all the countries of the region, and the vote in Montenegro made it clear that it is possible. As a representative of the ERA network I cannot speak with the full confidence and understanding that our members in Montenegro have on how this huge outcome came about. However, what I can say with certainty is that the LGBTI movement in Montenegro is the main actor of such a huge achievement and should be applauded for their incredible work. The movement worked with a strategy which did not leave out a single component. They based their actions on research and analysis, engaged with all relevant stakeholders and advocated for a long time with every single actor who had a role to play on this topic. What is commendable is also the fact that they did not do this at the expense of other community priorities such as access to services, protection from discrimination and violence, changing public attitudes etc.
The entire movement in the Western Balkans is very encouraged by this development as we hope that it will pave the way for other countries to follow on the same footsteps.
The Western Balkans is experiencing a generational shift when it comes to LGBTI rights. As in many other parts of the world, the last 15-20 years have seen the topic gain important political, social and cultural momentum. As we speak, LGBTI people across the Western Balkans enjoy an array of legal protections, though a lot more remains to be done. When it comes to the legal rights of trans, intersex and non-binary persons for example, the region is lagging behind. Public attitudes towards LGBTI people remain very negative across the region. Community visibility is still very low as people are afraid of coming out from fear of repercussions.
European Union integration has of course played a big role in pushing for change, as all countries of the Western Balkans are eager to join the block. There is however an enlargement fatigue by the block itself as well as by the countries of the region and the political momentum of the previous years is not as present today. The opportunity of EU integration has in many aspects also created a paradox: many countries have passed positive legislation before the social and political change has occurred and before the community has been empowered to demand implementation of the law. This has made the issue of implementation a very imminent and important one. Akin to that is also community empowerment, as it is LGBTI people themselves who are expected to demand that their legal rights are protected and respected.
This has created a sort of paradox also when it comes to priorities. While international donors and partners want to support more advocacy actions leading to legal and policy reform, the local movements are struggling more and more with responding to the immediate needs of the community and dealing with institutions which do not apply the law and in some cases are not even aware of the law itself.
So as you might rightly assume, this is equally a challenge and an opportunity for the movement and something that local organizations are battling with on a daily basis.
We are not necessarily experiencing the exact backlash to Poland and Hungary, but we are definitely seeing governments of Eastern Europe (including the Slovenian one) emulating the tactics of those countries. There is plenty of room for concern in our region, especially in light of a perceived weaker EU and stronger influences from other less democratically and human rights inclined countries like Russia, or those of the middle east. Turkey, is also more and more increasing its anti-LGBT rhetoric, imprisoning LGBTI activists, banning prides and other LGBTI events. Only two weeks ago Turkey left the Istanbul Convention, this being a huge setback for all women as well as sexual and gender minorities.
Our research shows that, albeit with some differences, the region of the Western Balkans is more or less on the same boat with most of Eastern Europe. Of course, countries like Slovenia and Croatia can be considered more advanced, as they have both joined the EU many years ago and the legal framework has more or less been put in place. Both countries however continue to face huge challenges when it comes to not only ensuring equal rights for LGBTI people but also for safe-guarding the hard won achievements of the past 20 years. If you look further in the region, Bulgaria and Rumania, both EU members since 2007 have still a lot to do on LGBTI rights and Greece, an EU member since 1987 passed same-sex partnership law only in 2015, many years behind its counterparts in Western Europe.
We have many examples from the West and countries close to home to know and believe that the private sector can play a huge transformative role for the protection and advancement of LGBTI+ people’s rights. Positive examples are also present across the region. Some companies are developing policies to increase employment opportunities of marginalized communities (including LGBTI), a few are supporting actions, causes and activities and others are slowly starting internal conversations often with the participation of the community leaders. While these steps are encouraging, they are small compared to the needs of the community. Companies, especially those that show huge support for LGBTI rights in more friendly countries (especially in the west) need to become aware that the community is aware of their silence in the countries of our region. If values are universal, then so should be the support on the ground. The solution for such companies is very simple: speak and engage with the local communities, understand their needs and expectations and find a middle path between whatever product you are selling and the values and beliefs that you hold. The “think global act locally” mantra is just as applicable in this case. For example, companies should not be worried simply about being visible with the rainbow flag on May 17th or Pride day. They can show support in more diversified and complex ways, visibility included.
Unfortunately, we do not have specific information on this topic. What we know for certain is that the economies of the countries of the Western Balkans have been hit hard by the pandemic, and that marginalized communities, such as LGBTI, have suffered even greater consequences, leading to further exclusion and marginalization. My assumption is that lesser revenue for companies might lead to less money spent on diversity and CSR. On the other hand, the pandemic itself might have helped many companies to understand their own role in providing even more support to hard-hit communities. My concern in that regards however is that not all companies are aware if the fact that discrimination against LGBTI people is not only social but also economic. Therefore, many companies who are considering to take proactive steps to support different communities, are not necessarily aware of why they should also include LGBTI people. This is where we as LGBTI movement and community leaders are expected to do more: to build dialogue with companies and make them aware of our lived realities and concrete needs.
ERA has entered its 6th year of activity. As our first Strategic Plan (2016-2020) came to an end we are spending considerable time to understand what worked and what didn’t in the first 5 years and design our next five-year strategic plan. We have a lot to take into account. First, ERA has grown from 25 to 70 member organizations and the Western Balkans and Turkey region has changed drastically from when we started in 2015. We are spending considerable part of our time creating opportunities for our members, building alliances and cooperation and ensuring resources. Our program is currently focused on many issues including: capacity development, access to justice, access to health, regional and international advocacy, campaigning and research. An important part of our work since 2017 has also been the issue of economic justice and in the past two years we have started a closer engagement with unions, companies and other stakeholders who have a role to play in this issue.
Amarildo Fecanji has been the executive co-director at ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey since October 2015. Before that he was engaged as Director of Programs at PINK Embassy / LGBT Pro in his home country Albania. He holds a B.A in International Relations from SUNY and an LLM in Public International Law from the University of Nottingham. He is currently based in Tirana, Albania.