Over 140 principals in Kosovo recently took part in annual training hosted in municipalities throughout the country under USAID’s Basic Education Program. But this year, for the first time, training included Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights.
The municipality of Dragash/Dragaš, nestled in the mountainous border with Albania, is one of the most remote, diverse and traditional parts of Kosovo. The large Bosniak and Gorani minority communities live harmoniously with the Albanian majority population in this quiet mountain town where, unlike elsewhere in the Muslim-majority country, head scarves are a common sight.
Spelling it Out
It was here that a recent LGBT session took place on November 15.
When trainer and Kosovo Pedagogical Institute Director Ismet Potera opened the discussion by asking participants to write what they believed “LGBT” stood for, only one of the nine Dragash/Dragaš principals knew the meaning, adding that “it is a reality and a shame.”
“I must admit, I shared that prejudice before I understood the facts,” Potera explained to the group of male educators. “But now I understand that members of the LGBT community don’t choose that lifestyle, and most importantly, they are deserving of our protection.”
An Unlikely Advocate
As Potera and fellow trainer Arbërie Nagavci continued to present the information prepared by local LGBT organization Center for Social Emancipation (Qendra Për Emancipim Shoqëror) about the differences between sexual orientation and gender, they got some unexpected support from one of the participants.
“Human sexuality is rooted in science,” said Bahtijar Bojaxhiu, a biology teacher of 25 years who currently serves as principal for over 600 students at several village schools near Dragash/Dragaš. “Studies have proven that it is determined by a combination of genetics and hormones, so homosexuality is natural.”
While Kosovo’s open LGBT community is small—estimated at around 300 people in a country of 1.9 million—the fledgling democracy’s laws offer them explicit protection from discrimination and even the right to same-sex marriage. But societal acceptance has yet to catch up to legal mandate. In December 2012, a magazine launch party in the capital of Pristina was targeted for violent homophobic attacks because the issue tackled the topic of homosexuality.
Spreading the word
In the village of Pjetërshticëin central Kosovo, only 8 percent of the local community has a university education. Elementary school principal Lutfi Gashi believes that, following the USAID training in nearby Shtime/Štimlje, it is his personal and professional responsibility to ensure that teachers and parents alike are aware of the country’s anti-discrimination laws.
“It is my duty to create a safe environment for all of my students,” explained Gashi, who is establishing an inclusiveness working group of teachers, parents, and students to address factors that could be contributing to the school’s dropout rate.
The dialogue continues
As the discussion came to a close in Dragash/Dragaš, Potera and Nagavci talked about how schools in this region are uniquely positioned to promote LGBT inclusiveness, given the example set here of ethnic inclusiveness. One participant, who had appeared skeptical through much of the discussion, finally spoke up:
“In all of our cultures, families take care of each other. If a person from this community is rejected by their family, then it’s the responsibility of the school to teach acceptance and support them.”
Nagavci was pleased. “I’m not sure we changed any minds today, but we certainly tickled a few, and opened a dialogue that I hope will continue.”