Kosovars exploded on social media when, a few years ago, the newspapers announced, somewhat pompously, “the first ever marriage application from a gay couple in Kosovo.” Not surprisingly, most of the comments were homophobic, some denied that homosexuals exist in Kosovo, and others delved into conspiracy theories, arguing, “It’s a plot by foreign agents . . . !” But there were also some very funny comments, especially about the town where they were reported to have made the application, as it is famous for having a “heroic” past. Without much delay, the officials of the town issued a declaration, denying that the application had ever been made. From the tone of their statement you could sense the “offense” and “fear” triggered by what they argued was a “fake” news report. The truth of the matter was never discovered. If it had been true, then it would have been the first gay marriage in Kosovo, as this is permitted by our Constitution.

And, although the jokes and comments about this event were slowly forgotten, for years I wondered: What if . . . ? I mean, what if such a request had really been made in that town?

Since then, I’ve carefully followed developments relating to the LGBTI community with the aim of writing a play. In the past, in Kosovo and in general across the Balkans, there have been various incidents targeting members of the LGBTI community. Bombs have been thrown at gay-friendly cafes; gay people have been beaten up and intimidated; there have been thwarted attempts at organizing gay parades, as well as violent anti-gay rotests, etc. One of the most high-profile cases was the brutal killing of Merlinka, a well-known transvestite in Serbia.

A few years ago, I was also shocked by a report in the Kosovo newspapers about a gay couple who were attacked walking along the street at night. When they were brought to the public hospital, the doctors, realizing their sexual orientation, joked with them and delayed first aid. Even the police who were called to investigate were reported to have physically harassed them.

I’d also noted another frightening incident that occurred in 2012 in Prishtina, in which the targets of the attack included some journalists, artists, and human rights activists. The Kosovar magazine Kosovo 2.0, in several of their issues, had written about concerns relating to the LGBTI community, and during a promotion for the magazine which included an exhibition by local artists, about 100 people gathered together to protest the event. The demonstrators were from the Prishtina soccer fan club, and they blocked the exit shouting, “Allahu Akbar,” while the police, helplessly, tried to establish order. The protestors managed despite them to get inside, and they destroyed the exhibition, but luckily no one was hurt. The more violent among them were captured by the police and given appropriate sentences by the local courts. The response of the law enforcement authorities and the sentencing of the violent protestors diffused the situation as it demonstrated that attacks on the LGBTI community would not be tolerated in the future. But it took a lot of work by organizations, activists, and various embassies in Kosovo to persuade the police and the courts to respond appropriately. It was, thus, a battle on many fronts.

But there was also another aspect that intrigued me in this context of violence and fear: Whenever there was an incident against the LBGTI community, there was also immediate interest from international donors, together with offers to finance awareness-raising projects against homophobia, and to promote LGBTI community rights. This came from the best of intentions, but it was also frustrating for the local organizations already campaigning on LGBTI issues because the funds were usually awarded to international NGOs, unfamiliar with the local context, and so, often invested in projects that were entirely incompatible with the needs and demands of local LGBTI communities. At the same time, a contest developed among domestic NGOs as they competed for funds, primacy, and domination of the “LGBTI territory.”

The reader or audience of 55 Shades of Gay will find most of what I’ve outlined in the text. The main character in the play is Merlin (like Merlinka), and the key event in the play is almost identical to the report on “Kosovo’s first ever marriage application from a gay couple.” There is a grenade launcher, a story about a policeman who mistreats a gay person, and also an international NGO that tries to win funds dedicated to the local LGBTI community. I called the play 55 Shades of Gay in reference to the title of the film, 50 Shades of Grey, and then I gave it a subtitle: The Balkan Spring of the Sexual Revolution, as an ironic reference to the reality the play depicts.

55 Shades of Gay is a burlesque story about LGBTI politics in the Balkans and Europe. Local politicians in the Balkans try to manipulate and deceive EU officials; humanitarian mercenaries from international NGOs exploit the homophobic atmosphere to steal funds for made-up projects; while EU officials, using their superior financial and political position, try to subjugate everyone.

A gay couple applies for a marriage certificate in a provincial and conservative town that is deeply homophobic. The request occurs at time when the Italian NGO, Don Bosco, has started construction on a factory to produce condoms. The project, which has the backing of the European Union, is designed to reduce an unemployment rate of nearly 90 percent. Intellectuals, artists, politicians, religious leaders, and professional grenade launchers all try to prevent the wedding, even though same-sex marriages are sanctioned by the Constitution (which was signed by the Prime Minister at the behest of the EU).

Naturally, when we produced it in Prishtina, we were a bit wary of the public’s response. We designed a large poster which featured two men kissing and printed two copies in case one was destroyed by vandals. But the huge poster hung in front of the National Theater for about two weeks and nothing happened to it. When it came time for the premiere, we did ask for a police presence though. A few dozen were posted inside and outside the theater. But fortunately, none of our fears came to pass. The play opened without incident, and this was a truly wonderful surprise, indeed a triumph — a sign that Kosovar society is emancipating. 55 Shades of Gay has been very well received in Prishtina (and wherever else it has been performed in Kosovo), in Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, the Czech Republic, and various other places. The company is now delighted by the prospect of performing in New York City, in March of 2019, at the celebrated La MaMa ETC.

About one month after the premiere in Prishtina, the first ever gay parade took place. I don’t mean to suggest that this was a direct result of the play, but the organizers did tell us that they had been encouraged and motivated by it, in particular by the fact that it had run without incident, which they took to be a sign that Kosovar society had become more tolerant. And so, in October of 2017, the country had its first gay parade.

I would be happy if this play raised awareness, understanding, and support for the gay community, especially in those countries where their rights are restricted, where they are stigmatized, or the targets of any form of violence.

~ Jeton Neziraj

12 December 2018, Prishtina

Translated by Alexandra Channer

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