Follow My Dream: Letters from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania

- William M. Trunk, RPCV

Imagine having a well-paid career as a Finance Manager at a large multinational industrial company for 17 years. And then you leave the company to join the Peace Corps to pursue a dream. Everyone is shocked and amazed at your decision. But does your experience in the Peace Corps actually live up to your dreams?

That is what I did at the age of 43 in 2007. Shortly after arriving in Albania to begin my two years of service as a Peace Corps Community Development Volunteer, I decided to send monthly email letters to my family and friends. Those monthly email letters helped me remain connected to my family and friends after moving to Albania to begin Peace Corps. It was also a tool that I used to implement goal #3 (i.e. to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people) for Peace Corps.

The feedback from my monthly emails letters was very positive. Many individuals suggested that I even write a book about my Peace Corps experience. So that is what I did. Overall my experience in the Peace Corps truly was a dream come true for me despite the challenges in my personal life as a gay volunteer in Albania. And I hope that you consider purchasing my book  and sharing it with others.

This article summarizes some key points related to my experience as a gay volunteer in Albania that are incorporated into the book. The other two Albanian articles from 2008 and 2009 on this website provide more details about my experiences.

My search on the internet for the LGBT community in Albania began even before I left the US for Peace Corps in Albania (March, 2007). Although I was disappointed to find virtually no information online, I did find a postal address for a gay NGO (non-governmental organization). So I mailed them a letter. And after about five months in Albania, I met the director of this gay Albanian NGO.

After this NGO received funding for a project, I took on the role as its Finance Officer for the first year of the project’s funding. My responsibilities as Finance Officer centered on preparing the budgets and monthly financial statements and then advising the director about the implications of the NGO’s programming activities. During the second year of the project, the funding level was severely reduced. As a result, the activities implemented by the NGO had to be cut back. In addition, the NGO was required to hire an Albanian as Finance Officer. So my role in the second year was limited to a financial advisor.
At the same time that I was working with this NGO, I collaborated with some other LGBT PCVs and Peace Corps staff in Albania to create a LGBT Committee for PCVs in Albania. It was a peer group of LGBT volunteers and their supporters. Our main goals were:

  • Provide peer support for existing LGBT volunteers.
  • Provide advice for new volunteers about realities in Albania and identify coping strategies.
  • Work with Peace Corps staff to provide diversity training for Peace Corps staff and volunteers on LGBT issues.
  • Do outreach with LGBT organizations in Albania.

The LGBT Committee met each quarter to support one another. Just getting together periodically to share the challenges that we face was very beneficial to each one of the committee members. The committee also provided written advice for new LGBT volunteers coming to Albania. But the biggest accomplishment of the committee was probably having a different committee member “come out” to the staff and new volunteers each year as part of diversity training and sharing our story of what it is like to be a LGBT volunteer in Albania.

Given my limited role with the gay NGO during the second year, I began to do more outreach to the gay community in the capital city, Tirana. I met some individuals with another gay organization through an American NGO consultant whom I worked with previously. However, this other gay organization was basically inactive as well. Nonetheless, I learned more about the gay community in Tirana (capital city of Albania) by meeting some representatives from this other gay organization.

So what did I learn about the LGBT community in Albania as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2007 – 2009? The good news is that from a legal perspective, homosexuality in Albania became legal in 1994. Therefore, Albanian gay or lesbian individuals cannot legally be imprisoned for their sexual orientation. However, do not be misled by the legality of homosexuality. Generally Albanians are sadly, deeply homophobic and generally never discuss the topic. The LGBT community in Albania is very underground and there are no gay bars in any city in Albania including the capital city, Tirana. The code word they use for gay is “communist.” Although homosexuality exists in Albania, few individuals have a “gay” identity similar to what we find in the United States or other developed countries. Given the social stigma to being gay in Albania, it was very important for me to be discreet about my sexual orientation.

During my outreach to the gay community, I also met an American lesbian couple who lived in the capital city. One of the women worked at the US Embassy in Albania. Shortly after I met them, the US Ambassador to Albania asked the American lesbian couple to meet with him to discuss their recommendations for what he should do as the US Ambassador to Albania to support the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. When this couple told him that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been working with the gay community in Albania, he asked them to invite me to the meeting.

At our initial meeting we agreed upon some actions to address the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. The highlights of these actions were for the US Ambassador to include sexual orientation when he spoke about human rights in Albania. In addition, the Ambassador supported conducting some type of roundtable meeting regarding “human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania.”

Shortly after this meeting, this advisory committee attended the First Albanian Human Rights Debate Conference in Tirana. It was sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN’s declaration of human rights. The topics covered were human rights for women, children, and sexual minorities. It was the first time that a human rights conference in Albania had included the topic of sexual minorities.

During the sexual minorities’ panel discussion, the panel members from several organizations made a strong case for why human rights of LGBT were important. Despite the success of the conference, a major problem was that there were no representatives from the Albanian LGBT community at the session due to their fear of disclosure.

After the sexual minorities’ session, I spoke with some of the individuals leading it. The moderator of the session was the director from an Albanian NGO called Albanian Human Rights Group. I was very impressed with her commitment to this issue as a straight woman. I shared with her my experience in Peace Corps working with some Albanian gay NGOs plus starting the LGBT Committee for volunteers. I also suggested that the key method to change people’s acceptance to LGBT issues in Albania was to have LGBT people share their stories anonymously (because they feared negative ramifications from disclosure).

Shortly before I completed my Peace Corps service, we had a meeting at the US Embassy with the organizations working on LGBT human rights issues in Albania. Most of the participants at the meeting were individuals whom I had met during the First Albanian Human Rights Debate. This first meeting focused on brainstorming about the possible activities these various organizations could implement and collaborate together to support this initiative. I shared with others my recent experience of providing diversity training for new volunteers and Albanian staff and how we could utilize Peace Corps volunteers around the country to share LGBT educational materials in their communities.

Prior to completing my service, I introduced the new chairperson for the LGBT Volunteer Committee from Peace Corps Albania to these organizations. Therefore, Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania were able to continue to collaborate on this important project to improve human rights for LGBT in Albania after I completed my Peace Corps service.

Overall I was very pleased with my unique opportunity that Peace Corps gave me to advocate for the LGBT community in Albania.

You can contact Bill Trunk at willyt2000@hotmail.com.

LGBT Advocacy in Albania

-Bill Trunk, RPCV, 2007-2009

Despite the challenges in my personal life as a gay volunteer in Albania, I had very rewarding experiences working to improve the lives of the Albanian LGBT community. My primary PC assignment was working for Opportunity Albania (a micro-credit organization) as a community development volunteer.

So what is the LGBT community in Albania like? The good news is that from a legal perspective, homosexuality in Albania became legal in1994. Therefore, Albanian gay or lesbian individuals cannot legally be imprisoned for their sexual orientation. However, do not be misled by the legality of homosexuality. Generally Albanians are sadly, deeply homophobic and generally never discuss the topic.

The LGBT community in Albania is very underground and there are no gay bars in any city in Albania including the capital city, Tirana. It is very difficult to even find any information about the LGBT community there. Similar to many other developing countries, the term “gay” is generally not used in Albania but instead it’s “men who have sex with men.” Although homosexuality exists in Albania, few individuals have a “gay” identity similar to what we find in the United States or other developed countries.

My search for the LGBT community began even before I left the US for Peace Corps in Albania (March, 2007). My search was conducted on the internet. I was disappointed to find virtually no information, but I did find a postal address for a gay NGO (non-governmental organization). So I mailed them a letter. And after about five months in Albania, I met the director of this gay Albanian NGO. It had been created shortly after communism ended in Albania in 1992, but had been inactive for several years due to a lack of funding.

At the time I met the director, he was working on a proposal for funding from the United Nations Global Fund for an NGO to provide HIV prevention education to the gay community and to be an advocate for LGBT human rights in Albania. I assisted him with this initial funding proposal. Thankfully up to this point HIV/AIDS has been a minor issue in Albania. But it is critically important to properly educate the gay community in Albania on how to prevent HIV/AIDS before it does become a more significant problem.

After this NGO received funding for the project, I took on the role as its Finance Officer for the first year. My responsibilities as Finance Officer centered on preparing the budgets and monthly financial statements and then advising the director about the implications of the NGO’s programming activities. I also advised the director about implementing programming activities. Some of these activities included:

  • Participation at a World AIDS Day event in the capital city, Tirana, with other Albanian organizations working to prevent HIV/AIDS.
  • Participation on an Albanian television talk show about gay and transgender people.
  • Collaboration with an Albanian newspaper to write an article about homosexuality in Albania.

In addition, I collaborated with another American NGO consultant living in Albania to provide capacity building training for this NGO. The training focused on the stages of teams and we identified action items for the NGO to progress from the beginning stage of creating a team. As a result, we developed some formal Operating Policies and Procedures for them.

I advised the director on the proposal he was writing for the second year of funding. Once again the NGO received funding, but the funding level was reduced. Unfortunately, the activities implemented by the NGO had to be severely reduced. In addition, the NGO was required to hire an Albanian as Finance Officer. So my role in the second year was limited to a financial advisor.

At the same time that I was working with this NGO, I worked with some other LGBT PCVs in Albania to create a LGBT Committee. It is a peer group of LGBT volunteers and their supporters. You can refer to the New GLBT PCV Support Group in Albania article from June 2008 for more details about this committee.

Given the limited activity with the gay NGO the second year, I began to do more outreach to the gay community in the capital city Tirana. I met some individuals with another gay organization through the American NGO consultant whom I worked with previously. However, this other gay organization was basically inactive as well, but I learned more about the gay community in Tirana by meeting with them. For example, the code word they use for gay is “communist.” I also learned that the main reason for the two different gay organizations in Tirana. One tended to be an organization for professional, well-educated gay men. The other organization tended to reach out more to gay men on the fringes of society (i.e. transvestites, people with substance abuse issues).

During my outreach to the gay community, I also met an American lesbian couple who live in the capital city. One of the women worked at the US Embassy in Albania. The US Ambassador to Albania (John Withers) became aware of the challenges that this couple faced. So he asked the American lesbian couple to meet with him to discuss recommendations for what he should do as the US Ambassador to Albania to support the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. When this couple told him that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been working with the gay community in Albania, he asked them to invite me to the meeting.

Our initial meeting with the Ambassador was held just two days after the historic US Presidential Election of Barack Obama. Our meeting blew away all my expectations. The Ambassador’s insights as an African American clearly demonstrated his tremendous wisdom. For example, he discussed how the US Civil Rights movement involved more whites than blacks. The key to success in any movement, such as LGBT human rights, is to build coalitions. He recommended reading the book called Black Like Me. It is about a white man who changes the color of his skin around 1960 to learn what it is like to be an African American in the US. Shortly afterwards I read the book and wrote an article about my insights from the book for the Peace Corps Albania Volunteers quarterly newsletter.

During our initial meeting we agreed upon some actions to address the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. The highlights of these actions were for the US Ambassador to include sexual orientation when he speaks about human rights in Albania. In addition, the Ambassador supported conducting some type of roundtable meeting regarding “human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania.” An advisory committee will identify individuals and organizations in Albania who are interested in collaborating on this issue.

Shortly after this meeting, this advisory committee attended the First Albanian Human Rights Debate Conference in Tirana. It was sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN’s declaration of human rights. The topics covered were human rights for women, children, and sexual minorities. It was the first time that a human rights conference in Albania had included the topic of sexual minorities. The Conference began with everyone together as leaders of the Albanian Government and Dutch Embassy spoke about the importance of human rights. And then each topic split out into its own session for a three-hour panel discussion.

During the sexual minorities’ panel discussion, the panel members from several organizations made a very good case for why human rights of LGBT were important. There also was some good discussion with a representative from the police force regarding past reports of how the police had previously treated LGBT people poorly, on occasion with violence. The police force representative agreed to address this issue. One other critical action item identified was to conduct training in schools to improve Albanian society’s understanding and acceptance of LGBT Albanians. Despite the success of the conference, a major problem was that there were no representatives from the Albanian LGBT community at the session because of fear of disclosure.

After the sexual minorities’ session, I spoke with some of the individuals leading it. The moderator of the session was the director from an Albanian NGO called Albanian Human Rights Group. I was very impressed with her commitment to this issue as a straight woman. I shared with her my experience in Peace Corps working with some Albanian gay NGOs plus starting the LGBT Committee for volunteers. I also suggested that the key method to change people’s acceptance to LGBT issues in Albania was to have LGBT people share their stories anonymously (because they feared negative ramifications from disclosure).

Shortly before I completed my Peace Corps service, we had a meeting at the US Embassy with the organizations working on LGBT human rights issues in Albania. Most of the participants at the meeting were individuals whom I had met during the First Albanian Human Rights Debate. A few representatives from the LGBT community in Albania attended as well. The US Ambassador kicked off the meeting by making comments about how important the LGBT human rights issue is on a global basis today.

Then the director from the Albanian Human Rights Group (NGO) informed everyone that she had met with the Albanian Prime Minister the day before. They discussed the anti-discrimination bill that has been proposed to include protections for LGBT as well as others in Albania. The Prime Minister agreed to ensure that the bill gets passed. As we all agreed, the passage of an anti-discrimination bill is important but only the first step towards improving the environment in Albania for LGBT people. There needs to be significant training for the police, and people in the judicial, education, and health care systems to properly enforce the new law.

After the US Ambassador to Albania left the meeting, we continued with a lengthy conversation about possible activities we could implement to support this initiative. But we ran out of time to create a list of specific actions. So the group plans to meet again to develop this planning list. I shared with others my recent experience of providing diversity training for new volunteers and Albanian staff and how we could utilize Peace Corps volunteers around the country to share LGBT educational materials in their communities.

Prior to completing my service in May this year, I introduced the new chairperson for the LGBT Volunteer Committee from Peace Corps Albania to these organizations. Therefore, Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania can continue to collaborate on this important project to improve human rights for LGBT in Albania.

Bill Trunk can be contacted at willyt2000@hotmail.com.

New GLBT PCV Support Group in Albania

A new GLBT Committee for Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania was formed at the end of 2007. Several key steps occurred to begin the new committee. The first step was to have GLBT volunteers serving in Albania identify one another. This process was basically an informal one that occurred over time. The next step was when some of these GLBT volunteers in Albania identified the need and benefit of having a GLBT Committee. At the same time we were very fortunate that the Programming and Training Officer at Peace Corps Albania expressed strong support in forming such a group during individual meetings with some of the GLBT volunteers. As a result, these GLBT volunteers did some research online regarding what other Peace Corps countries were doing to address the unique issues encountered by GLBT volunteers. This research tended to focus on utilizing the resources from this website. The next step was to meet with the Country Director to obtain his support for the new committee.

The Country Director then sent an e-mail communication to all the volunteers in Albania inviting GLBT volunteers to join the committee. One of the most critical aspects of forming the new GLBT Committee was to ensure the confidentiality of its members due to the risks for committee members if individuals in their communities learned of their sexual orientation. As a result, the committee has used a code word for the committee’s name for administrative purposes when working with the Peace Corps Albania staff (such as Volunteer Support Committee). A GLBT Committee e-mail address was also established for volunteers interested in joining the committee to easily facilitate volunteers joining the new committee while maintaining confidentiality.

The committee’s first meeting in October, 2007 focused on agreeing upon the chairperson and the first year objectives for the committee. Here is a summary of the objectives:

  • Provide peer support for existing GLBT volunteers
  • Provide advice for new volunteers about realities in Albania and identify coping strategies
  • Work with Peace Corps staff to provide diversity training for Peace Corps staff and volunteers on GLBT issues
  • Do outreach with GLBT organizations in Albania

Although the GLBT Committee in Albania was formed only six months ago, the team has already been very successful. The GLBT Committee has met each quarter to support one another. Just getting together periodically to share the challenges that we face has been very beneficial to each one of the committee members. The committee has also provided written advice for new GLBT volunteers coming to Albania. But the biggest accomplishment of the committee so far has been related to diversity training. The GLBT Committee collaborated with another American (living in Albania with extensive experience working at a university GLBT Center in the US) to develop recommendations to the Peace Corps Albania staff for the diversity training. All of our recommendations to include the voice of GLBT volunteers in Albania into the diversity training for the first time were incorporated. The most significant aspect of the new diversity training was having one of the committee members “come out” to the staff and new volunteers and share her story of what it is like to be a GLBT volunteer. The feedback from this new diversity training was very positive. In addition, some of the committee members work with GLBT organizations in Albania on secondary projects and have met with other GLBT organizations to identify opportunities to collaborate with the GLBT Committee. One of the committee members is even a Finance Officer for a new GLBT organization in Albania working with HIV prevention and human rights.

Since most of the committee members will be completing their two years of Peace Corps service in the near future, the next step for those remaining on the committee will be recruiting other GLBT volunteers in Albania to join the committee. These new members will be critical to maintaining the momentum of the new committee.

The author can be contacted for additional information about the Albania group at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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