‘We belong’: Muslim Kosovo’s first LGBTQ bar is booming

With just 1.8 million people, Kosovo has seen its arts and culture scene blossom, including the embrace by many of its LGBTQ community.

As the sun rises over Pristina, the call to prayer echoes through the Kosovo capital just as the patrons of its only LGBTQ bar wrap up a night of partying.

Once a bastion of traditional values, Muslim-majority Kosovo has experienced a massive opening in the years since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.

With just 1.8 million people, Kosovo has seen its arts and culture scene blossom, including the embrace by many of its LGBTQ community.

“It is a good thing as it shows that we can live together in the same place. You with your thoughts, me with mine and only five minutes away from each other,” said Erblin Nushi, a 31-year-old filmmaker and occasional drag performer at the Bubble pub.

Over 90 percent of Kosovo’s population are Muslims, with the vast majority of its ethnic Albanians practising a moderate form of Islam.

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“It is everyone’s right to live their own life in their own way,” said Kaltrina Zeneli, a 28-year-old actress, who began to more deeply embrace Islam three years ago and now wears a hijab.

“As Muslims, we have absolutely no right to interfere with what someone is doing,” she added.

The queer community has flocked to the Bubble pub to mingle, watch drag performances and dance since it opened its doors in April.

It is there that Nushi performs as his drag persona Adelina Rose, sporting a red lace corset and high heels along with a thick layer of makeup.

“It is important not to impose our ways of life on each other,” Nushi told AFP.

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‘We are here’

But the spirit of tolerance was not always so prevalent in Kosovo.

Before its declaration of independence, Kosovo was wracked by perennial unrest following its devastating war with Serbia in the late 1990s, which left around 13,000 dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Members of the queer community were largely shunned and sometimes violently attacked, forcing many to congregate near police stations to avoid harassment.

But as civil society began to flourish after the war, so did the tolerance for new ideas and ways of living.

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“None of the religious and non-religious minorities in Kosovo really have any reason to feel unsafe in our society,” said Imam Labinot Maliqi, the executive director of the Kosovar Center for Peace.

The opening of Bubble pub this year has been a landmark moment for the queer community, after years of hosting underground parties and social events in secret.

“The fact that Bubble exists in the centre of Pristina has made a statement in itself: we are here and we belong to the Kosovar society,” said the bar’s owner and LGBTQ activist Lendi Mustafa, who was also one of the first people to come out as transgender in Kosovo.

The bar has already proven to be a hit, with tables regularly packed amid a full calendar of social events.

But while the crowds at the Bubble pub point to a new openness, there are still many hurdles for Kosovo’s LGBTQ community.

In 2022, parliament rejected a draft law to allow same-sex couples to form civil partnerships, crushing hopes that Kosovo would become the first Muslim-majority country to recognise same-sex unions.

Ahead of the vote, Muslim, Jewish, evangelical and Catholic leaders panned the proposed legislation, insisting in a joint declaration on the need to uphold “family values”.

While there has been progress in opening some space for the queer community, it “does not mean that the situation is ideal”, said Nushi.

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“There are always people who want us to live their lives.”

Marigona Shabiu from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights watchdog agrees, saying that there was still a lack of political will for bigger change.

“We have a lot of politicians in Kosovo unfortunately who are against people being able to freely express their gender identity,” said Shabiu.

“Kosovo is a good example on paper… when it comes to the implementation it is not the best.”

– By: © Agence France-Presse

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