Ambassador’s Remarks at the IDAHOT Roundtable, May 17, 2016

Good afternoon, Chairman Hayredini, Ombudsperson Jashari, leaders of Kosovo’s LGBTI community, honored guests.  Thank you for inviting me to join you in marking this special day.

I’m so happy I was able to join you earlier in the fantastic IDAHOT march, and I am proud our Embassy sponsored the after-march performance of the Mary McBride Band.  As President Obama said on June 26th last year when our Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage equality:  “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments; [but he added] then sometimes, there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”  I am convinced that today’s IDAHOT, including tonight’s lighting of the government building in the LGBTI rainbow colors, is proof of Kosovo’s profoundly positive evolution of  views towards your Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community.

While we Americans are proud we have full equality in our marriages, in our military, and in our State Department – including at our Embassy where it’s frankly no longer a big deal to be a gay or lesbian officer, we also have to keep our own civil rights victories in context.  As the Embassy-sponsored documentary about the LGBTI civil rights movement in the U.S., which aired last Thursday on K-TV, showed, we still have mountains to climb.  Sadly, there are still places in the U.S. where coming out is difficult, or even dangerous.

Nevertheless, we can hope in our journey towards equality, to inspire your own journey.  I am proud our USAID Mission has funded all three of Kosovo’s LGBTI NGOs — CEL, CSGD, and Qesh — to build awareness, train activists, and fight discrimination, including through the government’s first action plan to promote LGBTI rights.  This work is vital.  A survey we conducted last year shows Kosovo has some of the lowest levels of acceptance of the LGBTI community in the region.  In fact, 81 percent of respondents from Kosovo’s LGBTI community said they have been exposed to psychological or physical abuse due to their sexual orientation or gender identity – the highest percentage in the Balkans.  Let me be clear to all LGBTI persons, you are not alone!  History is on your side.  Kosovo’s progressive laws on gender equality and anti-discrimination are on your side.  The police and government are on your side.  And we are on your side.  You have our unwavering support and respect.  In fact, the LGBTI flag is flying right now over our Embassy and at my residence.

How long Kosovo’s road will be towards full equality is a question for your society.  What we have learned from our struggle is that being gay is being normal, as the World Health Organization noted 26 years ago today.  The science is clear, your sexuality and your gender identity are part of your make up before you are born.  Gays and lesbians exist and have existed in all societies; it is just a question of society’s willingness to recognize our brothers and sisters and to respect them for who they are.

Therefore, I applaud everyone in Kosovo who sees and respects others, regardless of who they are.  I also commend everyone in Kosovo who has made the difficult step to come out.  Our experience is that the more straight persons get to know LGBTI persons, the more understanding, peaceful, and even wealthy the society becomes!

And finally, to anyone not yet ready to accept someone else’s sexuality or gender identity, I ask you to recall a time when you have experienced some kind of discrimination.  The history of this country is a tumultuous one, with a sad experience of violence, war, and hatred, and the discrimination that accompanies it.  Remember the relief that came from being able to breathe freely, from finally being considered a full citizen and an equal person?   Ask yourself why you would deny that to your brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters.

The United States of America stands with you in Kosovo on this journey to equality, and I am honored to be here today.  Hvala mnogo and Falemenderit shumë.