'My prison': Battling trans taboos in conservative Albania

When she returns home, 22-year-old Luana Myrtollari immediately locks the door and draws the curtains, a reflexive gesture that comes from fear. Transgender people find little acceptance in conservative societies like Albania.

"Every time you go out of your house, you face aggression," says Myrtollari. 

"All you want to do is go home, fall asleep and never wake up again because you have lost the will to live." 

Her ground floor studio is secured with iron gates, leading to a small courtyard.  Metal shutters seal her apartment, barely letting any light through. 

"The world is my prison," says Myrtollari, who was pushed away by her family at the age of 14 and forced to take refuge in a young people's home.

After years of isolation, she and others in the transgender community decided to confront taboos in the open for the first time. They have launched a photo exhibition in the capital, Tirana, with stark images of Myrtollari and two of her friends -- Denisa Mneri and Lola Monro -- in stylised poses against the crumbling walls and eerie stairwells of a former prison. 

- 'The most excluded' - 

"We just want to be accepted as we are," says Mneri, a long, blonde wig cascading down her shoulders. 

However, that may take a long time. Mneri and Monro -- not her real name -- attract gaping stares everywhere they go on the opening day of the exhibition. 

"Being trans in Albania means being deprived of even the smallest things, being chased out of a cafe when all you want is to have a coffee," says Altin Hazizaj, head of the Pink Embassy association in Tirana.

"This community is the most discriminated against, the most abused, the most excluded of all." 

For the past 10 years, Albanian law has prohibited discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.  But a report published this month by Pink Embassy suggested that 94 percent of Albanians would refuse to support their children if they came out as gay. And activists say the situation is even worse for transgender people. 

- 'Prisoners of conscience' -Mneri, now 33, says she hid the fact that she felt like a woman from her family for years. Her only wish today is to have surgery to make her face more feminine -- to change the part of her that people notice. 

"My body doesn't bother me," she says. What does bother her is the "physical violence, insults, hateful provocations every time you just want to be yourself". 

Monro, who did not want to use her real name, was unable to finish high school because of bullying by her classmates.  At the age of 26, she still thinks about finishing her high-school education, but a recent assault has once again set her confidence back. 

"In Albania, to survive, you either have to sacrifice your dignity, your integrity, your psychological wellbeing, or fight hard against hate crimes and transphobia," she says.

This struggle to survive made the former Spac prison, north of Tirana, the obvious choice for their photoshoot. It was where communist dictator Enver Hoxha threw his political enemies and Myrtollari sees a clear line between two marginalised communities.

"We too are prisoners of conscience," she says. 

She sees creativity as her best way to escape, writing a play as well as putting on the photo exhibition.

"Art is our only weapon to be visible in a society that rejects us," she says.


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