TIRANA Albania's homosexuals won more than they had hoped for after the government said it planned to allow same-sex marriages despite opposition from religious leaders and politicians.
The proposal put forward by Prime Minister Sali Berisha on Thursday faces a tough fight in parliament.
But should he make good on his plans, Albania would join European Union members The Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain in giving gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples and would be the first country in the Balkans to do so.
"This is not only a step to be taken for European integration, but primarily for the emancipation of the Albanian society," the Alliance against Discrimination of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) said Friday.
"We are proud that our country is joining so many others in embracing equality and rejecting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," it added.
As candidates for EU membership, all Balkan nations will eventually have to pass laws protecting sexual minorities from discrimination as part of the accession process, but not necessarily approve gay marriages.
Almost two decades after communism fell, Albanian homosexuals still keep their sex lives secret to shield themselves from the opprobrium of a macho-minded society.
An Albanian lesbian speaking on behalf of the alliance said the proposal for same-sex marriages took their group by surprise as they had lobbied only for a law against discrimination in society and the workplace.
"If you look at our society, it (the prime minister's proposal) looks a bit surreal, but we welcome it. The moment will come when we shall have the courage (to marry)," an Albanian lesbian calling herself Ira told Reuters. "Someone will break the ice."
She said the law against discrimination would help homosexuals that were fired from their jobs and could not complain.
Leaders of Albania's Muslim majority and Christian Orthodox and Catholic communities condemned the idea of same-sex marriage as a sin, and some opposition politicians accused Berisha of using the issue to draw attention away from their allegations that a June election was rigged.
"The approval of this law would destroy the values of the Albanian family and cause moral perversion," said Sajmir Rusheku, the deputy chairman of the Albanian Muslim community.
Sabri Godo, a Berisha ally and one of the Balkan nation's elder statesmen, said he thought Albania should not have taken such a giant leap ahead of other European Union countries.
"Let's try to overtake EU countries in meeting the conditions that prevent us from becoming an EU member, like law and order, border security... This could have waited. It looks more like a joke than a serious thing," Godo said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)