Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) called the efforts of Mindy R. Michels and Melissa E. Schraibman to help set up "a vibrant and active lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Albania where none had existed." The women were honored by the U.S. State Department as two of this year's six winners of the Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Overseas.
Schraibman, a foreign service employee, and her partner Michels helped a small group of activists in the Albanian capitol Tirana to establish the Alliance Against LGBT Discrimination (Aleanca Kunder Diskriminimit LGBT). According to AAFSW, the two met weekly with the Alliance "and provided support, inspiration and skills development." They organized strategic planning sessions, and trained the leadership team in "grant writing, membership recruitment, press strategies, organizational development, and grassroots activism."
Michels also helped the group draft the anti-discrimination law that was passed unanimously by the Albanian government earlier this year, banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, among other categories. The Alliance has done more than push for legislative change, however. The group has weekly discussion groups and social events, regular grassroots actions, and a "very active" Facebook group with over 1100 [now 1200] members, according to AAFSW, and has created "a social and activist network that transformed the lives of the people it reached." Here's a slideshow of some of the group's activities, including one photo of former U.S. Ambassador to Albania John Withers II, with an Alliance t-shirt at a reception he held for the LGBT community.
Kudos to Michels and Schraibman -- but also kudos to the State Department for recognizing their efforts in helping to spread LGBT equality around the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of course, has a strong record of supporting LGBT rights. She has taken a firm stand on human rights abuses against LGBT people in Uganda, expanded employee benefits to same-sex partners of State Department employees before they were standard throughout the government, and made one of the first "It Gets Better" videos of any federal official, even the president.
It's good to know, however, that the State Department's support of LGBT rights goes beyond the big, sweeping actions from the top and extends down to support for foreign service employees on the ground, working with local grassroots organizations to create change community by community.