“Discrimination, hate speech and physical violence discourage young people from coming out,
with some choosing to leave the Balkans entirely”
“How do you walk down the street, scanning everything?”
Azra Causevic sits in a café in central Sarajevo, Bosnia—a city where being gay means prejudice on an everyday basis. With closely cropped hair, dark skinny jeans and a cigarette in hand, she attracts the stares of those taking their afternoon coffee. It is something she is used to. Two years ago, she was one of seven LGBT individuals targeted, chased and physically attacked by a group of fifteen men.
“We made a strategic move to run outside the Presidency,” Azra, who is an activist for the LGBT association Okvir, says. “The police guards could see what was happening on video, but they didn’t come to protect us.” The attack lasted five to seven minutes. Nothing was done.
“Afterwards, the police said they couldn’t get hold of the video material.”
As a young gay activist in the Balkans, Azra is used to authorities turning a blind eye to crimes against the LGBT community. Bosnia only decriminalized homosexuality in 1998, and the first LGBT organization was formally registered in 2004. Neighboring Serbia is more advanced, but only marginally so: homosexuality was decriminalized in 1994, and the first activist organizations founded in the early 90’s.
The prospect of gay marriage, celebrated recently in the U.S., is distant. Discrimination, hate speech and physical violence discourage young people from coming out, with some choosing to leave the Balkans entirely. In certain cases this is necessary for self-protection: Azra fled to Budapest for three weeks following the attack to complete post-trauma training.
The roots of such prejudice lie in recent history. Both Bosnia and Serbia are patriarchal societies still dealing with the legacy of war in the 1990’s—a war that was started on religious and ethnic grounds. With Bosniak Muslims pitted against Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, any kind of difference became an excuse for violence. Predictably, none of these religions had anything positive to say about homosexuality.
Millennials in the Balkans grew up knowing violence and, through a combination of nationalism and war mentality, certain gender norms. Men were seen as providers and protectors; women as victims or saints. Azra, born in 1986, explained that her friends who lost fathers during the war came to view their mothers as saviors of the family. Others would see their fathers leave the house every morning, weapons in hand. “When this is the case, what perception of gender do you have?” she asked. “Can you be gay? Can you be transgender? Can you cry?”
The situation is bad in Sarajevo and Belgrade, but some kind of gay scene exists—albeit deep underground. Predrag Azdejkovic, Director of the LGBT Merlinka Film Festival in Belgrade, explained that gay venues are few in number and only active on the weekends. “Other bars have gardens, but gay bars are small, closed, and very hot.” Despite other European cities such as Barcelona and Paris offering a more gay-friendly and vibrant scene, “the Serbs are often too shy to go there.”
In Sarajevo, gay parties are virtually non-existent. Knowledge of more tolerant bars usually spreads by word of mouth, until the owner puts a stop to the trend. “I go because there’s nowhere else to go,” said young feminist activist Marija Vuletic, in reference to a gay bar that operates on Fridays and Saturdays. “But the owner told my friends they couldn’t kiss there. We don’t even have a friendly bar,” she said.
Just a short drive out of the city, poor education, infrastructure and unemployment are everyday realities, and the LGBT community has no visibility whatsoever. Marija, who grew up in a small town four hours from Sarajevo and came out as a lesbian at the age of fourteen, said that when she realized she was gay she “didn’t even know there were other gay people.”
Today, Marija works as an activist for the CURE foundation in Sarajevo, which promotes gay rights in addition to feminism. Because most children do not have access to laptops, spreading awareness outside the city can be a difficult task for LGBT organizations. One of CURE’s initiatives involves working directly with rural communities.
“When one woman in rural Bosnia says she is a lesbian, that is a huge success,” Marija said. “After training, some women get encouraged to organize something inter-community. You can see the changes in their faces.”
Another of CURE’s recent initiatives revolved around police education on LGBT issues. The story of Azra’s attack is one of many where police are either absent from the narrative or do not bother to act. In 2014, a hate attack in Sarajevo during the Merlinka Film Festival left three people injured. Police had been scheduled to provide security, but never arrived. During the education initiative, Marija served as a “book for policemen” about the LGBT community. “They asked everything about my sexual life—questions like, ‘are you sick?’ ‘How do you have sex?’ Because it was obligatory they couldn’t leave, and they weren’t at all friendly.”
Initiatives like these are difficult to lead, but Marija says a positive change in police attitudes has made members of the gay community feel somewhat safer in recent years. Many police stations now feature signs declaring their duty to protect all citizens of the state, including LGBT people. Another successful tactic has been through public art: Azra directed a project where knitted scarves were tied around a tree in central Sarajevo. Rather than being removed immediately, some still remain.
Even with these improvements, Marija still understands there are limits to what can currently be achieved in Sarajevo. She was one of several people interviewed to say that holding hands with someone of the same gender in the street, for example, will probably result in physical violence from other civilians. “We are not going to host Pride Parades here—we know where we live,” she said. “Change is going to come from us collaborating with the state. But I don’t see that happening for a long time.”
In Belgrade, collaboration with the Serbian state is made more difficult by the fact that LGBT groups can barely cooperate with each other. Predrag detailed a “huge crisis” in the Serbian LGBT NGO sector, with previously generous donors cutting budgets because of a lack of visible results and organizations beginning to work for “donors, not for the population.” The search for new sources of funding has given rise to messy internal politics and backstabbing among the LGBT activist community—what Ivana Randelovic, Programme Officer for Civil Rights Defenders in Serbia, called a “fight of egos” between those leading organizations. Three years ago, a lesbian organization was funded to produce an annual report on LGBT rights in the region, despite the fact Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) was known to be producing one. The report was delivered to libraries one week early with the goal of harming the GSA.
The series of disputes between older activists, mainly from the founding generation of LGBT activism in the Balkans, complicates what was already a daunting prospect for youth hoping to enter the field. Salaries are now so low that in some cases, older activists oppress youth for fear of further dilution of funds. In Serbia the number of young people entering LGBT activism has stagnated, despite statistics indicating a growing number of individuals coming out. In addition to the prospect of physical violence, salaries for LGBT activists are at best low, and often non-existent. All of the activists at Okvir back in Sarajevo, where Azra works, have other jobs: Azra makes money in web design, while others work in restaurants. Until they received financial support this year from a collection of foreign Embassies and foundations, the team at Okvir had accepted that they couldn’t support themselves working in the field of LGBT activism. “It was a very hard lesson to learn: that we needed to live as well,” Azra said.
For Predrag, the unprofessionalism of LGBT activists in Belgrade has made him somewhat ashamed of his association with the scene. He had solemn advice for the younger generation, “You will be branded, and you cannot change that. You will not find another job with your gay CV. And this is why young people will not become activists.”
Unsurprisingly, the international community has things to say about the dismal LGBT climate in the Balkans. Respect for gay rights is a legal criterion for EU accession, with the European Commission (EC) producing annual progress reports on the situation for LGBT communities in potential member states. The most recent report for Bosnia and Herzegovina was bleak, expressing concern over widespread hate speech and crimes, threats, harassment and discrimination.
In preparing these reports, the EC pays special attention to Gay Pride Marches—so much so, in fact, that successful Prides have come to be regarded almost as EU “entry tickets.” This push from the EU has facilitated the hosting of Prides in the region, particularly by securing the go-ahead from pro-accession politicians. But because such validation comes from the desire for EU membership as opposed to a genuine enthusiasm for long-term change, there is skepticism over whether European integration will actually change Serbian attitudes toward the LGBT community.
“We have to change things because of our citizens, not because of the E.U.,” Jouanka Todorovic of Labris, Belgrade’s second oldest LGBT organization, said. “We need the EU to push things, but ultimately we must do things for ourselves.” According to Todorovic, the time to make changes to family and hate crime laws is now. “Once you enter the EU, no one cares,” she added. Italy, for example, has been a member state of the EU for almost 60 years, but still does not legally recognize same-sex couples.
After the attack in 2013, Azra learned about things she should not have had to: trauma management, healing techniques, the need to always engage security at LGBT events. More broadly, she learned that with visibility comes a cost. Despite her vulnerability as a public LGBT activist and the difficulty in making a living from such work, Azra has no plans to quit.
“It’s not our profession,” she says. “It’s a human duty to protest injustice. It’s your own background that pushes you. If you witness injustice from the age of six, you will react the rest of your life.”
One of the ideas realized by Okvir in its first four years of operation was the installation of a giant closet in central Sarajevo. The idea was to embrace all victims: friends, members of the LGBT community, victims of different kinds of hate and discrimination. People were encouraged to literally step out of the closet, even to come out about war crimes. As Azra says, in the Balkans, “everybody is coming out about something.”
Jasmine Horsey is a senior in Silliman majoring in English. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.