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No freedom for the LGBTQI+ community

Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro abolished the crime of consensual homosexual relations between adults in 1977. The other ex-Yugoslav countries and Albania have done so in the 90’s. However, nowadays LGBTQI+ (which stands for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans, questioning, intersex and more), are still far from enjoying the same rights as the rest of the population.

Jovan Ulićević is a trans activist from Podgorica, Montenegro, passionate about human rights and gender equality. Marija Vuletić from Sarajevo, Bosnia, would like to see the day when holding her girlfriend’s hand would not be a political act anymore. Bekim Asani from Tetovo, Macedonia, consider his personal mission to be to change society for the better, for the good of LGBT people and for the good of all.

Balkanoscope: Tell us about yourself, what do you want people to know about you?

Jovan Ulićević: It is a very complicated question.  I am mostly a local boy from Podgorica. I was also a biologist but my activism is taking too much of my time now. I think it represents the biggest part of my identity. My family is here, my friends. Podgorica is a small town in which we all know each other and staying here as a trans activist when young people are massively leaving, was a defining political act for me.

Marija Vuletić: I was born and raised in Sarajevo. My father’s side comes from Montenegro so I have some of that as well in me. I am a feminist, an activist, a lesbian, a translator, a Crossfit athlete, and a runner. I think I am a good friend and daughter… Those are a bunch of my identities into one place. Plain and simple, I am a woman from Bosnia who has been working in activism for almost a decade. I am not the kind of person who says “Hi I’m a lesbian, I’m Marija”. I don’t like doing that. I’m proud to be a lesbian, but it’s my privacy and I would like to talk about something else. Like what are my interests? Am I a good translator? Why do I like running? Not everything has to be about my lesbian identity. Like nobody goes to you and ask “are you maybe straight?”!

Bekim Asani: I was born and raised in Tetovo, a city with a lot of cultures and identities, where a conflict happened in 2001. It’s a place with a lot of problems, but also with a lot of people with smart ideas. I am happy and proud to live in Tetovo because I see it as my life mission to change things for everyone here, not only for LGBT people. I am also proud of my few identities: Albanian of Macedonia, Muslim, gay, adopted child… In my work, I try to bring them together because in such a society people belong to a few identities, not just one. And in most of the case, people do not feel only one kind of discrimination but several.

Balkanoscope: When did you realize that you did not fit in the traditional, straight, patriarchal society?

JU: When school started. Before that, the differences between boys and girls are not so visible. The strict division starts at school and from that moment I started to resist any kind of expectation. In 2015 I had surgery (for sex reassignment, ndlr.) and it was a breaking point. I thought it was just going to be technical but it was more than that. After the surgery, I could get a new ID and I even started to experience male privilege in this patriarchal society and how people perceive you when you are a trans man who is passing very well as a man. That’s why I found it very important to be loud and open about my trans identity because I understood that my looks are masking my identity and I don’t want that.

MV: In high school. I realized that I had a problem with people, men generally, who thought less of women just because they are women. When I was 15, I fell in love for the first time, with a girl, and at the same time, my best friend outed herself to me so we had this wonderful support system for one another during those years. My story is a positive one. I do experience discrimination on a high level, for instance, I cannot marry my girlfriend, but when I came out to everybody including my teachers, nobody confronted me. They probably talked behind my back but nothing to my face. Except this one guy who I found out was secretly in love with me. Once he told me: “you’re a lesbian because you cannot find a boyfriend”. I said: “okay, but I know I can always find you”. He was so embarrassed, it was funny and sad at the same time.

BA: I always felt different. I always had to argue about something, I always used to be the rebel in the family. I became more aware when I was 16 or 17 as I was not attracted to girls like all my friends, they were yelling at girls, paying compliments… I stayed quiet. But maybe that was my feminist part, I was against people looking at girls as sexual objects. In some ways, I was always out with my closest friends… I was lucky to have those open-minded friends around supporting me. The problems started when I became an activist.

Balkanoscope: When did your activism start and how has it affected your life?

JU: It started in 2011, basically when I came out. We started to advocate for the implementation of the law on health insurance that was adopted in 2012. It allows for 80% of the cost of transition to be covered by the state health insurance. That’s how trans rights started here. I started in a shy way to advocate for that law but I empowered myself and became more visible after my transition because I could dedicate myself more to it. I am one of the founders of Queer Montenegro, of the Trans Network Balkan and eventually in 2016 of Spectra, the first trans organization in Montenegro. Right now for me, it is pretty cool. With my visibility came a circle of protection. Before that, I experienced a lot of violence, mostly psychological and verbal. Now it is rare and only from some people in this town.

MV: When I was 17 I went to see an exhibition in Sarajevo, kind of by accident, about women’s body. I was sitting outside, smoking a cigarette and this one lady approached me and said: “Hey, do you want to stay for a workshop?” It was so strange because people in Bosnia don’t do that, you only meet somebody through somebody else’s introduction. The woman was Lepa Mladjenovic, she is a legend of the movement in the ex-Yugoslav region. Every time I tell this story I get goosebumps. I stayed there for three days, it was Pitchwise, the annual festival of women’s art and activism in Sarajevo, organized by the Foundation Cure (which means “girls” in Bosnian). It’s a feminist organization. It was the first time that I found a space where I could say that I am a lesbian and nobody questioned anything. It was an amazing safe space and I felt that I finally belonged somewhere. Then, in 2010, I came here, to Belgrade and I met lesbian women from outside of Sarajevo for the first time. I was almost 20. It was the first Belgrade pride, it was horrible and violent, very scary for me. But it was also empowering. I met some of my close friends there. After that everything came into place. I met the whole team of Cure and I went to work with them. When you promote women’s rights it’s let’s say easier in the sense that if I say I am a feminist people are not gonna be violent towards me. They are going to question me, some will get mad, but they are not gonna be as violent as when I say that I am a lesbian, that I defend LGBTI rights and my gay friends.

BA: We used to have a secret place to gather between gay people and watch movies and have parties. In 2012 we decided to register LGBT United, a place where people from all background, religions, nationalities, can gather. In 2013 the community became more visible, I started to go on TV, to give interviews, and that’s when threats, hate speech and attacks started. That year I was kidnapped for six hours by a group of people. They wanted to scare me, ask who else was with me and to know if we were getting millions of euros for being LGBT… After that, I went into depression because it was so bad. But after a few months, I got back on my feet and was stronger and more active. In 2015 I was a speaker at the Amsterdam Pride. There were floods in Tetovo and several people died. I was accused of being responsible for the flooding as if it was God’s punishment because of LGBT people. I went into depression again, I had to hide… But again, I came back and we continued stronger. And this year, we wanted to have a queen iftar and I received so many threats, even with my address, I had to flee Tetovo with my family and we closed the office for a month.

Balkanoscope: According to the Outspoken project by UNDP, in Montenegro, 51% of LGBTI people have been psychologically or verbally harassed by their family, friends, colleagues or others. In Bosnia, only 18% of them say they find support in their family. What is life like for LGBTQI+ people in your country?

JU: It is harder for trans women for instance because it is unforgivable in our society for a man to want to be a woman. In that sense, feminine lesbians and bisexual are more accepted than women who do not conform to the masculine culture in their behavior and looks. It is a lot about attitude and appearance. In the past years, the community has become stronger, but we have experienced more violence this year. We are now having an open debate about same-sex partnership and abortion rights and it is making the atmosphere more tensed. A gay man, a fashion designer, was beaten up in the city center which is rare. One lesbian girl was harassed by a man, he destroyed her car and revealed her sexual orientation to her family. A trans woman was followed in the street and physically attacked, she managed to run to a supermarket where she knew there were cameras and the man kept hitting her. Nobody reacted but one guy, until he found out she was “a guy” and then he told her attacker to keep going.

MV: Going to pride was the first time I saw upfront hatred towards us. I realized that my existence, the sole fact that the LGBT community exists, is a political act. Now I see the discriminations everywhere. We have to lobby for laws, we have to get freedom of assembly, partnership, we have to talk about employment, healthcare, a bunch of things that are currently not happening. For instance, when you go to the doctor in the public healthcare system for which you pay with your taxes, the gynecologist just throws you out if you say you are a lesbian. That’s discrimination 101, it is ridiculous. And sexual orientation is even easier than gender identity. A trans person has to out herself or himself constantly to explain why the names are different on their ID. And the state does not cover any part of sex reassignment surgery. Even when there are laws against discrimination, the people in charge of implementing them, the judiciary system, the prosecutors, the police, are not doing anything. Now we are educating them regarding our rights, one by one.

BA: 99,99% of them live a double life. They hide even from their parents. People are scared to support us because they can be targeted, threatened… People can lose their job for being LGBT. But I believe that them coming here to our center has done a lot for education. And we have also done a lot for the education of society, to explain that what we want is not just gay marriage and adopting babies. That’s not what we want, at least not for now. It’s about our freedom.

Balkanoscope: Is there space for LGBTQI+ people in public?

JU: There are some bars where we know we can go, they are not openly gay-friendly but we know there are not against us. Some members of the community are outed and we go to a few places, but there is no guarantee of safety. Just recently a man came a punch one guy who was sitting with two girls who were kissing. The drop-in center (where Jovan works, ndlr.) is the only place that guarantees safety. It was opened initially to do prevention against HIV but it developed into space where we can gather, we give for instance condoms, we have psychological support, workshops, parties…

MV: We don’t have a cohesive community, everything is centralized in Sarajevo which means other cities do not have any places to meet and educate themselves. There are a couple of friendly places in Sarajevo where I can go with my girlfriend. But you can never know who you are going to come across, who will be violent, or rude. Bosnia is not a safe place to hold your partner’s hand.

BA: We do not have the freedom to move around, to express who we love, to be out at work, at school. This is what we need and miss. People don’t understand when I tell them I cannot walk home because I don’t know if someone will attack me, throw stones at me… But we have had two public events. One was for the International day against homophobia and transphobia in the city center with a march, a lot of people participated and also several members of the community, we had flags… Also in 2017, we had for the first time the Tetovo Pride weekend, three day event at the city gallery and we were so happy because at the opening we were scared nobody would show up but 70 did.

Balkanoscope: Why is it so hard for society to accept LGBT people?

JU: There are several factors causing violence, for instance, drug abuse and in Podgorica for some years now there are a lot more young people using them, because of the lack of perspective and the low prices. This kind of thing is also causing uncontrollable and unpredictable behavior in some people. I personally believe that homophobia and transphobia would not be so strong if the economy was better. The situation is worsening and people are expressing their frustration violently towards different people. Add patriarchy and masculine culture… People still think it is not normal, especially when they don’t know anyone in the community. There is a lack of knowledge about it. But I see more and more people educated. We have only existed for ten years as a movement, it’s not much.

JU: People are scared of what they don’t know and when you are scared, you tend to defend yourself. I think that BiH society is very patriarchal and traditional, religion is very widespread in BiH and people do not want to accept anything different and „strange“ whatsoever. People are used to patriarchal norms, men being the center of power and everything that interferes with that is something the society is not willing to accept.

BA: Our society is so connected with religion, both Islam and Christianity and it is so patriarchal. We have been living for ten years under a regime controlling the media and every time they would mention LGBT people it would be in a bad way, they would never show our real problems and that brought more hate on us. And for the general population, they don’t know. And it is easier to hate than to meet somebody. But things are moving. For instance one of the people threatening me wrote to me later that he made a mistake, that he was angry. His parents made him apologize. Also for International day against homophobia and transphobia last year, I saw half of my friends on Facebook showed support before they were too scared to do it.

Balkanoscope: Kosovo celebrated its first official Pride in 2017. In Serbia, the memory of the violence of 2001 still looms over every new Pride taking place since 2010. It is still impossible in Bosnia. This moment is a specific opportunity to talk about LGBT rights but also for the authorities, to show themselves in a better light once a year. How do you feel about it?

JU: It is some sort of trade. The government will use it for EU integration but I am also fond of it because it is strengthening the community, it’s reclaiming space and “pride”. “Pride” is very rooted in Montenegrin culture, that’s why we had a Pride with the slogan “proud Montenegro” and with a moustache as a logo. It means reclaiming your space, your culture, your identity, the traditional norms. We are having our 6th Pride in September 2018 and we are working to make it part of the city’s life.

MV: It is a must for me. It is important because Pride in Sarajevo, in Podgorica, in Belgrade, is not a celebration but a protest. We have not been allowed to have a public assembly for the rights of marginalized groups, specifically LGBTI, in the past. As citizens of Bosnia, as taxpayers, we should be allowed to. LGBTI people have no rights in any sphere of their life and people need to know that there is a big group of people who are denied their basic human rights. We need to be more visible, especially because people outside of Sarajevo, in small villages, do not know what LGBTI are and certainly there are persons in those villages who think they are the only ones.

BA: It is a political event here, not a party. This is not France or the Netherlands, this is Macedonia. When we want to organize the Pride we have to ask the government for what we want and need and make demands through the Pride. I support the Pride because we need it to send our message. Once we have a strong and empowered community, the Pride can be a party.

Balkanoscope: Do you see improvement? What do you think are the priorities?

JU: It is definitely going better but this is not a linear progression. We are collaborating very well with the institutions, the police, the government… Discriminations still happen, though. Priorities for trans people would be gender recognition based on self-determination, but I don’t think there is a chance for that. The authorities will only adopt changes required by EU and international laws, so a medical diagnosis will still be required. The authorities are always bragging about being leaders in the region but I don’t want to be more optimistic than I have reasons to be.

MV: It is hard to pick a priority, that’s a selfish choice. Pride is one. Getting all the legal framework for LGBTI rights is another. Enhancing the quality of life of LGBTI also. Once in an interview, a woman asked me what would be the perfect situation: it would be that I don’t have to speak about it. Just to have the same things as straight people. Things are going to move, I am sure. But it is such a slow process. I am not sure I will be alive when things change but it’s okay, we are aware of that.

BA: The law on discrimination is definitely the priority. We also need to focus more on explaining to people what is in the law and how they can report discriminations. And we need to inform the institutions and the general population. For the moment very few cases are being reported because people are scared and they don’t trust the institutions. But we have made a lot of progress just in the six months since the new government took over. Institutions are more aware that they need to protect us. There is hope and that is why I have never left the country despite everything that has happened to me.

Interviewed by Marion Dautry

Joint initiative of
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Jovan Ulicevic; © Balkanoscope
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Bekim Asani © Balkanoscope
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Marija Vuletic © Balkanoscope
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Bekim Asani © Balkanoscope
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Marija Vuletic © Balkanoscope
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Jovan Ulicevic; © Balkanoscope
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