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Living with Prajd: LGBTQ Activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Living with Prajd: LGBTQ Activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina

1 Comment 🕔08.May 2014

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

Gay Pride Sarajevo.

by Alex Cooper

“I want to be a part of all the major [LGBTQ] events in the region too, regarding pride parades, and stuff like that, because that kinda makes me feel alive, and makes me feel like it is all worth it.”[1]

Introduction

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (hereafter referred to as LGBTQ) people in Bosnia-Herzegovina (hereafter referred to as Bosnia) often face discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Anti-LGBTQ attitudes permeate the society, resulting in discrimination against these individuals in almost all realms of life. For those involved in LGBTQ activism in Bosnia, this discrimination is even likely to lead to threats and actual instances of violence against them because of their visibility not only as LGBTQ but also as activists. This article discusses the current situation of LGBTQ people in Bosnia, with a specific focus on those involved in organizing and activism.[2] I draw on participant observation in Sarajevo, where I lived and worked with Sarajevan LGBTQ activists in 2013, and on my continued observations and research with LGBTQ organizations and activists in the region.

 

The Current Situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Currently in Bosnia, there are only a handful of organizations that actively work on LGBTQ rights. The most prominent organizations working on these issues are the Sarajevo Open Centre, the CURE Foundation, and Okvir.[3] For my research, I have spoken to individuals associated with each of these organizations who identified as LGBTQ activists. Only in recent years have these organizations emerged to address LGBTQ rights issues following the shuttering of Bosnia’s first LGBTQ organization. These organizations and the people who have associated with them in the past have been targets of anti-LGBTQ harassment and violence.

Activists who are involved with the LGBTQ organization in Bosnia are at risk for mental and physical harm. The first LGBTQ organization in the country, Organization Q, was founded in 2002 and worked to develop a strong community involvement aspect of the LGBTQ movement in the region, as well as create listservs and online forums dedicated to providing LGBTQ individuals with a safe space to communicate. In 2008, Organization Q organized the Sarajevo Queer Festival, an event with art exhibitions, film screenings, and discussions of LGBTQ topics. The organizers saw the three-day long event as potential catalyst that would begin a serious dialogue about LGBTQ issues in Bosnia. On the day of the event, anti-LGBTQ protesters gathered in front of the festival’s location and attacked the festival.[4] Several people were injured, and the activists involved faced psychological trauma. The violence in 2008 eventually led Organization Q to suspend operations, and two of the founding activists moved to the United States.

Recently, another queer festival in Sarajevo was also attacked. The Sarajevo Open Centre organized the Merlinka film festival in Sarajevo for the second time in the city. Originally held in Belgrade, Serbia, the international film festival was named in memory of ‘Merlinka’ Vjeran Mladinović, a well-known transgender actress from Belgrade.[5] The festival was to last from January 31 to February 2, 2014, with 30 film screenings, ranging from short to featured length films, all relating to topics around LGBTQ issues. However, on February 1, a dozen assailants attacked the festival during a panel discussion on transsexual issues. An organizer and two panelists were injured. As a result, the organization canceled the planned events for the day. The events for February 2 went on as scheduled with a larger turnout of about 200 people.[6]

Cooper image 1These attacks are just two examples of the many violent attacks aimed at the LGBTQ community in Bosnia. Bosnia has never held a Pride Parade and the country’s authorities do not strongly support the LGBTQ community. Indeed, because of lack of police protection for LGBTQ people, some activists in the country prioritize advocating for anti-discrimination policies and increasing penalization of hate crimes over organizing events like Pride. Several of my informants have been targets of violence. However, because prosecutions are rare due to a system that still harbors anti-LGBTQ attitudes, most of their attackers have never been arrested or tried. Moreover, LGBTQ people generally do not report episodes of anti-gay violence because of perceived police prejudice. For example, at the Merlinka festival, police were informed of threats made by individuals through Facebook on the morning of the attack. A program coordinator at the Sarajevo Open Centre informed me that the organization contacted the police and arranged for the police to be at the venue at 2:30 p.m. for an event on transgender issues that was set to begin at 3:00 p.m. Yet, despite prior knowledge of the threats, the police arrived after the attacks.  I was told by the program coordinator that the assailants came in around 3:20 p.m., but left before the police arrived shortly before 3:30 p.m. The program coordinator also told me that the police failed to adequately protect those who attended the event, and that the Sarajevo Open Centre is now investigating why the police, despite their promises, were not present prior to the start of the event. Amnesty International condemned the violence and urged the police to investigate the ‘lack of response’, [7] since the police have made no arrests in the attacks so far. This is the environment in which Bosnian[8] LGBTQ activists work and live.

 

Bosnian LGBTQ Activists

I now turn my attention to the activists themselves and how they work under such circumstances. According to the activists with whom I spoke, their initial foray into working on these issues often occurred by happenstance. One activist said that he stepped into an activist role because he saw a need for activist projects in Bosnia. He decided to form a group to work on LGBTQ-rights issues because he felt that Bosnia needed such a group given the anti-LGBTQ attitudes of many in the country. Another told me that she became involved with LGBTQ activism through her involvement in feminist projects. Though she had been ‘out’ for several years, it was only through working on these projects that she became an activist and became aware of the large inequalities faced by LGBTQ people in Bosnia. For her, the activists already working on these issues inspired her. For others, becoming an activist seemed like a mechanism to cope with the issues they faced within Bosnian society. Several activists stated that they became organizing out of sense of necessity. The majority of these activists identify as LGBTQ, so they see their involvement as a way of improving their positions within Bosnian society and tackling the discrimination they face.  Further, they see their work as positively contributing to the creation of a more inclusive, accepting Bosnian society and paving the way for future generations to create such an open society.

These activists come from different perspectives, ideologies, and backgrounds. Thus, their views on their work are varied. One activist I spoke with asserted the need to be ‘professional’ in activism. He clarified that he did not mean that activism needed to be done exclusively within organizations or through the political system, but that it needs to have some structured component to it. Another activist had a similar opinion, stating, “You need to go into [the system] to [subvert] and break the system.” Both of these activists relayed to me the need to use policy and legal means to obtain acceptance of LGBTQ Bosnians. A third activist focused more on the personal interactions between him and fellow LGBTQ people. He told me, “You don’t need to be on state television; it’s also small things that happen in everyday places.” The same activist also stated, “You can’t just give an end product to someone.” By this he meant that LGBTQ people in Bosnia need other forms of support besides those found through adoption of policies by the police or government. For him, his activism was about personal relationships with LGBTQ individuals, with a strong focus on providing emotional support to those who face discrimination.

This focus on emotional and psychological support is reinforced when the activists themselves are injured in their work, and naturally they are aware of the danger they face when participating in high-risk activism. The majority of my informants mentioned expressed some degree of fear for being LGBTQ in Bosnia, especially since the violent 2008 attacks. Several of those I spoke to were attacked in the past and almost everyone knew someone who had been attacked. Most of them spoke about the bravery necessary in this line of work and the importance of protecting one another. Because of the dangers and stress associated with their activism, they often face burnout – that is, they eventually abandon the effort because of its emotional and psychological toll. Though most activists I spoke with discussed a plan to continue their work, several stated that they felt that they would eventually stop. For example, one individual explained that he wanted to continue the work being done, but could not see himself working on LGBTQ rights forever.

Cooper image 2


Conclusion

These activists face difficulties in their work that go beyond common, daily stressors. Anti-LGBTQ people in their country target these individuals because of their social views and perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. This can happen through media attacks, public outings, and even violent, physical assaults. The issues faced by these LGBTQ activists are similar to other LGBTQ activists working in the region. In the former Yugoslavia, anti-LGBTQ attitudes flow similarly through the population. This is not to say that each country in the region sees the same anti-LGBTQ attitudes manifest in the same way. In Croatia, for instance, Pride parades have occurred in recent years without heavy violence.[9] Serbia’s government, on the other hand, has consistently banned Belgrade Pride for the past few years. Before that, major violence erupted in the two Belgrade Pride parades that were organized in 2001 and 2010. The former Yugoslav states of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo also have similar attitudes. Montegnegro successfully organized a Pride parade in 2013. The parade was also attacked, but police were able to protect the marchers.[10] Slovenia seems to be the most progressive in terms of LGBTQ rights.

We see a common thread of anti-LGBTQ attitudes throughout the former Yugoslavia, as well as in other post-socialist European countries. However, as these former Yugoslav states start on the path to European Union (EU) accession – Croatia and Slovenia are already EU member states – their policies on discrimination and hate crimes must comply with the regulations of the EU. This means tougher anti-discrimination laws and better overall protection of human rights. Thus, politicians are increasingly discussing the need to protect LGBTQ people rather than openly opposing their rights. In a discussion with a Bosnian Member of Parliament, I asked him about the current situation of Bosnian LGBTQ people. His response was that he and the state of Bosnia supported them. This, of course, is contrary to overwhelming evidence that the Bosnian state does not.

It is this reality of anti-LGBTQ attitudes that drives LGBTQ activists away from identifying strongly with their state. LGBTQ activists position themselves as humanists and anti-nationalists rather than as nationalists. Their focus is on the human rights of individuals, without a strong focus on national identity. Within nationalist politics, LGBTQ people are seen as an internal other. This becomes an issue of sexual citizenship – that is, how the state conceptualizes the rights of an individual based on his or her sexuality or gender identity.[11] In this context, nationalism is often a heterosexed concept that views non-heteronormative behavior as against the nation. These activists position themselves away from nationalist discourses and argue that it is their right as citizens of the Bosnian state to be protected, not members of one of the ethnic groups, or nations.[12] It is important to note that none of the activists I spoke with openly identified their ethnicity. Moreover, our discussions of national identity always focused on the ‘nationalists’. These activists understand their identity as not being centered on their nationality because of the anti-LGBTQ nature of the nationalism found in Bosnia.

Bosnian LGBTQ activists must overcome various obstacles in their work. From their position in Bosnian society to their position as activists, these individuals must navigate complex situations in order to accomplish their work. Further research should examine how these activists interact with people in their broader communities, because such information would help us better understand how activists create change through interpersonal connections. It is my hope that beginning a conversation about the activists themselves will shed light on the importance of these brave individuals in their roles as human rights defenders.

 

Alex Cooper is an M.A. Candidate in the Department of Gender Studies at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. He earned a B.A. in Government and Community Studies of Eastern Europe from the College of William and Mary in the United States. His research focuses on LGBTQ activism in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. 

 

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.


[1] Email from activist to author.

[2] For the purpose of this article, I will refer to LGBTQ activists as those individuals who consciously work in LGBTQ rights-awareness.

[3] More information about these organizations and their work can be found by referring to their respective websites: <http://soc.ba/>, <http://www.fondacijacure.org/index.php> and <www.okvir.org/>.

[4] Amnesty International. “Eight Injured as Sarajevo Queer Festival Attacked.” 2008. <www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/eight-injured-sarajevo-queer-festival-attacked-20080926>.

[5] Vukobrat, Budo. “Merlinka u Sarajevu: Upoznavanje sa LGBT kulturom.” Radio Slobodna Evropa. 2014. <www.slobodnaevropa.org/content/merlina-u-sarajevu-upoznavanje-sa-lgbt-kulturom/25243192.html>.

[6] Sarajevo Open Centre. “Summary of the Three Days of Merlinka in Sarajevo.” 2014. http://soc.ba/en/summary-of-the-three-days-of-merlinka-in-sarajevo/

[7] Amnesty International, “Bosnia and Herzegovina:  Failure to Protect LGBTI Festial ‘Merlinka’ in Sarajevo.” 2008. <www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/EUR63/001/2014/en/7657aea2-7147-4a22-bf1e-d179c80a9aca/eur630012014en.html>.

[8] I use the term Bosnian to refer to the citizens of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

[9] As mentioned previously in the article, Pride parades are not universally thought of as the most important objective to achieve for LGBTQ activists and does not necessarily imply LGBTQ acceptance. However, I argue that looking at the Pride parades (or lack thereof) in comparison allows us to understand the state’s approach to LGBTQ rights and visibility.

[10] Al Jazeera. “Montenegro’s gay pride march sparks violence.” 2013. <www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/10/montenegro-gay-pride-march-sparks-violence-20131020132010789429.html>.

[11] For various discussions of sexual and intimate citizenship see Jeffrey Weeks, Carl Stychin, and Shane Phelan, among others; for research on sexual citizenship in the former Yugoslavia see Katja Kahlina.

[12] The largest ethnic groups of Bosnia are Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.

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