– Coming out! – LGBT awareness-raising campaigns in Bosnia-Herzegovina

lgbt bihLesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender individuals (LGBT) are among the groups which are particularly subjected to discrimination in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They are virtually invisible in society. Therefore, the regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation launched a project in cooperation with the partner organisations Sarajevo Open Center and the CURE Foundation in order to raise awareness of LGBT issues and to combat homophobia.

Launched in 2013, the EU-funded project “Coming out! Advocating promotion and protection of LGBT rights” is unique. For the first time, this pilot project addresses, among others, civil servants working in interior ministries in the area of the judicature, health and education as well as journalists and representatives of civil society organisations. The purpose of conducting joint human rights actions is to strengthen civil society organisations. “Raising the awareness of the target groups should lead to drawing attention to the needs and problems of the LGBT community and to working proactively to improve the policy in this area”, the head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Office Mirela Grünther-Djecevic explains. A further intended output is that the LGBT community becomes more visible on the whole and, hence, more accepted by society in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“The trainings are exciting parts of our projects, because the results are frequently visible quite soon”, says the project manager of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Maja Lukic-Schade. The confrontation with stereotypes and prejudices visibly influences thinking. “These changes in people are unbelievable”, Lukic-Schade states. Some police officers, e.g., who behave in a particularly cool manner at the beginning of the training, are barely interested in the topic and distance themselves from it, are completely different after the training. According to the project manager, “It is a huge difference: All of a sudden they realise that LGBT people require protection and need to be respected”. The so-called “human library” is usually the highlight of the training. Some LGBT activists make themselves available for personal questions. “In this phase of the training, the participants are highly attentive. It is a special moment, since some of them have never consciously met a non-heterosexual person”, Lukic-Schade adds. Patterns of thought are starting to change. For example, after a two-day police training police officers took the initiative to ask what LGBT events they should protect. The latest success of the project is that for the first time police officer training in Sarajevo involves awareness of possible problems LGBT individuals encounter.

A further project area of “Coming out!” is research on the causes of homo- and transphobia as well as discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A comprehensive quantitative research project consisting of a public survey of more than 1000 individuals was completed in June 2013 and published in a book. The study indicated that the population is barely aware of the needs and problems of LGBT individuals. Rather, 56.5 per cent believe that homosexuality needs to be cured. Three quarters of the interviewees consider same-sex kissing in public unacceptable, and nearly 60 per cent oppose sex reassignment surgery. However, more than 90 per cent of the interviewees said that they would not commit physical or verbal violence against LGBT individuals, and 75.6 per cent said that if that was to happen, they would intervene to help them. Gender, education and social environment featured as significant factors that determine the severity of homophobia. According to the study, older, barely educated men from rural areas were particularly homophobic.

In addition, in a qualitative study, representatives from the areas of politics, justice, internal affairs as well as education and health were interviewed on the situation of LGBT individuals and their views. Ten independent social scientists conducted this research in five cities (Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Livno, Visegrad and Mostar). The findings have already been published. “Unfortunately, we encountered numerous obstacles,” Lukic-Schade recounts. It was particularly difficult to find contact partners, even when we ensured anonymity. “On the whole, this study has shown that many more trainings are required, since the attitude towards LGBT individuals is not favourable in Bosnia-Herzegovina to say the least,” the project manager concludes from the findings of the study.

The project launched trainings for teachers, pedagogues or pedagogy students as well as psychologists in the area of education in order to raise awareness for LGBT issues. 89 per cent of the successful participants considered it meaningful and efficient. 78 per cent stated that they were going to apply the knowledge imparted to their work. Some asked for a diploma or rainbow stickers for their offices in order to show their students/clients that they were open to the issue. Especially in the light of the findings of another study by the Sarajevo Open Center, it is important to speak openly about it. According to this study, 94 per cent of cases of discrimination against LGBT individuals are not reported, since the individuals fear negative consequences on their lives because they came out.

In addition to trainings and surveys, media campaigns and public debates are a further important area for raising awareness. The Office Sarajevo of the Heinrich Böll Foundation is currently working on the third panel discussion on the issue. “We asked the major of Brcko, if he would make available the town hall for this purpose”, Lukic-Schade reports. If he agrees, it will be the first time for an LGBT event to take place in a state institution. Moreover, the project manager is looking forward to the second regional LGBT conference in Sarajevo in October 2014 during which the findings of the study of the project will be analysed, and best practices in the region will be presented.

“Certainly, there is still a great deal to be done on the protection and improvement of the human rights of LGBT individuals in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Lukic-Schade says. There are still violent attacks on LGBT events and discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexual and trans individuals, e.g., in education, at work or in the areas of welfare and health care. The collaboration with state institutions is not easy, either. Constant pressure is required in order to improve legislation and realise rights that already exist on paper. Training state institutions, such as e.g. the police, is particularly important. “The trainings promote awareness of human rights violations against LGBT individuals and contribute to their protection,” Maja Lukic-Schade emphasises. She knows that change needs time. However, the project “Coming out!” is an important step, and there are clear signs that the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals is improving in Bosnia-Herzegovina.