More Than a Century: SOC Conducts Research on the History of Queer Life in BiH

‘This has never been a thing here!’ – a sentence summarizing the lack of historical awareness about the LGBTIQ (queer) community, is one of the main arguments for denying its equality in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Young queer people, on the other hand, often feel that no one in their environment has been a queer before them, which further complicates their understanding of their own identity in the environment in which they live.

Each community articulates its present and future in relation to its past, which the LGBTIQ community in BiH is denied. Namely, its history is almost entirely unexplored. Apart from private, fragmented testimonies from different periods scattered in the press or professional literature from various disciplines, and activist efforts through the queer archive, there has been no serious research work in the field of queer community history in BiH so far.

For these reasons, the Sarajevo Open Centre has decided to conduct research on BiH’s queer history, spanning the period from the end of the 19th century to the beginnings of activist efforts in BiH. This research will be useful not only for increasing community self-awareness but also for future activist and other efforts to improve the quality of life for queer people. We believe that such research will be useful in raising awareness about the queer community, both within the community and among the general public.

Since we are embarking on research in an area where there has been no previous systematic research, the overall research will be divided into two major units. We will begin with primary sources such as the daily press, police and court files, and literature from areas we believe may contain valuable information (prostitution, crime, entertainment, pubs, etc.).

Personal memories are another type of material that we will try to collect. We will be dealing with the domain of oral history, which can be subsequently checked and supplemented in some cases by research on primary material. Therefore, we will interview members of BiH’s queer community from various generations, analyse their memories, and use them as guides to create a coherent story. In addition to community members, the authors of the study will attempt to interview people who are not necessarily queer themselves but have specific memories that may be useful to us.

Damir Imamović, a musician, performer, author of traditional music, author of seven music albums, winner of numerous awards, graduate philosopher and sociologist, and one of the main researchers, says of this research: “I hope that this research will open a completely neglected historical perspective when it comes to queer people in BiH. It is impossible to predict what kind of results we can expect, but we hope to find a lot of material.”

The findings of two-year research will be presented in the form of a book with photographs and other materials. The two research directors will also be the authors of the book “History of Queer Life in BiH”, and Matej Vrebac and Nikolina Todorović are currently taking part in the research.

Matej Vrebac, a comparator and Italianist who writes literary criticism and reviews, newspaper articles, as well as translates, says he was drawn to the project because of his personal interest in the subject, as well as the fact that this is the first comprehensive research on the queer history of our community.

“I have been going to the Archives for almost a month now to research the material and every time I have a drive to find something. Not every day is extremely productive; looking for queer topics in some periods and material is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but Damir’s advice keeps us from becoming discouraged.”

He goes on to say that this is critical for our LGBTIQ+ community because a community without a sense of its own history does not exist.

“At the same time, we want to demonstrate to those who oppose and despise us that we continuously exist on this territory and are not “imported.” I especially hope that my peers and younger generations will be interested in the topic and research results; not just them, but everyone else, because this is really important and significant for the community and beyond.”

Nikolina Todorović is another researcher – assistant in the research on queer history. Nikolina is a poet and literary critic, a graduate student of the master’s studies in comparative literature at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Sarajevo, one of the contributors to the BiH portal where she publishes columns and texts from the world of queer culture, and one of the editors of Libartes, an online magazine for literature, art, and culture.

“The Archives has always been a source of inspiration and excitement for me. Much of my personal interest focuses on questioning the culture of memory and remembrance, as well as the various alternative methods of storing and remembering history. Furthermore, as a member of the LGBTI community, I try to touch on significant cultural and social phenomena and changes that are related to the shift and development toward a better and more productive environment for LGBTIQ people on a daily basis.”

She says she is happy and excited to have joined this project.

“What thrilled me in the very concept of this project is that it seeks to highlight the continued existence of queer life in our area. As a comparatist and literary critic sensitized to the feminist readings of literature and taught by feminists who emphasized the importance of continuity in women’s writing and authorship, I know how important it is to repeatedly emphasize that queer life is not a novelty or a way of life borrowed from other cultures. One of the most important aspects of this project is to document the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina has its own tradition of queer life. It is very interesting to find an article about queer life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it is important to note that almost all articles about same-sex relationships and transgender moments are accompanied by contempt, condemnation, ex-communication, ridicule, and negative comment.”

Regarding the launch of the project, Emina Bošnjak, Executive Director of the Sarajevo Open Centre, says: “When I heard about the idea of trying to dig up every/any trace of queer life in BiH, I immediately warmed up to it because it fits perfectly into the efforts of the Sarajevo Open Centre, where, among other things, we strive to collect and publish relevant stories about indigenous experiences, lives and everyday life of LGBTIQ people in BiH. This time, we delve much deeper into history than usual, and I am glad about that.”

If you can help our research in collecting stories, memories, documents, testimonies, diaries, family stories, letters, and newspaper clippings, please contact the research team at [email protected] or [email protected]. Your help is greatly appreciated, whether you are an LGBTIQ person who lived in BiH until the late 1990s and want to tell us about your experience, or if you knew, heard, or witnessed the experiences of someone who was queer.