, 01.04.2014 – “Everything’s Undercover, Everything’s Hidden”: LGBTQ Life on Europe’s Frontier

slate lgbt bihOn Dec. 14, 2012, Kosovo 2.0 magazine was due to launch its fourth issue, themed around sex and including LGBTQ voices. The organizers had planned an entire day of screenings, readings, and debates, with a party in the evening. Although the magazine wasn’t widely known, this was going to be Kosovo 2.0’s highest-profile event. It received a lot of promotion through Facebook and a viral video campaign.

But just before 7 p.m., a group of men—some armed with baseball bats, some shouting “Allahu akbar”—charged into the party venue and smashed up the place. One of the magazine’s staffers was injured. The police restored order, and the event continued, but around 10:30 p.m., the event had to be canceled when a hundred men gathered outside the building shouting slogans like, “Out of Kosovo,” “Out With the Faggots,” and “There’s No Space for you Here.” Attendees’ safety simply couldn’t be guaranteed.

In attempting to shift the discussion of sex and gender into the public sphere, Kosovo 2.0 demonstrated something about what life is like for LGBTQ people in the states on the European Union’s frontier. In conversations with LGBTQ activists, allies, and citizens in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, I found that, by and large, LGBTQ people live in the closet and out of sight in societies where homophobic and transphobic sentiment is broad and deep and statutes on discrimination and hate crimes are poorly enforced.

The Yugoslav wars scarred the land and the peoples of this region. Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain postwar societies under international supervision where people’s identities are defined by their ethnicity or religion, in opposition to other ethnicities and religions. Whether Bosniak or Croat, Serb or Albanian, these ethno-religious identities “look at homosexuality as something that comes from the West,” rather than something that is common or native to the former Yugoslavia, Vladana Vasić, program coordinator at the Sarajevo Open Center told me.

Kosovar and Bosnian societies are also patriarchal and oriented around the family, and, as Vlora Krasniqi, executive director of the Center for Social Emancipation (known as QESh), explained, “everything a person does affects the family as a whole.” Economic problems—the unemployment rate in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo is around 45 percent—compound this problem, since young LGBTQ people are forced by circumstance to live with their parents and maintain a compromised existence.

Because Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina hope to join the European Union, LGBTQ people there are at least afforded some degree of legal protection. In Kosovo, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is outlawed by the constitution; and since 2009, Bosnia-Herzegovina has prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, as Vadić explained, while legislation broadly respects the human rights of LGBTQ people, “we have terrible problems with the implementation of these laws.” Jasenko Suljetovic, director of the Banja Luka Queer Association (known as BUKA), said that in Republika Srpska, “judges and prosecutors refuse to enforce the [human-rights] laws that exist.” He added: “The institutions will not enforce the existing laws until you pull on their sleeves and tell them that they have to, and even then, they will try and run from it as much as they can. But if you’re persistent enough, then they have to.” Earlier this year, BUKA successfully petitioned the police to remove graffiti that appeared all over Banja Luka carrying messages like, “Kill the Fags” and “Stop the Gay Pride,” a reference to a parade that had occurred in Belgrade, Serbia.

SOC keeps track of cases of discrimination and hate crimes, but LGBTQ people “do not report these crimes, because they are afraid of coming out, afraid of the stigma and friends and family rejecting them, and are afraid of the reaction of the government and governmental institutions,” Vadić said. The situation is the same in Kosovo, though Krasqini said that “the police in Kosovo have improved a lot when it comes to handling cases involving LGBT people,” especially since QESh provided sensitivity training on the subject.

“The biggest problem is a lack of education and that people don’t know their own rights and their own laws, that LGBT people are human beings protected by the constitution,” Suljetovic said. “You can’t talk about human rights with people who don’t even know their own rights.”

Broadly, says Suljetovic, “when you mention anything to do with gay rights, people make the association with gay sex”—homosexuality is never seen as a form of love. The absence of anything other than a superficial understanding of LGBTQ rights is compounded by the media, which plays a major role in spreading false information and enforcing stereotypes through sensationalist stories that reinforce negative perceptions of LGBTQ people.

The Kosovo 2.0 debacle is a case in point. A couple of days before the launch of the Sex issue, Telegrafi—a news portal—picked up on the event. “They did not mention the magazine or the debate—none of the facts or the context—and only wrote about the party,” Besa Luci, editor-in-chief of Kosovo 2.0 told me. That’s when it got labelled as the Sex Party for the first time, and commenters on the site and imams in the mosques decried it for its immorality, degeneration of Kosovo’s youth, and undermining of traditional Albanian values.

“There was a lot of misunderstanding around what the event was about and what Kosovo 2.0 does. Due to a lack of knowledge and information, a lot of people came to believe that what the party was about was people having sex in public. It was impossible to control the message,” Luci said.

The closeting and fragmenting of the LGBTQ communities in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina is exaggerated by the absence of physical spaces where people can meet openly without fear or intimidation. Such gay life as exists in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina is organised surreptitiously, largely online through Facebook groups and by word-of-mouth. “The Internet is the only safe space for the LGBT community to function in,” Suljetovic said. “People feel more secure when they’re communicating with someone online.”

In Pristina, Kosovo, the Center for Equality and Liberty, formed in August 2013, maintains an apartment that serves as a safe space for LGBTQ people to gather and spend time together. Its address is not public. Libertas, the first organization to operate a drop-in center in Pristina, had its premises broken into and vandalised and its activists assaulted in December 2012. The group subsequently folded.

“Pristina is very small, and when a new coffee shop opens, everyone knows where it is, and word spreads around,” Krasqini observed, explaining the absence of a public space for LGBTQ people. “Sometimes, you can rent a place that you know is a bit more gay-friendly for a night, and you can organize something—of course with security.” Otherwise, NGOs in the region organize movie screenings, educational events, and parties in their offices.

Indeed, the few openly gay or lesbian people in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina—“the transgender community is basically invisible,” Krasqini told me—are the activists campaigning to place LGBTQ rights on the political agenda and to broaden out the discussion of human rights so that it extends beyond the specific needs of each ethnic group. These activists must combat the perception that the region simply isn’t ready to deal with LGBTQ rights and must focus instead on other important issues including the economy, poverty, and unemployment.

“We don’t have time to wait for people to be ready,” Krasqini said—the work must begin now. “QESh has been existence for 10 years, and while people definitely weren’t ready back in 2005, it’s not about waiting for people to be ready, because changing the attitudes or perceptions of the general population takes time. It’s not a matter or one or two years—it’s a matter or 10 or 15 or 20 years.”

“Everything’s undercover, and everything’s hidden,” Suljetovic concluded. “Except for us.”

Author: Liam Hoare is a freelance writer whose work on politics and literature features in the Forward and the Tower. He is a graduate of University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies.