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Feature 09 Oct 17

Bosnian LGBTs Remain in Closet to Stay Safe

In this still traditional patriarchal society, gay people say discretion is more important than valour for purely safety-related reasons.

Mladen Lakic
BIRN
Sarajevo
Illustration. Photo: Michael Verhoef/Flickr

“Please, just don’t use word ‘gay’ too loudly here, I don’t want to have any problems,” says Igor, a 30-old-man from Sarajevo while taking a chair in one of Sarajevo’s more popular cafés.

“It is always like this. If you want to stay safe, you need to be careful not to show anything in public that could link you with what you are,” he added, resentfully.

Igor’s life story, which he shared with BIRN, is not that different to that of any other LGBT person in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In this socially conservative society, being gay was a crime until 1998. No public Pride events take place even now due to security concerns.

Several past attempts to organise public LGBT events ended in chaos and violence.

When the community in Sarajevo tried to organise the first public, four-day cultural festival in September 2008, hoodlums wrecked it on the first day.

Dozens of men swarmed into the festival area, shouting: “Kill the faggots”, throwing rocks at participants and even dragging them from their cars.

In February, 2014, 14 masked men forced their way into the Art Kriterion cinema in Sarajevo, a space known for being LGBT-friendly, and attacked two people there.

A similar incident occurred in March 2016, when four young men entered the same Art Kriterion cinema shouting anti-LGBT profanities and attacking two visitors.

They even threatened to detonate a bomb if anyone called the police.

All four men were later detained by police but then released immediately after police took their statements. The police report later listed the motivation for the attack as “unknown.”

These security concerns lie heavily on Bosnia’s LGBT community.

“I am not open with my parents, I think they would kill me or kill themselves [if I was], “Igor said.

“They believe it is something sick ... they are very religious and I think that I will never tell them.

“It is like having a double life; you are gay, you have a boyfriend, but for everyone around you, he is just your best friend,” Igor added.

“I am not the only one in this situation,” he continued. “The future here doesn’t seem bright for us.”

People like Igor feel even more uncomfortable in Bosnia when Pride events take place in neighbouring countries.

“The situation here gets worse then – all those comments! I just want to sleep over that period when you can see how much people hate you,” he explained.

Mirza, also from Sarajevo, is in a similar situation. He has revealed his sexual preferences to his family. After many dramas, they decided to support him. However, he says: “I still have a lot of other problems.

“It is normal here that if people even think that you might be gay, they will shout at you from a passing car, or spit at you,” Mirza told BIRN.

“Faggot! That is the name they use for us, and there is nothing much you can do about that,” he added, bitterly.

“Your landlord will kick you out of your apartment if he thinks that you are a gay. You can end up on the street in the middle of night,” Mirza said, recalling some of his own past experiences.

Last bastion of Balkan patriarchal attitudes:

LGBT people faced similar harassment in most other Balkan countries for years.

Gradually, however, under strong international pressure, some of these countries slowly opened up on the issue of sexual orientation.

After initially sparking violence and even riots, Pride events these days take place in Belgrade, Zagreb and other cities.

But Bosnia, which remains poor and deeply scarred by the wars of the 1990s, still refuses to accept the right to be sexually different.

No one even dares to contemplate organising a Pride event in Sarajevo or some other city.

Emina Bosnjak, director of Sarajevo Open Center, SOC, an organisation that has advocated for LGBT rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina for 10 years, says this ommission is important.

“Pride is one of the methods of fighting for human rights,” she said.

“But the question is not so much why Sarajevo does not have a Pride event, but what would happen after it,” she told BIRN.

She stressed that even in the rest of the region, a Pride event remains in essence a protest, not a celebration, and the reasons for such protests are numerous.

“The main problem is the invisibility of the LGBT community, so politicians and decision-makers are still wondering who those people who want certain thing to be legalised are,” Bosnjak noted.

She recalled that the Bosnian parliament’s Commission for Human Rights held its first official thematic session on this issue back in May 2015.

“But the political parties [still] do not have a clear position on these issues,” she observed, adding that most parties fear they would lose votes if they openly supported LGBT rights.

"The legal framework in BiH regarding the LGBT community is good in terms of basic issues,” the director of the SOC said.

“The Law on Sexual Equality forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation; the Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination covers prejudice on the grounds of sexual expression or orientation; and the Registry Law was recently amended to allow sex changes to be shown in public records,” she recalled.

But these theoretical safeguards have done little change the position of LGBT people in society, she maintained.

“Same-sex couples do not have any rights, for example, on visiting their partners in hospital and there are other issues in which LGBT people are at a clear disadvantage compared to others,” she added.

Lack of reliable statistics about hate crimes:

No known statistics exist in Bosnia on the number of attacks on LGBT people.

According to Bosnjak, although the law views violent acts against people because of their sexual orientation as hate crimes, LGBT people do not trust the institutions and rarely report such acts to the police.

As a result, there are no reliable statistics on hate-related violence in Bosnia even though, according to LGBT activists, they face frequent attacks and harassment of all kinds.

“A lot of our members who are visible in the media receive threats because of their activity but the police views such threats as irrelevant, especially online threats,” Bosnjak told BIRN.

However, she also says their actions over the years have slightly changed the local environment.

Some of the local media now report on LGBT issues in a more professional way.

She says LGBT people also feel more encouraged now to join the organisation and become more proactive.

Liam, a transgender man from Sarajevo, says it is much easier to be a transgender person in the capital than in smaller towns.

“When you have a circle of people who understand and accept you that is far better than when you are in a small town, exposed to various pressures,” he said.

“Transgender people are often the target of discrimination even within the LGBT community, which is absurd, but that is result of misunderstanding and ignorance,” he added.

“I came out to my family. And the name I wanted is on my ID card now – but my gender is still marked as female,” Liam said.

He mentioned a case of discrimination of a transgender person in Tuzla who was now permitted to change their name even though no law stipulates that someone’s name must correspond to their gender.

“As long as I do not change my sex, in my personal card I'm half a woman, and that could be a problem when I try to find a job ... unless you are lucky enough to work in an open environment,” Liam said.

“I have paid for all the costs for my transition alone, as the laws in BiH do not recognise this category, so even if you pay for health insurance, you are not entitled to this type of expense,” Liam added, pointing to another problem facing members of the transgender community.

But Liam, unlike BIRN’s other interlocutors, says at least he feels safe in Sarajevo.

"I'm not afraid to go for a coffee, or go anywhere, but I understand that there are problems, violence and other pressures that LGBT people are exposed to ... almost every day,” he said.

“I decided to end the life that was limited within my four walls and although the process of coming out was difficult and emotional, I knew I did not want to spend the rest of my life that way, and that proved to be good,” Liam added.

Bošnjak points out that only together can the LGBT community and the rest of society create an atmosphere of acceptance.

She said that needed to start in Bosnian schools. “The textbooks used in schools in BiH continue to treat the LGBT community incorrectly, quote countless fake, false, overlooked attitudes, and such an education does not offer a bright future for an open society,” the SOC director said.

She also said it was time a few prominent people in Bosnian society came out and so changed popular attitudes.

“Public figures who were 'out' could change awareness among others and the LGBT community would then be seen beyond the issue of sexuality – whether they were actors, politicians, athletes, doctors or miners,” she concluded.

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