Out and About in Sarajevo

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Sarajevo banner in promotion of the 2016 IDAHOT day #IDAHOTBiH2016 "Do you know that gay doctors in Bosnia and Herzegovina are daily saving lives too? We say NO to hate!"

by Matthew Zarenkiewicz
SIT Spring 2016
Villanova University

“The more time you spend in Sarajevo,” a local Sarajevan friend said to me one bright Sunday morning, “The quicker you’ll realize that it is a lie.”

It was the second week of my research project on queer activism in Sarajevo since 2008, and he asked me what I thought of Sarajevo while we were walking along the river to a café. I liked it, I said, but I had only been there for a short time. He had agreed to speak with me about his experience working in queer activism in Sarajevo.  I wasn’t sure how he identified my confusion increased as our free-form conversation jumped around from topic to topic. What was clear was that he learned to manage the denial of his existence from family, society, and the city he grew up in; he denied them as harshly as they denied him.

Many people I spoke to shared this general feeling of denial. I could relate, but would never really know what that felt like. I have experienced alienation and denial from friends, some family, and others on the periphery of my life, but nothing truly severe. I was raised in a culture that is largely accepting of my queerness, with some important limits, but accepting nonetheless.

Graffiti in the Old City of Sarajevo written there in 2011 as part of a protest for queer visibility. | Photo: Matthew Zarenkiewicz
Graffiti in the Old City of Sarajevo written there in 2011 as part of a protest for queer visibility. | Photo: Matthew Zarenkiewicz

I grew up 40 years after Stonewall, 30 years after the death of Harvey Milk and 20 years after the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US.  I’ve seen barriers collapse, all the way from sodomy laws to legal civic marriage. I reaped the benefits of the Pride movement in the United States without risking much. I was included in the agenda of the Human Rights Campaign and others from the start because I am a white, middle class, male at the expense of my Trans friends and friends of color.

To be fair, my project in Sarajevo was a bit of a red herring. I was studying the activist tactics and processes of change, but my real motivation came from a morbid curiosity about the suffering “other.” I was using activism to understand queer, Trans, and intersex social life in Sarajevo from the perspective of someone who “has not suffered enough;” gay self-hate is a very real thing.

Leading up to my project, I struggled not to valorize my topic or the people I would be talking to. I still struggle with that and the more I spend time away from Sarajevo, the harder it is to not valorize them. There are people in Sarajevo doing excellent work for the community, but nothing is perfect. Based on my discussions, I think people are aware of gaps and holes in the work.

Thus far, I have noticed two processes happening. While little seems to be happening in public and semi-public space, there is a palpable pulse of queer life and culture. The second, and possibly more interesting thing happening, is occurring behind the scenes. Queer NGOs are directly educating and lobbying politicians, police officers, educators, and the like. The activists are leveraging Bosnia’s EU aspirations to accomplish tangible legislative goals.

The EU and the US are heavily involved in NGO funding in Sarajevo. This is not to say NGOs are in the pocket of Western powers; because the NGOs seem to remain independent after they get the money. I think the funding signals something much more interesting than Western attempts to control activities in Bosnia.

Funding queer NGOs implicitly places queer, Trans, and Intersex protection and rights on the foreign policy agendas of both the EU and the US. However, the domestic social and legal situation in these places does not necessarily give rights to the same people. While I can only really speak to the US queer experience, it is worth noting that there is wide variation within Western EU states, simply compare the UK and Italy. For example, the UK has had legal civil partnerships between same-sex couples since 2005, while Italy only passed a similar, but less comprehensive law in 2016.

As for the US, it strikes me as odd that queer, Trans, and Intersex protection is on the foreign policy agenda while domestically, laws that actively target the queer, Trans, and Intersex population are being passed in state legislatures with a history of discriminatory practices. And yet, US funding cynically makes sense. It is Pinkwashing and homonationalism at its finest: provide rights to enough powerful queer people domestically (middle class, educated, white gay males) so that the state has the appearance of accepting queer people and then use that perceived acceptance to leverage foreign interests in the non-West (Bosnia, the Balkans in general, and anything east of Berlin). The US can say that we fund these projects because queer rights and protections are now US policy and people in the “non-West” need support. In reality, the situation for queer people of color and Trans folk in the US could not vary more between Manhattan and the Bronx. Those already empowered in the US through structures of racism, sexism, ableism, and heterosexism stay in power in spite of their queer identity. The funds from the US allow those in power to distract the majority from other, more grave, human rights violations in the US.

Sticker in one of the Queer friendly bars in Sarajevo "Ljubav je ljubav" (Love is love). | Photo: Matthew Zarenkiewicz
Sticker in one of the Queer friendly bars in Sarajevo “Ljubav je ljubav” (Love is love). | Photo: Matthew Zarenkiewicz

At the same time, in Bosnia the US funds projects that target legislative change, as if legal protection and empowerment is the final word on social change. However, these legislative changes only affect surface level politics. They check off boxes for the EU and NATO and what is lacking is community empowerment. The US Pride movement had success because social change happened and legal change followed the society’s needs. What is happening in Bosnia is a foreign imposition of anti-democratic principles: the people in Bosnia may not be ready to accept queer, Trans, and Intersex people, but the laws may show that they are accepting queer people. The influences affecting change on the queer movement in Bosnia has very little about it that could be considered “from Bosnia” other than the people involved in the NGOs.

Shady politics aside, this money has done real good in terms of gains for a community without domestic financial support. And because there is very little domestic support, it remains to be seen whether “the queer community” in Sarajevo is actually a community or simply a group of NGOs sporadically working together on specific events. Still, as I said, the queer social scene is small and fluid. One of the few exclusively gay bars is closing soon and there are no concrete plans for opening a new queer social space in the city. I regret that I wasn’t able to see what that club was like for the people in Sarajevo both as a student/researcher and as a queer person.

My lowest moment in Sarajevo came when I was invited to a party at that club and chose not to go. I told myself I was tired and needed to work on my project. In reality, I was afraid. Violence against the queer community is still common in Sarajevo, and although I talk a big, hypermasculine game of not being afraid of homophobes at home or abroad, I was not mentally prepared to face the possibility of violence.

After one of my final interviews, someone told me this story:

“A young girl walked up to me after a workshop I was leading and asked me ‘is it possible?”

I asked, “is what possible?’

“To live with your girlfriend here.’”

As I walked home from that interview, I passed the US embassy which, in about a month, was to be lit in rainbow flag colors for the “International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biophobia.” I saw lush green mountains starkly juxtaposed by the new corporate buildings and malls springing up along Sarajevo’s main roads.

I scaled the six flights of stairs into my apartment off Marshall Tito Street, unlocked my door, dropped my bag to the floor, stood alone and cried.

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