Queer Women in Montenegro Tell Their Stories

Montenegro, like most of the northern Balkans, stayed out of news this past decade. The post-Yugoslav civil wars ended with 1990s—even though transition problems continued in the six newly formed states in Yugoslavia’s wake—and European and American media turned their gaze to other regions as well as their own growing issues around minority rights, strength of democratic institutions, media independence and gender equality. It’s not particularly reassuring that the so-called issues of countries in transition are now appearing in the old western democracies, but the Balkan countries will gladly take this respite from being a hotbed of breaking news. Not that the international presence has entirely vacated the ground; the NGO and not-for-profit sector in countries like Montenegro survives largely thanks to the outside funding (Sweden, Norway, Canada, UK, U.S., the EU and UNDP have all funded civil society projects) and the foundations (essentially the same kind of political forces attack the Soros Foundation there as in the U.S.). But the coverage by the international media is gone, and the new states are building themselves in relative quiet.

This is how it looked to me too, for years. There was no talk of LGBTQ rights when I left Montenegro for Canada in 1999, and my column on the history of feminist thought in a Montenegrin daily was new and unusual back then. If feminism was new to the mainstream, queer cultures and rights had not been broached at all. It was the first generation of human rights discourse after the end of communism—itself not a particularly queer-friendly system, though here and there, in Hungary and Yugoslavia for example, it tolerated the odd instance of queerness in art.

After the fall of the wall, there was so much to do and ground to reclaim. The question of setting love and desire free was low on the list.

A lot us queer expats accommodated by splitting our lives. Our current lives, including love and sex, took place in English and other host languages. Our familial lives and relations, our old national belonging, how we were brought up, our waning lives in our mother tongue—remain sexless and unupdated. Doris Lessing’s division into notebooks lives on.

Now imagine my surprise when I recently heard that an old grade schoolmate has been living openly with her female partner for years—in Cetinje, population 15,000, where we grew up, which I consider one of the most patriarchal places in the Balkans. I had read of the early attempts at pride parades in some of the ex-Yu countries in latter half of 2000’s, and the violence and the enormous police presence that accompanied them, but that’s where my knowledge ended.

Additional social media and grapevine sleuthing led to discover another two women, then another one and another, until these traces led to the breakthrough. There is, turns out, a considerable, busy and creative circle of lesbian and bi activism mainly centered in Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica. I wanted to talk to these queer women. I wanted their stories.

Not all of it is quite “out” as we understand the word. There are degrees of outness, as I found out, and sometimes don’t-ask-don’t-tell is in effect while getting on with the job. (Queers in red states will understand how this works.) Vanya—whom you’ll meet below—posted my query in an all-women online group and personally urged friends to get in touch, but at the end only three women decided to come forward and eschew anonymity.

What I’ve heard from them gives me a lot of hope.

Maria Jovanović, 20, Podgorica

I began having doubts about my straightness at the age of 15. There was an interim phase where I thought I’d end up being bisexual, but after that I had a longer phase when it was clear to me that I am a lesbian. Now that I’m leaving my teens and embarking on my twenties, and am in a relationship with a guy, I decided not to worry about the name tag. I think I just like humans in all their versions.

I’ve been volunteering for the LGBTIQ causes for about three years now, and there’s been noticeable change. Laws and regulations are improving, even though not all of them are being enforced. The level of knowledge is growing in the general population, accessibility of information and services are improving.

Coming out was a positive experience. From day one I had the unreserved support and understanding from my family. They did worry how safe I was going to be living my life, my mother especially, but we’ve overcome that. I came out to all my friends early on and didn’t feel lonely. The more openly I communicated with everyone on this topic, the better response I’d get. I realized how big a change one person can make, just by openly talking about her life. You’ll educate, you’ll broaden moral horizons—it’s worth staying in the conversation. And nobody is made of stone. Consciousness can be raised, minds changed.

How do we eliminate homophobia? The answer is education, education and education. Educating young people in schools, and educating the professionals themselves in the fields of psychology, medicine and public education about the LGBTIQ issues. Things won’t get better if we let the status quo be.

Women are in essence what keeps the queer culture in Montenegro alive and lively. The largest queer gatherings are the women-focused gatherings. There are parties, workshops, films screenings, day trips. A number of us volunteers for LGBTIQ and other causes, including Pride Parade. Where do I find myself in the larger culture… not in too many places. I’d single out the recent movie Blue is the Warmest Color which I find true to my experience. (Though it wasn’t very popular in the lesbian circles here!) I really enjoyed Orange is the New Black too. The story of the lesbian relationship is well done, and the entire show is excellent. I kind of like it when a show has a same-sex couple somewhere in there as if it’s the most normal thing. They’re one of the variety of people, a perfectly normal occurrence. I think this is a great way for the general public to become aware of the LGBTIQ people and to “get used” to us in a way. There’s a great episode in Black Mirror, San Junipero, that is about all kinds of other things as well as a lesbian love story. I also really liked The Danish Girl; even though the two people don’t stay together, their love is obvious and gorgeous and though they never put a name on it, it has a beautiful lesbian vibe.

My personal activist goal these days is working on my patience. And I want to use my knowledge in very practical ways to benefit other people. I want to be a better activist and a better person.

Kristina Ćetković, 35, Podgorica & Bar

Writing is a great tool for coming out and staying out. I used to write under a pseudonym for an LGBT online forum—but as I started publishing journalism, I realized there was no turning back. You can’t split yourself and write on social issues under one name and on personal topics under another. Before j-school I trained to be a physiotherapist and in parallel got involved in youth programs and programs for the marginalized, people with disabilities and animal rights. I’m happy doing what I do now. I still freelance occasionally and I’m finishing a novel about a lesbian couple living in this country today.

My sister, by the way, found out by reading my diary. She sat me down with my then-girlfriend and said she supported us all the way but that she was only worried because she knew I wanted to have children and how likely was that going to happen now? So that was fun. My mother took some time getting used to the idea, but she accepts now that she may never walk me down the isle. My father passed away some years ago and he was the only one with whom I did not speak directly about it. Everybody else learned gradually. How do I define myself? There are layers there, as with everybody. First of all, I hope to be a good person—a decent human being. Under that there’s the layer of being a lesbian or a queer woman, the meaning of which I’m still exploring. I like the word queer: it’s someone who doesn’t see herself in roles assigned to her by the society, like being a mother, being self-effacing, fragile, anchored in the private sphere etc.

Pride activities and the parade itself have become very important for me over time—I was never big on crowds, but now realize how important this visibility is. You’ll often hear “We don’t mind the gays, but why do they need to parade their sexuality in public and block the downtowns streets,” whereas a pride parade is a simple request—to be allowed one day to behave in the public space as freely as the heterosexual population does every day of the year. I went to my first pride as a reporter and on my way there crossed paths with a group of young men who were gearing up for some gay bashing. There were more policemen present than participants—this ratio has improved since—and we ended up being hauled up in a police car for our own safety and driven away. Kind of a metaphor for LGBT lives here: To be safe, we need to stay secluded. But I decided to try to live differently. There’s no air in the closet. Living out your values—any kind of integrity, really—comes with a price. One of the reasons my long-term relationship ended was my openness about it all.

The thing with Montenegro is that women are still largely relegated to the private sphere—men run the cabinet, the legislature, the media and the industry. The NGO sector has a few prominent women on top, but the official structures where the power resides are still very male. Now that the political parties have started sending representatives to the Pride Parade—earns them points before the EU monitors—they all send women to represent them. Male politicians don’t dare.

If you look at the L Word, which we were able to watch in one of the cable packages here, subtitles and all, Tina’s character was kind of closest to the traditional Montenegrin womanhood. I watched the series when I was in a long-term relationship, and could recognize myself in it. I really liked Tina and her character arc. She starts out as somebody who’s sacrificed everything for her partner and their future family, but she goes through the breakup, rejection, an alternate life, makes mistakes, tries different things, finds a purpose—and finally becomes the person she was meant to be.

Vanja Gagović, 27, Podgorica & Cetinje

Our group Queer Montenegro came out of Juventas, our larger and older parent with stellar record of advocacy for LGBTQ equality. Juventas has grown considerably since its mid-nineties inception as a youth program centre and is now a multi-program advocacy and public education centre. The first daytime drop-in centre for queer people in Montenegro was an apartment out of Juventas. From the day-to-day operations of the drop-in centre, the Queer Montenegro came into shape as its own organization. I work there now as a coordinator for art programming.

There are strategic degrees of outness with most people, coming out of course is not straightforward. People who are out to their families are out to everybody else, and usually end up embracing activism. What’s making things harder is that due to the high youth unemployment in our generally low income society, young people live with their parents for longer. The fear of being thrown out and being ostracized by the family is often there well into the adult years. The QM still doesn’t have a shelter for overnight stays, our goal is to make it available eventually so that queer youth can land on their feet. At the drop-in centre I’ve seen a lot of post-coming-out distress and tears, and people being thrown out, either temporarily or for good. Sometimes kids return home but the issue is buried as unmentionable while everybody’s under the same roof. Those of us who are out everywhere we go, we are the front line in this battle for equality, where perhaps the impact is strongest, but if your family accepts you, there’s no fear. When you don’t fear rejection from your loved ones, being exposed to the general societal homophobia or hatred coming from the strangers won’t terrify you into inaction.

It’s probably easier for gay women to be visible in Montenegro than gay men. Women won’t suffer violence on the streets, whereas for two men who publicly display affection the menace of physical or verbal attacks is always there. The stigma is greater for men–and public violence remains a male vernacular. (There’s domestic violence against women, of course, but it takes place behind closed doors.)

We have developed an excellent relationship with the police, and I know this is not always the case between the queers and the police in other countries. I think they are well trained in LGBTQ issues at this point and well sensitized and have a good record of protection.

I would love to wake up ten years from now somewhere like New Zealand, with the person I love next to me, our cat and our dog somewhere in the picture too. I would love to be able to check my favorite Montenegrin daily online and see that the term “LGBT” doesn’t carry the usual negative connotations and that the comment section under the article counts more supportive than negative ones. I’d love to see a more open and crowded pride that’s attended by everybody—a civic festival enjoyed by all. I’d love to be sure that we did all we could and that it was sufficient. And that we have taught the next generation to continue on this path and that they indeed are eager to do so. Oh, and I hope that by then the bees are safe.

Lydia Perovic is an arts journalist in Toronto and author of, most recently, the novella All That Sang. She’s written for The Believer, The Awl, the Globe and Mail, Opera Canada, The Wholenote, Daily Xtra, Literary Mothers, n+1 and Book Forum, among others. Her first novel Incidental Music was a Lambda Literary Foundation Award finalist for debut fiction in 2013. Find her on Twitter @DundasKeele.

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