Across the region, it seems like the advocacy, awareness and lobby efforts of LGBTI+ organizations are falling on deaf ears with government after government not taking things forward at the needed speed.
Discussing and advocating for the rights of LGBTI+ people in the Western Balkans is a “recent phenomenon” when looked at from an historical perspective. While a few countries of the former Yugoslavia had decriminalized homosexuality in the 1970s, the rest of decriminalization happened in the 1990s and into the 2000s. A “real talk” on lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans, intersex and queer people has become mainstream only in the last 15 years or so. Quite importantly, we should not forget the amazing LGBTI+ activists from the 1980s, 90s and 2000s who pioneered and set the ground for today’s generations to be the front-liners.
What was seen in the early 2010s as a curve going only upwards with parliaments passing anti-discrimination legislations, Pride taking place all over the region and National Action Plans being passed by policy makers, has in the recent years started to look much more challenging. The laws are failing to be implemented into policy, countries go from one political crisis to another, and of course, our struggle also faces strong opposition from conservatives, the clergy, and political opportunists.
In the case of the Western Balkans, this is primarily because while anti-discrimination legislations have found some degree of consensus among decision and law-makers, passing other “more controversial” laws, like those pertaining to family rights or legal gender recognition, has been much harder. Across the region, it seems like the advocacy, awareness and lobby efforts of LGBTI+ organizations are falling on deaf ears with government after government not taking things forward at the needed speed. Stagnation, and sometimes fear of regress, is the most befitting word to describe the situation.
This, unfortunately, does not come as a surprise. LGBTI+ rights are facing a backlash across eastern Europe, and the last report of ILGA-Europe testifies to that. That is due to many reasons: Anti-LGBTI+ groups (especially those of the clergy) are utilizing tools previously used by LGBTI+ groups to mobilize opposition, rights-wing political groups are attacking LGBTI+ rights for political leverage, states are being captured by authoritarians leaders at the cost of checks and balances and constitutional rights, the increased “war of words” and “war of likes” on social media, with all sorts of anti-LGBTI+ groups spending money to stir up hatred and prejudice and so on. The initial mission of LGBTI+ movements to make this a better living world for our community, is slowly turning into learning how to advocate and push for change in an increasingly polarized world and public opinion, where space for consensus is slowly turning into an “us versus them” fight.
As such, this new reality is posing significant challenges to LGBTI+ movements across the Western Balkans and Turkey region, just as in many other parts of the world. LGBTI+ activists are finding themselves on the frontline not only to fight for the rights of their community but also to fight for democracy, independent institutions, free media and so on, understanding clearly that without the latter there will soon be no space to advocate for LGBTI+ rights or other minority groups. Being a marginalized community for centuries, we know way too well what happens when governments act with impunity: the media is nothing but a tool in the hands of the powerful, and international solidarity and influence weaken.
This is a new reality facing us at the start of the new decade, and in many ways, we know the beat of the drum only too well.
Naturally, LGBTI+ organizations and activists across the region are revising their strategies and approaches. Working in solidarity with other struggles and taking an intersectional approach is now a new norm. In the longer term this means that the LGBTI+ movement will be a struggle integrated to other movements and communities: Women, people with disabilities, youth, workers, students, Roma communities and so on. Political engagement is now a necessity too. If until a few years ago, the organization’s focus were specific ministries and sometimes parliaments, now more and more of them are realizing that without political engagement and involvement, LGBTI+ rights will never be taken seriously. Activists are joining local councils, talking to political parties, and engaging with the electorate. If this is a war of ideas, then not being at the table means we would end up being on the menu.
Legal advocacy is and remains an extremely important part of the movement’s work and effort; particularly preserving existing constitutional rights and advocating for new legislation. Some steps have been taken in working with trade and labor unions too, particularly the new and apolitical ones, who are taking more unconventional and determined approaches to fight for workers’ rights. Many organizations have significantly increased their media (online and traditional) presence too, and many others are developing creative campaigning strategies and actions, which tackle the local mindset and aim at changing traditional beliefs and attitudes.
It is also important to remember that while the global LGBTI+ movement is facing huge backlash, our diverse community has never been more visible and organized. That is being felt in our region too. Culture – particularly arts and entertainment – is playing an extremely important role in mobilizing different communities, relieving people from their own internalized prejudices, and reminding the value of being part of a community. Drag culture is beautifully penetrating the region being already mainstream in cities like Zagreb and Belgrade, but not only.
A constant and recurring challenge that our community faces in light of such a rapidly changing world is also fatigue. In a world of extremely present social media and artificial intelligence, of “fake news” and “war of likes”, LGBTI+ activists are struggling with resilience and burn out. This remains a weak spot across our region. In societies where the overall economic, social, and political situation is stressful, being an LGBTI+ activist comes not only with concerns of safety but also of physical, mental, and material well-being. LGBTI+ people (particularly queer and non-binary ones) are extremely vulnerable to poverty and exclusion.
Ultimately, our movement is resilient, creative, and ever-changing by nature and this in itself is our bigger strength. Our cross border and international cooperation is excellent and ever evolving; our ability to bring together different struggles, new approaches, and tools is almost unique; and our vision for the future keeps us firm in our convictions that we are fighting for human rights, dignity and a better world for us as LGBTIQ+ people and our hetero, cis peers.
Amarildo Fecanji is an LGBTI activist from Albania. He holds a B.A in International Relations (SUNY/USA) and LL.M in International Law (University of Nottingham, United Kingdom). He has been engaged in LGBTI activism since 2010, initially in his home country with PINK Embassy / LGBT Pro Albania as Director of Programs and at ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey as Executive Co-Director. His other passions are politics, history, anthropology and languages.