‘Sorry for Your Misfortune, but That’s How Things Are Here…’

TEXT: Matthias Herr

Why we need to find better answers to the discrimination and violence against LGBTI people in the Western Balkans

 “I’m gay.” This admission made to one’s family, friends, colleagues or even in public is a life-changing moment and often the start of a difficult journey. It may even be a life-threatening admission to make in some places of the world. A young man who ‘outs’ himself as gay towards his family may experience severe forms of domestic violence and insult from his closest relatives and decide to leave home earlier than the average young person. He may drop out of school and find it hard to access further education, and subsequently, be forced into a low-paid job – if he finds one at all.

This example also applies to others with a sexual orientation or gender identity different from what is perceived as being mainstream – commonly referred to as ‘LGBTI’: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex. In this article, we want to discuss why many development organizations are reluctant to engage with LGBTI issues and how we can do better.  

Discrimination against LGBTI is wide-spread in the Western Balkans

A recent survey of the World Bank (2018) conducted in five countries across the Western Balkan region indicates widespread discrimination and violence against LGBTI people – far worse than in EU countries. The acceptance of LGBTI people is very low across the region – particularly in Kosovo, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina:

World Bank Group (2018): Life on the Margins – Survey Results of the experiences of LGBTI people in Southeast Europe, p.3 | © World Bank Group (2018): Life on the Margins – Survey Results of the experiences of LGBTI people in Southeast Europe, p.3
© World Bank Group (2018): Life on the Margins – Survey Results of the experiences of LGBTI people in Southeast Europe, p.3

The survey also shows that most LGBTI people in the region keep their sexual orientation or gender identity secret, thereby being denied their right to live an important part of who they are – 64 percent of surveyed respondents, for example, said that they hide their identity at the workplace. Amarildo Fecanji from ERA, LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey with 59 member organizations, says that “this is however not always an option for people whose appearance and expression do not conform with heteronormative and patriarchal standards of society. Trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming persons, for example, face high barriers in all fields of life including access to education, health, employment and other services. Many persons end up working in sectors not of their choice, in hard conditions and with minimal or no standards of protection.”

Discrimination that LGBTI people encounter ranges from a casual joke made by a colleague at work, to being denied access to education, job opportunities and public services such as healthcare, or even experiencing physical violence and being attacked in public spaces. In more than half of cases, LGBTI people who experienced violence knew the perpetrator(s), indicating that it often originates within their closer environment (World Bank, 2018). Many cases remain unreported as victims fear reprisals or believe that the authorities themselves may respond with further discrimination and violence.

Migration is often the only choice left: Aida Malkic and Emina Bosnjak from the Sarajevo Open Centre, an independent feminist civil society organization that advocates for LGBTI rights, say that the majority of the legal advice they provide to LGBTI people is about seeking asylum in the EU.

Claim and reality: how public institutions and policy-makers respond

All countries of the Western Balkans have anti-discrimination laws which also prohibit discrimination, hate crime and violence based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity – though none of them currently allow same-sex partnerships (at the time of this Article, the Montenegro parliament was discussing the passing of a respective law). Amendments to laws and legal reforms are also driven by the governments’ orientation towards EU accession. 

Authorities and state institutions are expected to protect and enforce the rights of LGBTI people and ensure equal access to public services and institutions; employers are obliged to adhere to non-discrimination laws. Reality often paints a different picture as LGBTI individuals experience widespread discrimination and violence. As cases are seldom reported, there are few legal proceedings that could have a wider signal function; in the few cases that do exist, claimants often face an uphill battle against homophobic authorities.

When it comes to the perception of gender roles and sexual orientation, social norms and values in the Western Balkans tend to be overwhelmingly conservative and influenced by patriarchal customs. Negative perceptions are often exacerbated by a nationalist political narrative that places conservative values at the core of what needs to be protected from external threats, whether it be migrants or ‘sinful sexual behavior imported from the West.’  

Amarildo Fecanji from ERA says that politicians in the region are often using what has been achieved so far (e.g. anti-discrimination laws, attendance at the annual Pride parade) to “pink-wash” public opinion and the perception of the international community. “The reality is quite the opposite, as no government in the region is doing enough to safeguard the rights of LGBTI persons or to further advance laws and policies.” While the LGBTI community is increasingly better organized in Belgrade and other major cities and therefore finds its way into cultural and entertainment scene, such LGBTI spaces are always at risk of being attacked and remain mostly underground. This also explains the ambivalent attitude of the LGBTI community in Serbia towards Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.   

There are however also signs that CSOs and activist groups find it easier to access politicians and government officials: Aida Malkic and Emina Bosnjak from the Sarajevo Open Centre say that after the 2014 general elections, dialogue with the government improved in Bosnia and Herzegovina; nevertheless, there are significant differences between entities in the country, and the complicated government structure means that progress is generally slow.   

Challenging our development philosophy

Development is about creating conditions that will enable a fair chance for all members of society to take full advantage of economic opportunities, participate as equal citizens in social and political life, enjoy full access to public services and facilities and to be protected against threats to personal health and property. Development cooperation is about facilitating the creation of these conditions through measures that reduce systemic barriers for equal access, rights and opportunity.  

The reality of violence, hate crime and discrimination against LGBTI people poses a challenge: we find ourselves at a crossroads where development philosophy meets our personal values, religion and social norms. The response is sometimes denial: ‘Sexual orientation is a personal thing - why do we have to talk about it?’ Or when confronted with a case of discrimination against an LGBTI person, the succinct response may be: ‘Sorry for your bad experience, but this is how things are here…’. We often avoid confrontation with dominant social norms.

But do such responses not question our being as development organizations? Biljana Ginova from the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of the Republic of Macedonia says that they expect an international NGO like Helvetas to take a leading role in advocating for LGBTI rights: “As long as we are quiet we only nurture homophobia.”   

Way forward: an inward-looking and an outward-looking pathway  

“We should be cautious not to argue from the moral high-ground.” Zenebe Uraguchi, senior development expert from Helvetas, also says that development organizations have yet a lot to learn and improve when it comes to the question of LGBTI inclusion. While Helvetas, for example, has a Gender and Social Inclusion Policy, it remains very brief and vague on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or “third gender”; while projects worldwide aim to achieve socially inclusive change, LGBTI people are not mentioned as target groups.

Just as Helvetas finds itself at the beginning of a learning path, other organizations also struggle with the question of how to deal with LGBTI rights and inclusion; many more have yet to discover the need for learning and adaptation on this topic. We distinguish two pathways for development:

1. The inward-looking development pathway: for organizations like Helvetas that employ people in different countries, cultural diversity poses an additional challenge in formulating and living a shared value-system that includes LGBTI. If, however, we agree that workplace diversity is an enrichment of the organization and the achievement of its goals, we must review our current rules, systems and practices and understand whether they are sufficiently conducive. Often rules are in place but not followed in practice – therefore staff sensitization and open and critical discourse about current practices are essential.

In the Western Balkan countries organizations such as those mentioned in this article can support such efforts. The website of ERA provides an overview of countries and contacts.

2. The outward-looking development pathway: Recent studies and reports (see the list below) offer valuable insight into the situation of LGBTI people in the Western Balkans and give policy advice. CSOs and activist groups advocate for changes, contribute to public education and provide critical support to LGBTI people. There is however a continued need to change social norms and perceptions, and most importantly: to reduce systemic barriers that prevent LGBTI people from exercising their rights as equal citizens.

Helvetas has a strong focus on youth employment, including vocational education, job placement and creation; other programs strengthen local governance and public services. Within each of these areas, LGBTI people experience discrimination. What are the barriers that prevent them from equal access and participation? And what measures can prevent discrimination?

For organizations that implement programs, integration of LGBTI issues into project cycle management is required: recognizing LGBTI as a target group, analyzing and understanding underlying causes for exclusion, developing targeted interventions and entering partnerships with organizations that have a better understanding of LGBTI. Most importantly, it will require organizations like Helvetas to take a more active stance in their communication and relationships with stakeholders.  

In summary: We can do better than coming up with lame excuses and instead start working together to create a world that provides fair chances and opportunities to all, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or religion.

This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of Helvetas Mosaic.

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‘Sorry for your misfortune, but that’s how things are here…’