Matej Vrebac: If I am not able to create my universe here, I will not be able to do it anywhere else

Source and photo: Diskriminacija.ba

Twenty-one-year-old Matej Vrebac from Fojnica is a student at the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo, activist and member of the LGBTI community. Even though he often thinks about leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina and moving to a European country, he still does not think it would be the right decision for him. With Matej we talked about the challenges he faces as an LGBTI person in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the reasons why he is thinking of leaving, but also the things that still keep him in our country.

To start with, introduce yourself, say something about yourself and your activism

That question I can hardly answer, because every day I search for who I am and what I am. I know some partial information, labels – some of them you get from birth, some of them you stick to yourself, then you get to like them, then you keep them. I come from Fojnica and I am 21 years old, soon 22. But I have the soul of an old man, without being poetic. I have had some kind of life circumstances which, when we take them objectively, can make a person age faster. I study Italian Language and Literature, Comparative Literature. I strive to get informal education. This is an important factor for me; I have completed the Academy of Youth Leaders of Civil Society SHL Foundation, Feminist School, School of Literary Critics. I am circulating between platforms such as the Sarajevo Open Center, the Schuler Helfen Leben Foundation, simply where I can see something useful. Where I can develop, where I can learn, where I can give a part of myself, so I look for a productive environment in the form of non-governmental organizations.

How open are you with others when it comes to your sexual identity? How much are you out?

I'm pretty out with that story, though there are limits when, what, and how. In a strange way I'm out and I think it's important to be out. Depending on what we define under out, it depends what you consider under out, because I don’t know what it means to people – being out. I'm primarily out to myself. I know who I am and where I am at any time. Somehow my coming out was progressive, suddenly it spread widely and it started from family, friends, close family, and after that somehow the environment, where I came into contact with people and felt free to say it, because I emphasized it. Because it's my activist spirit, I think it's an essential part of my identity, and also just to see how people will react. For these reasons exactly, to see what life for me will be like here, will I always have to keep silent and hide or will I be free to say a normal thing about my sexual orientation, in some situations in the future, without having to emphasize that I am gay and it sounding declarative, I don’t like that. I use it because that is, in fact, the only way to tell people specifically, directly, because you live in such an environment where such a thing does not fall into a sort of everyday situation.

Based upon that, were you able to make a conclusion on how much your sexual identity will cause a problem if you decide to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Can that create a problem? I believe that somehow that depends on how I take a stand to it. It's not my primary and only identity. Sexuality as such is always on the verge, whether LGBT or other sexuality. Whatever sexuality, when in any public discourse it is mentioned in the context of today's Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is taboo itself, which is very negative for society, because it creates a variety of complexes and fears. This creation of a taboo leads to the creation of social pressure because sexuality is simply a natural part of a person, but under the influence of, I would say, some social circumstances that are here marked by essentially religious, political and ideological structures, sexuality is erased from public life. For these very reasons, I started from my sexuality to make it less of a taboo. If my sexual identity is someone’s only criterion for determining me, and unfortunately it is in a number of cases, that is sad, I perceive that as disappointment as an individual. But you learn to live with it in time.

Have you ever been in a situation where you seriously thought about leaving?

At least two or three times a week, I have this thought about a possible life in a European country. In all those potential lives, somehow Europe is closest to me, I'm kind of accustomed to that cultural pattern so I imagine what it would be like, I write scenarios in my head – Matej in Germany, Matej in Italy, Matej in Spain, Matej in Sweden, Norway, and what all these lives could turn out to be. This happens mostly in situations when I'm frustrated, when I'm tired of everything, when I actually think that the only way to live, the only solution, is leaving my life here, opening a brand new page. It is somehow deleting a part of my former identity and then I ask myself the question – what would I gain with that? Would I really get what I wanted and what I hoped for or would I still be fooling myself? That's a question that concerns me as an individual.

When you create these novels about leaving in your head, are the reasons for such thinking some general problems, which more or less everyone in Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing, or are they closely related to your LGBTI identity?

No, I think that's some sort of general question. I think that it is the same for LGBT people and that those somehow are the primary reasons, I believe it is just one drop that overflows the glass. The economic situation and the devious mentality above all. Someone who has a slightly different view of life, who is freer, who accepts diversity and who does not like totalitarian thinking – a person who has such views probably won't enjoy this environment. Here, we cherish the cult of single-mindedness. The single-mindedness itself does not accept different people, especially LGBT people, and then it spills the cup further. Then there are further imaginations, which each of us construct in our heads, and then to the real problems add three hundred possible ones and that is it. And then people pack their bags and leave.

Why have you not left yet?

Why have I not left yet? I am one of those who barks a lot at this country, who critiques this society a lot, but I think that I have the right to do so because I am also one of the first to stand in defense of this society and these people and this country, who will also enumerate a million negative things in this country, but will find a million and hundred positive things in this country, these societies. It is just that life is comprised of little things and that is the day-to-day philosophy we all know, but apply sparely – life is made of little things. And if, as an individual, I am not able to create my universe here and now, a beautiful one, for a moment, then I will not be able to create it anywhere else.

And what are the beautiful and small things you are staying here for?

Beautiful and small things … Now it is the question of these beautiful and small things, don’t I want to get out of my comfort zone, and whether I intentionally focus on those small and beautiful things so that I do not see these big and ugly ones. I am happy with what I have here – happy that I am studying, happy with the relationship I am in, I am happy that my mother is here in the same country as I am, so we can meet occasionally. I am happy about the food, I am happy about nature, I am happy for these little beautiful things like the nonchalance of our spirit, like the easygoing style, like the warmth you can feel around. We simply live in such a society where each and every stranger, neighbors you do not know, can take the right to object to anything and everything, but at the same time they will come to your aid if you need it. It’s just that this is a thing that is neither black nor white, but gray, but still I like this thing in this silly society, because I am silly and even though this society is silly, I love it, even though it drives me crazy countless times, because some things simply cross the boundaries of common sense.

Do you know many people who have left and can you talk about the similarities of their experiences?

Well, I could just start with my family – my sister moved away long ago, a decade and more. My brother recently moved away, I'm the only kid of my mother still in the country. And then I hear every day the following: Hey, do you know who has left? Non-stop someone is leaving. Almost in every situation you can get into the context where someone is leaving, when you meet someone – you get to know each other: Are you here or abroad? It has become a daily question – are you here or abroad?

Do you know, among the people who have left, that someone left exclusively because their sexual orientation created a problem for them in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian society?

I know some, a small number of them, I have to admit, and they have succeeded. They had that goal – to leave, and they succeeded. But I see that they are still tied to this society.

Do you think that for you, as a member of the LGBTI community, it may be more difficult to stay in this society as you get older, because of achieving certain rights such as the right to a family community?

Yes, unfortunately. I think we all here have learned that we have a lack of rights, so I do not know if it would be difficult for me – since birth you have been taught, as a baby already, that you do not have any rights, so you think, whatever, I don't even need to have these ones which do not exist.

Do you think that leaving is an individual's decision regarding one’s life or is it a socially responsible process? Can those who decide to leave be condemned at any point?

You cannot condemn anyone for any reason because we never know the whole background. Departing is an individual act, people have always been leaving and mixing in this context when they leave. Simply, we may be living in a time of massive migration, where people are hoping for many things. Departure to us has already become a symbol that carries huge cultural power in this society, everyone is talking about leaving, migrating. This is something that will be mentioned through history, in the future I believe when it comes back to this period, it will be marked by a big departure, exodus, I do not know how to call it.

And the people who leave, should they take social responsibility? Yes. If they decide to leave from here, they should not allow themselves some luxuries. If you have already left this country, because you could not be constructive to the end, do not be destructive now. You decided to leave and try to find a better way and a better life, but do not make it difficult for the people who have stayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina by talking trash about the country. Like, everyone should leave. Not everyone should leave; who wants to leave – should leave, who wants to stay and work here – should stay, and if you can improve something here – improve it.

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