Queer people and departure from Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Vienna story

Thirty-year-old B. D. from Mostar moved away from Bosnia and Herzegovina four years ago. With her partner, she decided to start a new life in Vienna after many years of threats, pressures and unpleasant experiences which she was exposed to in several Bosnian-Herzegovinian cities she had lived in.

B.D. begins with recalling her life in Mostar, where she was born. In that city, her LGBTI identity during her early youth did not even get the chance to come to the fore because another identity dominated – the identity of a child from a mixed marriage.

“I am a child from a mixed marriage, my father is Muslim and my mother is Catholic. And that was essentially my identity in Mostar. There was absolutely no expression of anything else in terms of identity and that was a very, very difficult time for me. In Mostar, I was a classic in-the-closet case and I experienced a lot of peer violence. It lasted eight years, really intensively throughout elementary school and the entire high school. Although my parents were very open and took me to a psychologist and a psychiatrist because of all that, it was not helpful. Because even though I was working on myself, on the other hand I got only contradictory reactions. And that was not very pleasant. So my queer identity could not come to the fore, to be some kind of topic.”

Identity struggle

After high school, B. D. enrolls in a university in Tuzla, where she finally gets some space to explore more intensively and get to know her other identities. She comes to an environment where her national identity is no longer important, she meets the strong LGBTI community and she connects with them. Then follows a period of empowering her queer identity, but also a period of a health struggle. Her stay in Tuzla was marked by her first encounter with a cancerous illness.

“In 2010 I was given a cancerous illness diagnosis and my whole focus was really on healing and empowering myself as a woman and of course the whole queer identity background. I had a really great team with whom I hung out and with whom I spent time. My queer identity was never questionable, but I think the period in Tuzla, the first two years, was crucial to get to know myself – who I am and what I am.”

However, as time passed, B. D. begins to realize that she is increasingly exposed to dangers because of her empowered queer identity. Violence and assaults on her and her friends become a common occurrence, primarily because they did not hide their affiliation with the LGBTI community. All these attacks were, however, the “milder period” of her activism in relation to what followed, explains B. D. The next period in her life was marked by moving to Banja Luka, where with a smaller group of activists she launched the Banja Luka Queer Association, which loudly advocated for the rights of LGBTI people.

“And as we were more and more active as an association, the danger began to grow bigger and bigger. Over time, once the association was registered, it became worse and worse. Our lives were endangered, not just for me and my partner Lana, but also for Maja and Miladina. We were all out, so loudly out… I cannot describe the amount of fear and responsibility you take as an elder to a group of young people with whom you spend 12 hours a day.”

Meanwhile, B. D. was again diagnosed with a cancerous illness and was once again subjected to two of the most difficult battles in life – the battle for health and the battle for queer identity.

“My partner and I lived together in an apartment and when I was diagnosed with a cancerous illness for the second time, our landlord kicked us out of the apartment. After receiving my first chemotherapy, I'm on the street.”

As their activism became louder, it brought more danger with it, so fear became an integral part of their lives. At one point, doing daily activities was no longer possible, explains B. D.

“People had to go to the store to buy food for us. We really feared getting out of the house. Not to mention the attacks, how many times it happened that people came and knocked on our door, they banged on it, and I called the police to report them, and again tomorrow to report them again, and the police would not come and I had to sit locked in the ground floor apartment and pray to God that they don't break the window, that they don't shoot me, because someone is there with a burglar mask and I have no idea who he is.”

Going to Austria with 1,500 euros and a new struggle for recognition

Life on the edge due to serious health problems and the fear of being constantly exposed for their activism eventually made B. D. decide to leave Banja Luka and Bosnia and Herzegovina with her partner. Although they were condemned by some activists, B. D. believes that the specific situation in which she was justified her egoism at that moment.

“The only thing you want – you want to be healthy and safe, nothing more than just the two. And then you're looking for a way, what to do to get the two of them.”

They did not prepare themselves especially for going to Austria. They contacted LGBTI organizations in Vienna asking for help during the first period of their stay in the new country, but they did not receive what they were looking for at those addresses.

“There was no long-term thinking or a specific plan, what are we going to do now – that we arrived to something prearranged. We took out a one-thousand-euro loan and borrowed another 500 euros from someone and we packed our suitcases and came to Vienna,” says B. D. and adds that they got along for the first month being in a student home unreported.

“That month was really the toughest month because this accommodation cost 700 euros and you have as much money left. You have to pay for transportation tickets, you have come to an unknown city, you have no Android phone, you have no map of the city, everything is new. The only great luck was that I speak German, so I could communicate with all those people on the streets.”

Although they came to Austria with Croatian passports, they hoped they would not have a problem finding a job, yet they received many administrative obstacles before they could really legally work. Only after one year of staying in Austria, the vector graphics occupation, which is her partner's occupation, found itself on the list of deficient occupations and finally at least one of them managed to obtain a work permit. In order for B. D. to obtain health insurance through her partner and also get a work permit, they decided to formalize their relationship through a civil partnership recognized in Austria.

“When she got the work permit, we sat here one night and Lana tells me, we will have to sign, there is no other way. We never thought about partnership or marriage, that paper was just a paper to me. It does not change anything in my relation to her. But we read so much during that year about all possible laws and loopholes in the law, and they have them here too, that in the end I said really out of spite –  if the system f…s with me all this time, I'll now sign and in 24 hours we will have all the papers. And it really was like that, we signed today, in Upper Austria, and in 24 hours we came back home and in the mailbox I had all the papers. One signature! All papers!”

Queer diaspora as support to those who stayed behind

Although at one point she felt that she had betrayed herself and others by leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina and leaving other activists behind, B. D. today believes that the queer diaspora from around the world can contribute and already does a great deal to help the LGBTI community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sometimes assistance is reflected in support for some events that LGBTI organizations are preparing and sometimes it is financial support. The queer diaspora network is not formally established, but B. D. explains that the group, informal as it is now, functions very well.

“As it is currently, it works great and definitely all the people we are connected to know that they have our support and can always contact us. That is not a topic at all.”

B.D. also tries to influence social change in Austria, because, as she explains, they are not all open to talking about the LGBTI community in that country either. However, some things differ significantly from life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as the fact that she and her partner are now protected by the law and the police or that the state treats them as a family community.

“To make this clear, there is fascism here as much as you want, there is harassment and everything, I do not exclude it, there are protests every Thursday. But these basic human needs – to be safe, to be valued, to be accepted existing as just a person, that was so unfamiliar to us and it is really nice. You feel safe,” concludes B. D.

 

This article was made in cooperation with partners from the organization Schüler Helfen Leben from Berlin.

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