Author: Amar Bašić, for BUKA Magazin
On March 18, 2023, we witnessed new violence against the LGBT+ community, this time in Banja Luka. Years of seemingly upward trajectory led us to hope for smoother sailing towards full freedom and respect for rights in the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus, this attack understandably came as a shock, and led many of us to put it in the broader context of radicalization, Belgrade Orthodox Christian riots, and right-wing movements. The perception is of growing intolerance, as if it had never been worse.
I will venture here to say that it is not so.
In February, we will have the opportunity to mark twenty years since the registration of the first LGBT+ organization in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Association Q. Activist and cultural initiatives existed before, but we can consider that February of 2004 as the beginning of serious, consistent and “institutional” activist work to promote rights and culture of LGBT+ persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Twenty years of life, work, fun, protest, music, advocacy, camaraderie, confrontation, film, tears, drag shows, reading, singing, talking, hugging… Without the intention of diminishing the experience of activists in Banja Luka in any way, I want to show how this is another point in our community's many years of striving towards equality and freedom.
If we look back over the past two decades, we will see that sailing has never been easy, that it used to be much worse, and that our community has always faced new challenges, new obstacles and new slaps in the face, yet came out on the other side even more colorful and stronger.
The déjà vu of Banja Luka
Event bans of the BiH Pride March in Banja Luka and the violence against activists was preceded by a media campaign in which the public service of Republika Srpska also took part. On March 16, several media outlets reported on a statement by the relatively unknown organization Srbsko Sabranje Baštionik, in which they called on the Mayor of Banja Luka Draško Stanivuković, RS Prime Minister Radovan Višković, and RS President Milorad Dodik not to allow the rally to take place due to the “degradation of traditional, Christian, true human and civilizational values, moral norms and healthy foundations on which every society rests.”
The next day, on the eve of the ban on the event, RTRS announced in its own report that the “aggressive announcement” of the event “was condemned by the officials of the Republika Srpska, the city of Banjaluka, as well as the Church, emphasizing that in Repubika Srpska everyone has the right to freedom of speech as long as they do not offend others and their beliefs, especially the traditional Orthodox Christian family” with the remark that “it is especially indicative that such gatherings are organized during the strict Easter fast“.
After the ban on the gathering, attacks on the members of the Organizing Committee, and the literal expulsion of activists from the territory of Republika Srpska, Stanivuković immediately condemned the violence, but once again asserted that Banja Luka “will remain a bastion of traditionally patriarchal family values.” Dodik, also declaratively condemning the violence, emphasized that Banja Luka “declared that it does not belong to that type of consciousness,” and that he believes that “it is their right to exercise it wherever they want, except in public places.”
The final touch on all this was given again by Dodik on March 28 when he declared that there are “places, islands around the world where this is normal; please go and live there. This is our way of life and I am trying to protect our way of life.”
But all this has already happened.
There has been no shortage of media frenzy over the past twenty years. In the past, they were carried out most loudly by Dnevni Avaz (whose editorial approach to LGBT+ topics underwent a complete turnaround, so today this newspaper is inclined to the protection of human rights and freedom of assembly), together with Walter and SAFF (Walter is no longer publishing, SAFF has switched exclusively to online edition).
Walter and the self-proclaimed “commissioner” of that newspaper, Fatmir Alispahić, led the attack on the then just announced shooting of the film “Go West” by Ahmed Imamović about two gay men caught in the whirlwind of war in the 1990s. In September 2004, with an appearance on the NTV Hayat show and a series of articles, Alispahić set the tone for the entire discussion by claiming that “with this film ‘Go West’, the Bosniak tragedy is being blasphemed” and that “fags should be called fags.” (The BiH Press Council confirmed in December 2004 that the Walter newspaper violated the provisions of the BiH Press Code with offensive and discriminatory writing. No incidents were recorded at the screenings of the film “Go West”.)
Other media did not shy away from sensationalism at the expense of the LGBT+ community. Thus, on February 18, 2005, Večernji list presented the regular meeting of the SEE Q network (a network of LGBT+ organizations from the area of the former Yugoslavia) as a “secret conference” held “away from the public eye at a strictly guarded location in Sarajevo.” None of the above was true. The meeting was of a working nature and closed to the public, a statement was issued after it, and the premises of Association Q, which hosted the meeting, were no secret.
For years, Dnevni avaz maintained the narrative with sporadic sensational headlines (e.g. “Is homosexuality just a choice or a disease”, February 23, 2005), but the peak came with the announcement of the first Queer Sarajevo Festival in 2008. Just as RTRS recently worriedly noted to us that the announcement of the BiH Pride March came in the middle of the Easter fast, in 2008 Dnevni avaz and SAFF were worried that the first queer festival was happening during Ramadan.
No reminders that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a secular country were valid. Dnevni avaz continuously came up with headlines: “Who is making Bosniaks go through a gay gathering during Ramadan?” (28/08/2008), “Effendi Smajkić: Freedom should not be used as a promotion of that garbage from the West” (02/09/2008), “We are investigating – the Bosnian public against the Queer Festival in Sarajevo: Provocative gay gathering during Ramadan!” SAFF followed closely with: “Dangerous toying with the religious feelings of Bosniaks: Festival of homosexuals in the holy month of Ramadan” (22/08/2008). Avaz was not averse to quoting the then executive secretary of the SNSD, Rajko Vasić, that “they want to artificially turn Sarajevo into a metropolis, but in a way that brings nothing to Sarajevo in terms of quality. No city needs that.”
In addition to the media, the political scene of that time did not hold back either. Bakir Izetbegović, then a member of the B&H Parliamentary Assembly, said that the festival is “a reminder of Sodom and Gomorrah on the 27th night, a noble night that Muslims look forward to.” Using Ramadan as an excuse, the festival was also condemned by the chief imam of Sarajevo, Ferid effendi Dautović, general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference in B&H, Monsignor Ivo Tomašević, general secretary of the political party SDA Amir Zukić, representative of SBiH Amila Alikadić-Husović, vice president of SBiH Beriz Belkić, and the then mayoress of Sarajevo Semiha Borovac.
Belkić and Borovac later publicly condemned the attack on QSF participants as unacceptable. In 2016, as the Minister for Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Borovac unequivocally supported the right of LGBT+ people to gather publicly and opposed discrimination against LGBT+ people.
Before the violence in Banja Luka, Bishop Fotije remembered the Sodom and Gomorrah, when he “called on brothers and sisters to raise their voices against Sodom and Gomorrah in order to defend their holiness and Orthodoxy, family, state and Church.” A similar story was told in September 2008 by the mufti of Mostar Seid effendi Smajkić, on the eve of the press conference of Association Q and OKC (Youth Cultural Center) “Abrašević” in Mostar. Smajkić then told Dnevni avaz that “freedom and democracy should not be used to promote freaky ideas and garbage imported from the West,” and that “it simply does not fit into the vision of Bosniaks.”
11 years later, on the eve of the first BiH Pride March, the Islamic community came out with an official conclusion that the theological position on this topic is unchanged, but that “violence against any person based on their personal belief or orientation is not allowed.” A similar message was sent by the Bishops’ Conference of Bosnia and Herzegovina: “In conclusion, it can be concluded that holding this event in Sarajevo is a shame for this city, but at the same time it would be an even greater shame if, God forbid, someone gets hurt in riots because of it.”
As far as obscure pseudo-religious groups are concerned, the forerunner of the Srbsko Sabranje Baštionik was the Association “Svjetlost-Menar” from Sarajevo, which held a public lecture on July 16, 2006 in the Bosnian Cultural Center under the name “The Way to Salvation from Homosexuality”. There, the lecturer gave instructions on how to kill gay people according to Sharia: throw them off a cliff, knock down a wall on top of them, or stone them. (A Google search indicates that this association is no longer active.)
Dodik did not show any particular originality either. Before him, the former representative of SDA in the Sarajevo Canton Assembly, Samra Ćosović-Hajdarević, reacted to the announcement of the first BiH Pride March in 2019, asking that “people like this isolate themselves and stay as far away from our children and society as possible. Let them go somewhere else and make their own city, state, laws and rights that no one will challenge. But NOT here!” (In 2022, the municipal court in Sarajevo confirmed in a first instance verdict that the call for isolation goes beyond freedom of speech and represents discrimination against LGBT+ people.)
We should not ignore the fact that, just as political names from the RS tried to present Pride as something imposed from Sarajevo, individuals from Sarajevo on social networks once complained that the Pride in Sarajevo was organized by, among others, activists from Republika Srpska.
Time is on our side
There are many parallels between what happened in Banja Luka and similar incidents in Sarajevo and Tuzla. Just like in Banja Luka, the police failed in 2008 by allowing members of the Salafi movement to reach the very entrance to the Academy of Fine Arts and terrorize the participants. Just like in Banja Luka, homophobes chased the organizers and guests of QSF around town. Just like in Banja Luka, homophobic posters were pasted against the QSF in Sarajevo in 2008 and against the “Merlinka” festival in Tuzla in 2019. Just like in Banja Luka, hooligans broke up a cultural event in Sarajevo in 2014 and tried to do the same in Tuzla in 2019.
It may seem to us that Banja Luka is trotting behind Sarajevo or Tuzla. And it could also be that Banja Luka is at the moment somewhat more exposed to the right-wing trend that stretches from Belgrade and Budapest all the way to Moscow. Be that as it may, there are no quick and easy answers. It is necessary to continue working patiently on educating and raising awareness among the public, the police, the media, and public services.
Looking at the history of activism as a whole, it is clear that courage, resilience, and much reason for optimism do exist. Through all the mentioned episodes and incidents, homophobes take turns, and our community stands bravely and builds a better and safer space every day. Homophobic resistance is inevitable in the life, culture and activism of the LGBT+ community. That resistance sometimes changes form, but it never disappears completely. It is up to us to adapt to all the challenges and move on.
That's why we need to learn from the lessons of the past. The violent termination of the QSF left the LGBT+ community in shock and fear for nearly two years. The organizers disappeared from the public scene, the Q Association practically shut down, and other LGBT+ initiatives were not serious and organized enough to fill the void. It was only in the middle of 2010 that the Sarajevo Open Center began to revive LGBT+ life and activism.
In 2014, the same mistake was not made. After the violent intrusion of hooligans into the Kriterion cinema, the “Merlinka in Sarajevo” festival was not stopped. It continued with even greater zeal and energy. The same thing happened with “Merlinka in Tuzla” in 2019. While the QSF from today's perspective is only an unsuccessful historical episode, the “Merlinka” festival continued to live and today exists in a domestic form as the queer art festival “Kvirhana”.
Despite numerous challenges, pressures and obstructions, both open and hidden, the BiH Pride March today is an unavoidable date on the cultural scene. At one point in 2019, NiP and SDA publicly competed over who was more against Pride, and last year, the Cantonal Minister Adnan Delić abused the official channels of the KS Ministry of Economy in order to spread personal homophobic views. And yet, there have been four Pride Marches (including the pandemic one) without a single incident. It could be said that the BiH Pride March became a serious enough “threat” to the homophobic establishment in Banja Luka to cause this kind of a reaction.
This did not happen spontaneously. It was preceded by almost two decades of engagement, stumbling and rising. This is a lesson that we should also apply in Banja Luka. It will never be easy, but we must have patience, courage and perseverance. Activists, especially the Banja Luka LGBT+ community, now need support to continue even stronger and louder than before. Banja Luka is not across the world; it is as much a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina's somewhat backward but also somewhat progressive European society as Sarajevo and Tuzla. It has the same constitutional provisions against discrimination (Annex I of the Constitution of B&H), and the same Constitutional Court of B&H which confirmed in 2014 and 2018 that the authorities in FBiH and Sarajevo did not do enough to ensure guaranteed freedom of assembly for the LGBT+ community.
Not everyone and everything in Banja Luka remained silent on what happened on March 18. Just as it is a lie that most citizens of Sarajevo do not support Pride, it is also a lie that most citizens of Banja Luka want an atmosphere of fear and violence on their streets. Just as Dani magazine in October 2008 plastered every newsstand in Sarajevo with rainbow colors, this time too there were numerous reactions and condemnations of violence on the streets of Banja Luka.
Today's LGBT+ community is far stronger than it was in 2004, 2008 and 2014. Today, we have many more allies who are ready to bravely stand with us. Today, we are far more and better connected. Today, we have much more support available, both friendly and professional. That was hard to imagine back in 2004. But thanks to the experience of the past two decades, today it is not difficult to imagine a better situation in Banja Luka and the entire Republika Srpska in the years to come. That should be our goal.
The BiH Pride March justified its mission and the role of the all-Bosnian-Herzegovinian group of activists who work together to promote and protect the culture and rights of LGBT+ people throughout B&H. We don't need fear, defeatism and whining. We need activism, culture, fellowship, creativity, fun, colorfulness and dynamics that characterize our community!
We stick to the set course, because time really is on our side.
Amar Bašić is a former LGBT+ activist, he was a member of the Q Association, a co-founder of the Logos Association, and a member of the Organizational Committee of the first BiH Pride March. Now he is an occasional collaborator of the Sarajevo Open Center and other organizations in activities for the LGBT+ community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.