Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonian Gays Come Out from Shadows

Once an invisible minority, Macedonia’s small lesbian and gay community is becoming assertive
By Ana Petruseva

The crowded café may seem like many others in Skopje but the couples holding hands and kissing on Valentine's Day are not a common sight, for nearly all are men.


Under a dim red light, they were celebrating the second anniversary of the Centre for Civil and Human Rights, the only organisation in Macedonia specifically concerned with promoting gay and lesbian rights.


While the atmosphere inside was cosy and relaxed, the climate outside remains frosty towards gays and lesbians, who have to rely on subterfuge and deception to avoid the hatred of this homophobic society.


Aleksandar and Goran are young, educated and much-travelled. As well off professionals in London, New York or Paris, they should have everything going for them - and they would have, if they lived in London, New York or Paris.


But in a conservative Balkan society where most people look on homosexuality as a disease, they have to lie to get by. The stakes are high.


“Word spreads fast and if people found out we could lose our jobs and bring suffering and embarrassment to our parents,” said Goran, 26.


Whereas most homosexual couples lead double lives, Aleksandar and Goran have lived together for three years. Aleksandar`s parents know they are gay and so do their friends.


Their relationship has already cost them their home. “We lived in a luxurious apartment and paid a high rent,” Aleksandar recalled. “But once the landlord found out we were a couple, we were evicted. He said, ‘I know about you and I don’t want people like you living in my apartment’.”


After months of searching for a new place (one man refused to rent them an apartment with a double bed), they asked a female friend to act the part of Aleksandar’s partner. “She posed as my girlfriend just so I could rent an apartment,” he said.


Macedonia shares the general climate of Balkan intolerance towards same-sex relationships. Jail terms for homosexuality were scrapped in 1996, but society’s attitudes have barely inched forward since then.


Over the past years, gay bars have opened - only to close as soon as the outside world learned about them. “Hooligans used to wait for us outside the bar. A few of our friends were badly beaten,” Goran said.


To add to the pressure, the police regularly raid the cruising areas around the capital where homosexuals like to meet up.


Society remains hostile. A survey by the Centre for Civil and Human Rights in 2002 showed over 80 per cent saw homosexuality as a danger to the family and as a psychiatric disorder. About 65 per cent described being Gay as a crime that warranted a jail term.


Cvetan Janev, 59, from the Skopje suburbs, told IWPR that talk of sexual rights infuriated him. “How can you talk about the rights of people with a distorted sexual orientation?” he fumed. “These are sick people. Sexual rights are an invention of western European societies. They are trying to legalise a perversion.”


Ninoslav Mladenovic, head of the Centre for Civil and Human Rights, describes gays and lesbians as “one of the most invisible minorities in Macedonia, living in constant fear of humiliation, public disgrace and physical attacks”.


Some advocates of better treatment for gays blame the lack of education about sexuality at both the school and university level. “We have eminent professors from the Medical Faculty in Skopje teaching students from literature that treats homosexuality as a disease,” said Mirjana Najcevska, of the Helsinki human rights committee. “And we have Professor Olga Skaric from the Faculty of Philosophy who published a book in 2001 in which she defined homosexuality as a disease.”


Najcevska said matters were changing, following a controversial billboard campaign sponsored by the US embassy and International Centre Olaf Palme, which sparked a fresh debate over homosexual rights. The billboards, put up by the Centre for Civil and Human Rights, portrayed a variety of men and women beside the slogan, “Face Diversity: Campaign to Promote the Rights of Sexual Minorities”.


The billboards did not provoke much reaction until a conservative US magazine, the National Review Online, in January accused the US embassy in Macedonia of pushing gay agenda, quoting a supportive Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski as saying US taxes ought not to go “towards promoting alternative lifestyles in my country”, as they were “deeply offensive to most people in Macedonia, which represents a very conservative mix of the Orthodox Christian and Muslim faiths”.


The president’s remarks provoked an unprecedented debate in the local media, with the daily newspaper Dnevnik publishing a critical editorial, which asked, “When will Trajkovski face diversity?”


The Centre for Civil and Human Rights has stepped up its activities, staging a conference on gay problems in Macedonia last November, which drew representatives from the Balkan states, Britain, the US, Germany, Netherlands and Sweden.


Although few local gays or lesbians took part, mainly for fear of being recognised on television, organisers claimed that the holding of such an event was a victory. “We managed to open a debate, which was the whole point,” said Ninoslav Mladenovic. He is now planning Macedonia’s first gay and lesbian film festival.


Despite these flickers of assertiveness, many homosexuals will remain reluctant to come out. The country’s poor economy keeps them dependent on their parents, as do strong family ties.


Aleskandar says he and his partner still have to watch out. They avoid any public display of physical affection that might draw attention to their lifestyle. But they claim the city is becoming more liberal and believe time is on their side.


“We are lucky because we are both well off and have lots of gay and straight friends who have accepted us,” said Aleksandar.


Ana Petruseva is IWPR`s Macedonia project manager, Mitko Jovanov is a journalist with daily Dnevnik.


More IWPR's Global Voices

Why Did Cuba Jail This Journalist?
Rights defenders say that unusually harsh punishment reflects wider troubles for Havana regime.
Under A Watchful Eye: Cyber Surveillance in Cuba
Cuba's Less Than Beautiful Game