“Every time I meet someone online and go meet him for the first time, I don’t know if I will have a great date or get attacked and beaten.”
Senad, a 34-year-old man, lives in fear that he will come across straight men masquerading as gay, all ready to attack. Senad knows of several people who were beaten by “gay predators”, which he says are people who troll gay dating websites or apps to target gay men.
On paper, Bosnia and Herzegovina — or BiH — has made strides in advancing LGBT rights. In 2016 the country’s two entities passed anti-discrimination laws that, for the first time, specifically included LGBT rights. But in practice, gay men and women do not feel safe from discrimination or harassment.
A 2017 survey conducted by the Sarajevo Open Centre found that safety is a huge concern for LGBT people. Around 69% feel unsafe attending public events or being in public spaces. Another 32% of gay men and 17% of lesbians have experienced violence because of their sexual orientation.
Partners to some, roommates to others
Luka, 38, and his long-term partner, Mihajlo, 30, have lived together for five years. They are an exception, as it requires gay couples to have both the financial means to live together and readiness to face the risk of doing so. The two are highly educated and Luka has his own business, yet despite their relatively high socio-economic status, the two act like they are just roommates. They are out to some friends, but are not out to any of their family members; they have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with their families.
Their home has two bedrooms, and the spare bedroom becomes Mihajlo’s room when family members come to visit. Luka says his parents are very liberal, so he thinks his parents would be OK if he came out to them — and that they may even already know — but he wants to spare them any worries about his safety.
Mihajlo on the other hand comes from a rural, traditional part of Bosnia. His parents could never imagine that their son as gay. Their families view Luka and Mihajlo as friends who happen to join traditional religious holiday celebrations together. Mihajlo will be attending Luka’s brother’s wedding next year. Somehow, even though still in the closet, they have been accepted as a pair of friends into both their families, even Mihajlo’s very traditional one.
“Most of our life together is just normal routine, but sometimes we feel completely lost. We joke that we have Stockholm syndrome. But we stay strong, calm and stable and stay focused on our goals, our life together and try to enjoy our life together to the max,” says Luka.
Many of their gay friends have emigrated, leaving them with a smaller circle of friends.
Luka says he sometimes feels like he is forced to lead a double life in order to live as a gay man in BiH. He and Mihajlo mislead loved ones constantly to keep their secret hidden, either by avoiding the whole truth or outright lying. When their families ask: “When are you going to find a woman, get married and have children?” they each reply, “Soon.”
To keep their relationship under wraps they are also vigilant about what is posted online. Luka and Mihajlo are Facebook friends but they rarely post pictures of the two of them together in an effort to hide their true relationship.
“We are always looking around and checking to see who is around, to see if it is safe. We’re always expecting someone to find about us and potentially cause a problem. We feel like a deer in the forest, always expecting a hunter or a predator,” says Luka.
“We are alone in our [ever-shrinking] microcosm, we can’t tell or share our feelings or opinions [with others]. If we do…” he says, his voice trailing off.
‘Ellen is gay, and everyone loves her’
Suzana, a 27-year-old expert in public diplomacy, believes the public perception of LGBT people is improving in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Things are changing massively,” she said.
Suzana, who is bisexual, says younger generations are increasingly becoming less fearful of coming out due to how Hollywood and the media have portrayed gay people in recent years — and with gay stars themselves going public about their sexual orientation.
“Ellen is gay, everyone loves her,” said Suzana. She is out to her friends and her mother, and feels like her dad is coming around and gradually being exposed to the idea that she is bisexual.
Suzana says she generally feels safe in BiH, especially because many people assume she is straight, but that she wouldn’t want to “push [her] luck” by showing affection with another woman in public.
“As a bisexual woman who 'reads' as straight, I'm not an obvious target. Friends of mine who look butch or gay men who obviously 'read' as gay have a harder time,” she said.
“It is much safer to be a lesbian than being a gay man. A man's homosexuality is viewed as a threat to established patriarchy and straight male sexuality.”
Sense of duty over self?
Luka and Mihajlo plan on buying a house together and are patiently waiting to be able to get married in BiH. They have chosen to stay in the country to be close to their parents and take care of them as they grow older. As the eldest son, Luka takes his responsibilities toward caring for his parents seriously — and they want to remain nearby to maintain the strong ties with their families.
In the meantime, living in the closet, they say, is the only safe space for the two of them.
*The people interviewed in this story have been given pseudonyms to protect their identity