GlobalGayz interview with Zdravko Cimbaljevic, (former) director of LGBT Forum PROGRESS in central Podgorica; with an additional description of Juventas and Montenegro Gay Portal
Montenegro is often overlooked as a tourist destination. Indeed it is often overlooked in general or looked down upon politically, economically and ignored for industrial investment. There are historic reasons (ethnic and tribal wars) and current day reasons (dangerous mountain roads, human rights neglect, political corruption) for ignoring this southern corner of Eastern Europe. But these are reasons observed in the abstract; they are statistical generalizations and media reports. (photo right: native costumes and Orthodox priests in parade)
Montenegro is a historic study in warfare. For the past 600 years the natives here have fought against the Turks, Venetians, Serbs, fascists, Nazis, then Serbians again. Alex expressed exasperated yet grateful relief that he is the first generation in his family not to have engaged in war for centuries. Said one man, “my father was in the Balkan war (Yugoslav wars-1990s), my grandfather in WWII, my great-grandfather in WWI, before this the Balkan Wars of early 20th century, and so on back including resistance against the Turks for hundreds of years.”
On the ground here in the verdant forested highlands and along the azure blue coast Montenegro displays it beauty and its banality, its sublime landscapes and pockets of trash, its warmth and cautiousness, as anywhere. Further into the country, into the culture, a visitor can discover the good, the bad and the ugly including its opinion of homosexuality, in the attitudes, laws and culture conduct.
Homophobia runs high here mostly because of ignorance and lack of education about human sexual varieties. Most people have a vague awareness of what it is but there is zero effort anywhere–in schools, media, government programs–to help foster an better understanding of human sexuality.
Sex education during high school years does not happen. The exception is for the Online generation who can access sexual information, but this is not organized or directed as an educational topic for inquiring Montenegrans. Much more likely to be seen is pornography as a source of ‘learning’.
In the World Heritage port town (on the Adriatic Sea) of Kotor with its magnificent bay surrounded by castle-topped rugged peaks I spoke with Alex and Slava, two straight friends who manage a hostel in the picturesque old town. They agreed that in addition to lack of education–there are two major forces in the country that contribute to homophobia–religion and Montenegro’s version of machismo.
(photo left: overlooking Kotor town)
In the more rugged and conservative north of the country patriarchy and masculinity (and Islam) are dominant traditions that shape gender roles. Women carry less influence than men. A man must play his role with confidence in appearance and strength. In the south and coastal Christian areas there is more prosperity and a bit liberal thinking despite the resurgence of the Serbian Orthodox church (disliked by half the population who prefer their own Montenegro Orthodox church). Priests carry on the usual anti-gay tradition based on the usual misinterpretation of the bible.
Even though this is not a highly church-going society, Christianity has pervaded throughout the Balkans for a thousand years with its dogma and commandments and prejudices for and against certain social behavior (condemning same-sex activity while ignoring the proscription against slavery or charging interest on loaned money). During my visit I did not hear or read about and clergy sex scandals, but neither did I search out that issue.
Before the breakup of Yugoslavia into sectarian and ethnic tribes–painfully exposed in the 90’s Yugoslav wars–Slava said there was more tolerance and open-mindedness than now. Despite the overlay of Tito’s communism on the Balkans, women were more respected and homosexuality was not so vehemently opposed as now. War, violence and destruction create hostility, fear and mistrust of differences. Among the many economic and cultural consequences is today’s high level of suspicion and intolerance toward sexual minorities.
(Note: In late 2013 Zdravko was forced to flee to Canada to seek asylum because of harassment and death threats against him. He was granted asylum in Canada and now works for a human rights organization there.)
Like other cultures struggling out from under repressed and violent histories, Montenegro has its modest share of courageous LGBT activists who work in front of and behind the scenes to bring about awareness and change. “In a year or so we succeeded to change the Health Insurance Law in Montenegro where now transgender people can change their sex at the expense of the state health program. Also we introduced, along with the government ombudsman’s leadership, a proposal for a same-sex partnership law in the Parliament of Montenegro. Now there is a strong public debate about it.”
At the grand old Hotel Crna Gora (Black Mountian) in the capital city of Podgorica, I was talking with Zdravko Cimbaljevic (photo right), Montenegro’s most visible and assertive gay face who heads the LGBT Forum “PROGRESS” in Podgorica, the capital city. A gentle and friendly man of 28 who helped start PROGRESS in 2010, he said his coming out publicly was actually an accident. In 2010 he was physically attacked by a neighbor for appearing gay.
Instead of hiding in shame, Zdravko decided to fight back and took the assailant to court where all the facts were presented including Zdravko’s homosexuality. His parents discovered his secret by reading about it in the newspaper. “I guess you can say I was pushed out,” he explained with a laugh.
“At that time there were no hate crime laws despite the vitriol against gays, especially on Facebook.” His case was accepted to be heard in court and it ruled in his favor. Indeed the verdict was influential enough to help bring about a change in the Montenegran law so that hate speech is now a punishable crime, thank to persistent and strategic lobbying by Zdravko and PROGRESS volunteers.
A year later the law was invoked when PROGRESS took a college professor to court for advocating homophobic rejection of gays. In 2011 PROGRESS went into action against a fake NGO that tried to attend a funding conference in Podgorica by offering insurance for transsexual surgery. Incensed, Zdravko exposed the group to the conference officials. Zdravko is unafraid to stand his ground in these matters. “People don’t mess with me because I fight back and they respect that,” he said not in an arrogant manner but with the assurance of a right cause on his side.
After his court experience Zdravko decided something needed to be done to protect gay people and to educate the public about this issue. So LGBT Forum „PROGRESS“ was born in 2010. It is a nonprofit organization (funded by the Dutch Embassy in Belgrade) that speaks for LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer) people in Montenegro and advocates for respect, protection and equal human rights.
LGBT Forum “PROGRESS“
The mission of LGBT Forum “PROGRESS“ is to create a safe, inclusive, and supportive space for all LGBTIQ persons; to provide educative possibilities, community building and public and political advocacy, as well develop services that enhance quality of life and health for LGBTIQ citizens–“and to have some fun as well,” added Zdravko.
The organization is the only one in Montenegro that watches, advocates and protects LGBTIQ Human Rights. It has about 20 volunteers and hundreds of members in the capital and other cities. The challenge is great and the advocates are few; 75% of people think that homosexuality is illness and there is only one publicly out gay person who is assertively talking about LGBTIQ rights to anyone who will listen.
Despite its recent formation and small size, PROGRESS has secured a shelter for homeless and rejected LGBTIQ youth where a needy person can live for up to 6 months while establishing a job and living quarters. A recent arrival was a 14 year old boy who was beaten by his father when he discovered his son’s orientation. The boy was taken away from the father by the police and given to PROGRESS for protection. This police action was important for PROGRESS as well as the child.
The police now recognize PPORGRESS and are willing to work with them. Zdravko said that kids today, with much more awareness, are coming out younger and younger. Online in Europe there are thousands of websites and social networks that offer support and courage for the next LGBT generation. It doesn’t mean there is less homophobia around but there are more resources and help systems that are out there–and here–as well. Zdravko is in the process of applying for Montenegran government funding and has met with the Prime Minister about allocating the money for the shelter and more services.
Further progress was made when the government ombudsman publicly came out in favor of civil partnerships last year, in no small part because of the presence and lobbying efforts of PROGRESS. Yet this one step is only one of many giant steps yet to be taken toward educating the government and the public about minority rights and sexual minority rights.
In the background encouraging PROGRESS is Montenegro’s desire to join the European Union with its pro-gay statutes and standards as well as it economic benefits. But external structures are only part of the future; the tough work is internal, in the culture of Montenegro where gay rights are virtually unknown and homophobia is as much a part of everyday life as leather jackets. (photo right: report on discrimination)
Another important sign of human rights progress was reflected when the government of Montenegro hosted an international conference on the rights of sexual minorities entitled “Together against Discrimination” that took place in March 2012.
The conference was organized under the auspices of Prime Minister Igor Lukšić, and supported by the International Academic Conference Justice in the Balkans: Equality for Sexual Minorities, the Lund University Department of Sociology of Law in Lund, Sweden, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law and the European Commission on Sexual Orientation Law (ECSOL).
The conference brought together prominent international experts, scholars and human rights advocates from throughout Europe, senior government officials, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of the European Commission and the Council of Europe.
Since Zdravko is the face of LGBT Montenegro, on TV, radio and in the press. He was invited to present the shadow report that PROGESS had compiled based on its hands-on work and research. With two paid staff members and about 30 volunteers PROGRESS issued the shadow report outlining their efforts so far with proposals for further projects, including an outreach program for Turkish gays.
On the lighter side, PROGRESS sponsors an ‘underground party’ every three months held at a discrete location that’s known only by word of mouth among PROGRESS supporters. The parties are unusual and welcome events as well as cautious times for the youngsters who are brave and out enough to attend. First-timers are usually shy and fearful that they might see someone they know who could break their secret. Zdravko reassures them that invitations are extended only to known PROGRESS friends and their friends. So far there has not been any report of party-goers violating the code of discretion that protects the parties. Zdravko claimed that over 200 eager friends and acquaintances attended the most recent fun-time.
Personally, Zdravko feels he benefits from PROGRESS as well as those he serves, “this is my home, my family. I like this work for the people I meet and for the bigger purpose of human rights.” But the challenges are also big; “it’s hard to be the only one who is this far out in public but I would not ever out anyone else. Being attacked was the beginning of my own coming out; it’s not the way I preferred but it happened and I am making the best of it on behalf of a bigger community. Others will join me when they are ready and when PROGRESS shows more victories.”
Such victories are evident: the media are now better informed how to report on LGBT issues in a balanced manner. There is now a special police contact person for reporting LGBT problems and incidents. A positive presence on Facebook. In the near future Zdravko hopes to add a help-line when there are funds for equipment and for training volunteers.
Juventas and Montenegro Gay Portal
Another important organization in the country is the group Juventas–The Youth Cultural Center Juventas (YCC Juventas). It was founded in 1996 in Podgorica where its main office is located today. The vision of the YCC Juventas is Montenegro as a democratic, stable society in which young people can freely use their potentials, develop their interests and create their future. The mission of Juventas is to animate young people to be active participants in the process of decision-making upon which their future depends.
One of its projects is a pro-gay activist website called Montenegro Gay Portal that focuses on LGBT issues in the country, one of which is the high level of dislike for gay people. In a message sent to GlobalGayz in 2012, Juventas reported, “in July 2010, Juventas conducted a research poll on homophobia among the Montenegrin public, while LGBT Forum “Progress” and Centre for Civic Education implemented their survey in January 2012.
“Both surveys showed that a high level of homophobia exists: 68.5% of the population in 2010 and 59.9% in 2012 believed that homosexuality is a disease. Similarly, 61.3% in 2010 believed that homosexuals do not have the right to freely disclose their sexual orientation in public, while 45% of people interviewed had this opinion in 2012…”
“The LGBT community in Montenegro is facing three main problems:
(1) A high level of homophobia in Montenegrin society, meaning a high influence of stereotypes and prejudices on attitudes and low level of knowledge on sexuality and gender identity among general population and professionals;
(2) violence and discrimination against LGBT population, which is rarely reported;
(3) a under-documented and inadequate legal and institutional framework addressing the needs of LGBT people.
“These problems are interrelated. The high level of homophobia is a direct consequence of social norms, the lack of knowledge on sexuality and gender identity and an inadequate legal and institutional framework. It is also a cause of discrimination and violence towards LGBT people, low capacities of institutions to protect the rights of LGBT people, and finally the cause of significant lack of trust of LGBT people in institutions. This also results in the fact that violence and discrimination cases are rarely reported and documented…”
Read the full Juventas report in the GlobalgGayz News & Reports archive.
A Daunting Challenge
These three organizations–Juventas, Montenegrro Gay Portal and LGBT Forum “Progress”–face a daunting challenge in a country that has had no awareness of LHBT issues ever in its modern history. Gay people have been an invisible minority long before and since independence. Fear and ignorance has kept them forced into dark closets. Reversing a cultural trend takes more more than a generation, even in progressive countries where pro-gay laws have been passed.
In the Balkans a toxic combination of skin-head narrow-minded nationalism, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim homophobic misinterpretations of scripture as well as and anti-gay statutes have served to whip up emotional and irrational opposition to the inherent truth about human sexuality. People committed to ignorance and blinded by fear are formidable enemies who willingly resort to slander and violence to defend their beliefs. It will be many years before LGBT people feel trusting enough of their culture to walk with confidence and a sense of security in Montenegro. But it will happen, as the world turns, thanks to the great courage and resilience of these three groups.
A Personal Testament of Being Gay in Montenergro
The following was written by a gay member of Juventas who describes their work: ‘I Write Down To Speak Up: A Personal Testament of Being Gay in Montenergro’
From: Gay portal Montenegro
23 June 2010 (translated)
It seems that after three years of Montenegro Gay Portal (MGP) was time to learn something about the team that implemented it. As we already wrote MGP was created under the project “Health and Rights”, which is funded by the Global Fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. People working on the content of our site are lesbians, gays and bisexuals, and those who are proven true friends of the LGBT community.
The same people who create content for Montenegro Gay Portal–created by Juventas–are working on other projects aimed at improving the situation and rights of LGBT people. They are active members of the coalition “Together for LGBT Rights,” the active agents in the idea of painted slogans like “So different, yet equal “and” No more no less. They support equal rights for all and distribute free condoms and lubricant to men who have sex with men and inform them on how best to protect against sexually transmitted infections. They inform where and how free and confidential testing is available, and are often in a situation and to give them moral support in difficult situations.
Also, MGP closely follows developments on the Montenegrin political scene. First, it was important for the process of writing and adopting the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination, and now it is for future policy and legislative solutions that will aim to promote democracy and human rights. They regularly monitor the press for the topic of LGBT issues to see they are properly written and analyzed .
On our site there is online counseling. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays where one can chat live with one of our LGBT activists or with our Dr. Theo Dakić. You can always send us a message. It is important that you mention the specified problem, enter your correct e-mail address so we will send you the answer. For those who prefer the sound of someone’s voice, not virtual, there is a telephone counseling. Every working day from 17.00 to 21.00 you can talk by phone with one of our LGBT activists. Whether you have a problem, something is bothering you or are you simply eager to talk with someone who is accepting and does not care if you’re L, G, B or T.
Another update on our site is definitely a form of RHVP (Report homophobic Violence, Period). If you were a victim of any kind of homophobic violence, or have seen the same, you can report it here. If desired, the application may be anonymous. Violence is important to report because it is the only way we can fight against it!
Our strength also is found in our so-called allies. Our volunteers actively work to strengthen the LGBT community and are considered to be a very valuable contribution to Juventas. The text information that we publish on our site to distribute to the community is for us a significant goal. For those who are not willing to be “out” there is always an option that we call “armchair activism”, behind the scene. Activism does not mean that we are all visible. We can each contribute to improving our society in our own way . Every volunteer can assess the opportunities and be open or not, as you feel comfortable with.
In the spirit of the above, we use the opportunity to invite you to write us by mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us suggestions and comments on existing content, if you find inspiration. Or write a text or make a photo that you think should be on our site. This is our forum that allows you to exchange views with other members and even make new friends.
Soon we plan to make a blog where you will be able to write your thoughts, experiences, or whatever you want to share with others. And you can be part of the MGP team!
Montenegro Gay Portal
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