Home Institution

Washington University in St. Louis

Publication Date

Fall 2004

Program Name

The Balkans: Gender, Transformation and Civil Society


This research was done as a part of the independent study component of a study abroad program in the Balkans through the School for International Training. During the program, I visited several cities throughout the region, but I chose to be based in Sarajevo for the last month and the time frame of this project. Initially, my independent study project proposal focused on the issue of gender and how people in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) understand it both politically and socially. I wanted to study the relationship between women’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the new NGO that is working on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intergender and queer (LGBTTIQ) individuals. Both of these groups work with social problems involving gender and gender stereotypes. However, due to the length and time constraints that I faced, I changed my thesis. I focus a lot more on the LGBT community and the challenges people of non-heterosexual orientation face. This is a group that is largely invisible in Bosnian society because they are not accepted in most settings and their rights are not recognized. The prejudice that they face means that it requires a lot of courage to be an activist or even to be open about one’s sexuality.

There are several NGOs advocating LGBT rights and providing support and safe space in both Serbia and Croatia, but BiH is not quite as advanced. There is one LGBT NGO that was created last February, and there is some networking between people happening for the most part online. Other NGOs and governmental agencies are also doing some work to educate the public about the concept of gender and sexuality. In this paper, I want to explore both the work being planned by the new LGBT group and what is already being done. I also want to look at the terms that are used in the NGO and governmental sectors to describe this work.

I think one of the important goals of this research is to give a more complete picture of the lifestyle of LGBT persons, the problems they face and the activism on their behalf. I have made some effort to identify the challenges they deal with, and the strategies that are being used and could be used to bring about greater protection and acceptance. It almost seems like too basic of a topic to address because it sounds like something that should already have been done, but that is why here in BiH it is so important. It has not been fully addressed, and the research on this issue is limited and largely only addressed incidentally when other issues are being examined. One of the most common things I heard during my research was that if I wanted to do a paper on LGBT rights, it would have to be a short paper. Yet, I have discovered the opposite to be true. There is a lot that is going on, but the awareness among many people of it is very limited, and that lack of awareness is one of the biggest challenges to the new NGO working on behalf of sexual minorities.

I spent a lot of time during my research phase considering my own position in the work, that of both an outsider and an ally. I had some difficulty with the fact that I am sympathetic to the movement for LGBT rights, whichever country it is occurring in, because I felt this hindered my ability to do quality unbiased research. However, it is impossible to get away from the fact that I am a supporter of the movement because even my selection of the topic for study shows this. The fact that I recognize an LGBT NGO as important enough to research says something about my personal opinion. In one way my role as a supporter actually aided my research because it gave me the opportunity to speak with lesbian, gay and bisexual people themselves. If I were hostile to their cause, it is very unlikely that they would have spoken with me. It is easy to hear people who are prejudiced, and it is important to consider that those voices are often the loudest. Therefore, I think it is valuable to have a bias with an alternative slant to help publicize the work that is being done and the existence of LGBT persons. I have made an effort to give voice to all the opinions that I heard during my interviews, and it is important to remember that I am trying to explore the perspective of activists and those who suffer from discrimination. Studying activism is a much bigger part of this paper than studying the nature of prejudice.

The last interview that I conducted in Sarajevo was actually with a man who is not a part of the LGBT community or an activist on behalf of either women’s or LGBT rights. He is 25 years old and has worked in some capacity as a translator for two NGOs. He was very little informed about LGBT persons living in BiH or the new NGO that is working on their behalf, Organization Q. It was actually a valuable interview to have last because it helped me to reframe my work. My personal perspective was getting very skewed because I had only spoken with activists and LGBT persons themselves. It was difficult, but important, to hear the perspective of someone who believes without question that the protection of the traditional family structure in society is the key to the health of the society as a whole. He did not articulate his prejudice against lesbians or gay men, but it was there, even though he has never had to really say it or think deeply about the issue. This interview is why the work of Organization Q is so important and so difficult.

Mark Blasius uses a quote by Foucalt in his book on lesbian and gay politics, which I think is particularly fitting for my topic. In a discussion of the role of government in social control in a democracy, Foucault wrote, “the ancient right to take life or let live is replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.” Without more work to make them more visible and their lifestyles more widely understood and accepted, the LGBT community in BiH is in danger of simply being silenced and erased by a lack of awareness by the public, and the social illusion that heterosexuality is the norm for everyone. This paper will look at why they are not recognized, and how to make LGBT issues more visible.

The nature of my research is field-based, and draws mainly on in-person interviews with those involved in activism in Sarajevo and Mostar. I also spoke with a few people outside of the activist circle, who are members of the LGBT community or who are useful for gaining an outsider’s perspective. My other resources were legal documents and more theoretical writing about lesbian and gay politics worldwide. Therefore, since most of the people I spoke with live and work in Sarajevo, the conclusions that can be drawn from this research are limited. However, useful conclusions can still be drawn. It can be looked at as an indicator of the attitude throughout the country, as long as one bears in mind that it is the capitol city and it does tend to be more open than other areas. In the end, this is qualitative and not quantitative research. This paper does not attempt to draw larger conclusions or to represent a sample of the entire population of BiH. Instead, its value lies in an exploration of the opinions and perspective of people who are important to LGBT activism and to gender oriented NGOs more generally. Rather than provide a picture of BiH as a whole, I will attempt to explore some common problems with LGBT rights and the NGO sector that the new Organization Q will have to join.


Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies


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