Somewhere over the rainbow

In a country where the potential for LGBTI visibility and acceptance is slowly but surely growing, the legislation surrounding the rights of these individuals is lagging behind.

By Isobel Shaddock

When Kocho Andonovski, one of Macedonia’s most prominent activists, decided to ‘come out’ on national television it was a significant turning point in his life both personally and professionally. In a country like Macedonia where hate speech and violence against those who identify as LGBTI is prevalent, Mr Andonovski’s bravery has without a doubt inspired others, one of which is Ljubomir Faizoy.

Faizoy’s story, like so many others, begins with a young confused kid keeping his sexual identity a secret from those around him,

‘The moment I realised that I’m not the only gay in Macedonia was when Kocho came out publicly on television’, recounts Mr Faizoy which much enthusiasm.

For Mr Faizoy the simple realisation that he was not alone made such a huge impact on him that today the pair work together at the LGBTI Support Center in Skopje, along with Milena Papakoch and Elena Ristousua.

LGBTI organisations have a lot to contend with in Macedonia. In a country that is in constant political turmoil, LGBTI issues are not commonly at the forefront of the government’s or indeed the public’s minds.

In 2015 legislation to change the constitution to state that marriage should only include the union of a man and a woman was set to be introduced in the country.

The systematic ineffectiveness of the police and authorities is a constant struggle for LGBTI persons in the country. Incidents often go unreported due to a lack of trust in the system.

Transgender rights continue to be a pressing issue, with the government deciding not to recognise changes of sex both from a medical standpoint and legally. Currently many Trans people leave the country for surgery or even to simply to change their name, which they cannot do in Macedonia.

Although these problems are rampant in the country, many say that there are positives moving forward. In a country whose laws and officials are failing them, society as a whole is known to be considerably more progressive and accepting.

Tetovo, a small city located an hour from the capitol Skopje. The city is a conglomeration of different ethnicities and minority groups making it, at times particually tension filled area
Tetovo, a small city located an hour from the capitol Skopje. The city is a conglomeration of different ethnicities and minority groups making it, at times, a particularly tension filled area

Discrimination and violence still the norm?

‘Last year I had to stay at home for a month without moving because the threats were so bad’,

That’s LGBT United Tetovo President Bekim Asani.

During his time as both an activist and openly gay man, he has experienced more than his fair share of discrimination and outward hostility and violence.

In 2013 Mr Asani was kidnapped for six hours, he has experienced regular death threats and has had bricks thrown through his window, his home now has a very extensive security system.

When Mr Asani was asked how he would describe the current situation in Macedonia he simply said,

‘Hard, discriminatory, at lot of violence’.

Even still Mr Asani says he will not leave Macedonia and sees continuing activism in his home town as his life’s mission,

‘I will not leave, never’.

When LGBT United Tetovo opened in May 2012, Mr Asani was living in a city divided; the area was and continues to be, rife with various minority groups, like the LGBTI community,

‘I was tired and pissed off at nothing happening in Tetovo’

Violence against those who identify as LGBTI in Macedonia is often both wide spread and often hidden. There is a distinct feeling amongst activist groups that authorities are uncooperative when it comes to catching and punishing perpetrators of violence.

Often violence goes unreported in Macedonia because many people don’t believe that the institutions will take the threats against them seriously, nor will the authorities be able to persecute if a perpetrator is apprehended,

‘I personally have not reported any case of violence, of threats against me’, said Mr Asani ‘I don’t trust them.

However he says he is trying, more recently LGBT United has been working alongside the police who have been frequent at events in Tetovo to hopefully remove the threat of violence.

‘Tetovo is small place if I go against these peoples the troubles can become more bigger because they will give up but somebody else will hurt me or peoples around me’, Mr Asani said.

LGBT United does not disclose the location of their office, there are no signs or paraphernalia to distinguish the building from those around it and only four staff members currently work there.

Since 2012 when the LGBTI Support Center opened. there have been six attacks on their previous headquarters in the Old Bazaar, Skopje. Now the Support Center is carefully tucked away, a decent thirty minute walk from the Old Bazaar.

It seems as if the changes to location is to deter possible opponents to their cause although it’s as if no one wants to admit that this is in fact the case.

During Skopje’s pride week in June 2013 the center was mobbed by a large group of people shouting threats and derogatory statements to the people inside, bottles and bricks were also thrown at the building. In July 2013 an arson attempt was made on the center, no arrests were made from these events, nor was there any indication that authorities were investigating further.

Although the violence against the center has been horrible, they say that in some ways it has had a counter affect. Now they have the opportunity to stand up for themselves and really identify as a strong, visible group that won’t just sit back and accept this kind of violence, they won’t be silenced.

The LGBTI Support Center Skopje, hidden fifteen minutes outside of the city
The LGBTI Support Center Skopje, hidden twenty minutes outside of the central city square

 

One step forward socially, two steps back legally

When the question was posed about the progression of legal rights to the members of the LGBTI Support Center, it was met with laughs all round.

Their general positivity towards the local community’s acceptance of LGBTI persons clearly does not extend to the future of legal rights in the country.

Mr Asani also shared this sentiment saying that the acceptance particularly at a local level in Tetovo where his resides and works is growing.

While social acceptance is undoubtedly slow, legal progression is even slower and in some instances moving in the opposite direction.

In January 2015 the Macedonian parliament voted to make an adjustment to the constitution that would change the definition of marriage from ‘a union between two people’ to ‘a union between a man and a woman’. The passing of this change could then make it exceedingly more difficult to change future legislation for same-sex unions.

The possible changes to the constitution would mean that Macedonia would essentially be undermining their obligation to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Tanja Fajon the Vice-President of the Intergroup on LGBTI Rights reiterated the incredible blow that this change would mean for LGBTI people in Macedonia, who already battle against intense stigma and discrimination,

‘Rather than institutionalising discrimination against same sex couples, I call on the government to increase protection, in line with European standards’, said Ms Fajon.

At the end of the day the changes to the constitution did not pass, a modest Mr Andonovski claims it wasn’t just because of them or other organizations campaigning but that the government ultimately just ‘gave up’.

With this small victory under their collective belts, LGBTI organizations in Macedonia agree that the next step legally is to introduce strong anti-discrimination legislation.

According to European Law, Macedonia is required to meet certain requirements and on paper they comply. However putting those requirements into practice is not strictly enforced.

The European Parliament has highlighted that Macedonia’s biggest problem is implementing European law in the country. As Macedonia is in the mist of ongoing talks to join the EU, it needs to fall in line with the majority of EU countries with regards to LGBTI rights if it wishes to be accepted.

Mr Andonovski states that the LGBTI community is protected on paper but there are no formal avenues to report discrimination. He also stated the need for more real life cases and people facing discrimination to come forward to call out officials in order for the regulatory board to react.

As it currently stands the law does not include gender identity under the terms for anti-discrimination, thereby under Macedonian law an individual can be denied a job for example, based on their sexual orientation.

The European Parliament issued a statement in 2015 that calls on Macedonian authorities to complete its anti-discrimination law to bring it in line with EU standards.

This comes back to the problem of reporting incidents of discrimination and violence, Mr Asani form LGBTI United says, the main thing the community needs is protection, without these laws there can be no real protection.

When contacted repeatedly for comment on the issue of legal rights in Macedonia, no government official was willing to make a statement to Euroviews on the matter.

Mr Andonovski from the LGBTI Support Center says that many times same-sex couples who wish to get married often leave the country for a time to do so.

Laws surrounding transgender rights are practically non-existent in Macedonia. While it not forbidden, it is also not allowed at the same time says Mr Andonovski.

There is no clear regulation and each instance where an individual wishes to change their legal sex is dealt with on a case by case basis.

Individuals who wish to legally change their sex must be ‘approved’ to do so. The process to legally change one’s sex requires a new social security number as sex is identified with this number. When a person is in the progress of transitioning their appearance may no longer reflect what their identification says which poses many issues for them.

Currently there are no medical professionals in Macedonia able to do the procedures required.

 

Graffiti covers many of the free space in Skopje. Often the pieces touch on the political and social upheaval that the country is facing
Graffiti covers many of the free space in Skopje. Often the pieces touch on the political and social upheaval that the country is facing

Society says

The LGBTI Support Center in Skopje says that there are many openly homophobic attitudes that exist within the government and in the greater society. What was very obvious when talking about these issues with people was that as a country, Macedonia is simply traditionally homophobic.

Mr Andonovski says that since 2008 there has been a shift to a more openly homophobic campaign from the government. A deeply conservative government which clearly promotes strong notions of a ‘nuclear family’ and promoting nationalism as well as the looming role of the church play such strong roles in creating Macedonian’s identity, one in which LGBTI persons are not invited.

Spokesperson from the VMRO-DPMNE party current in power, Aleksandar Gjorgjiev said on this issue that defining the guidelines of marriage was incredibly important for ‘family protection’,

‘The constitutional protection and the clear defining of marriage will allow further protection of children and affirmation of their upbringing in a family atmosphere in which the main pillars are the parents, the father and mother.’

The government and the media heavily control and create public opinion in Macedonia therefore making it difficult to identify as LGBTI,

‘You can’t be comfortable in a country where the government is against you’ said Mr Faizoy.

When asked whether it is difficult to identify as LGBTI in Macedonia Mr Asani said yes,

‘Because you will be seen as different, you will be under risk as I am under risk’.

While the government and church have very strong campaigns and opinions, the Support Center says there is a silver lining, young people.

With the internet and more and more young people becoming well educated the government message might not be so successfully ingrained in the next generation.

Mr Faizoy says that ten years ago you wouldn’t want to be open in Macedonia, you wouldn’t want to make yourself visible, however now people are much more open,

‘Two years ago people would not say they have a gay friend’, said Mr Faizoy.

The Support Center says they have more and more people coming to their events, including many straight people supporting the cause. In June 2015 the second ever Pride Week took place with no reported violence.

While Macedonia appears to be behind in many ways Mr Asani says that the influence of countries surrounding are having an impact. Countries like Kosovo and Albania while still have a long way to go, are proving to be a lot more willing to initiate change.

Mr Andonovski says even just twelve years ago there was nothing, no real visibility for LGBTI people and that within the last ten years things have really changed for the better, but it moves slowly.

While on paper the fate of LGBTI progression is tentative at best, activists across the country appear cautiously optimistic,

‘I think things will change and things are changing’, said Mr Asani.

 

 

Learn a bit more about what it’s like to identify as LGBTI in Macedonia today as told by the wonderful people mentioned in the above article.

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