Interview with Boban Stojanović, one of the first activists for LGBT rights in Serbia

*This article is part of the interviews conducted with LGBT activists from the Balkan region

Boban Stojanović is one of the first activists for LGBT rights in Serbia. In this interview for “Historia Ime” Serbian activist goes back in time and recalls the very first initiatives for  LGBT rights in a country like Serbia, the struggles to organize and contributing for the first Pride in Belgrade without any recorded incident and also participating in the reality show “Big Brother Serbia” as the first publicly LGBT person.

A summary of the achievements you reached through LGBT activism in Serbia

Almost 20 years I was involved in Serbian activism. I started as a volunteer in refugee camps where I worked with children. Most of them belong to Roma community. For the first time, I realized how much the individual’s life might depend on the decision of another individual or group of people. This experience motivated me to address the rights of vulnerable groups. In the city where I lived in (a small city in the east of Serbia), I supported the activities of women’s organizations, youth organizations, organizations for the rights of people with disabilities. There was no LGBT organization in this city.

The experience that I got in the refugee camps create strong anti-militarist and anti-nationalist sentiment in my mind, so I decided to refuse to serve the Army. Looking for support for this action, I met Women in Black, peace and feminist movement from Belgrade. There I found a safe place for me, my feelings and my unarticulated political views. After a while, I decided to move from Zajecar (the town where I was born and raised) to Belgrade. I lived in the “Women in Black” office, and my activism became my life.

When I joined the peace, feminist and LGBT movements, there was little action regarding LGBT rights in Serbia. During the following 15 years, I fought for our freedoms: I held workshops in small towns for just a few of people, and later I spoke in front of almost half million people at Roma Pride. I slept on the bus during a long journey home from a distant city and had my driver as a Grand Marshal at Montreal Pride. Someone spat in my face on the same day when I was announced as one of the top five most prominent LGBT activists in the World.

Also, my activism included discussions with politicians. Most politicians treat people as goods, as we know, so I always wanted to cause them discomfort. When they demanded suits, I wore T-shirts. At the fancy event when everyone carried expensive leather notebooks, I brought my ordinary one covered with LGBT stickers. I never wanted to become part of the establishment to be accepted.  I believed that I should speak publicly about my life, repression, love and all that I experienced. I was a guest on political talk shows, also in Big brother too. I gave a TEDx talk, I wrote a book, but I also spent nights answering questions from young LGBT people who wanted to commit suicide. In a small, post-communist and post-war country, where many human values ​​have disappeared, I tried to organize Pride. 

And I did it. With a group of dedicated people, we made a change that we could only dream about a few years earlier. In Serbia Pride is more than a celebration of LGBT rights. After all the wars in the region where I lived, I found Pride as a place to show our ability to love, to show our willingness to cross the borders, to rise above nation and religion, to be above separation and hate, to accept and learn from everyone who is different from us. But, it was a hard job. Twice, the streets were full of blood. Four times the Serbian Government officially banned Pride. Several times but we were surrounded by thousands of hooligans and thousands of police officers. In the year when I leave the country, we even had a short party after Pride March. I was so happy because I was a witness to change. 


A brief description of the reasons and circumstances that forced you to leave your country

In August 2016 a few weeks before Belgrade Pride was appointed I was attacked in the middle of the day in the center of Belgrade. More than the physical attack I felt desperate when they provoked me saying, “People, look at him, he is a famous fa***t. People, do you know this fucking, dirty fa***t? Do you?!” They struck me several times on my shoulder and head. During the attack, there were around ten people who merely observe what’s happening. Nobody called police or take any other action. That is something that scared me. I felt humiliated and terrified.

At the same time, I become tired. When Adam and I chose Canada, we didn’t know on whose door we should knock. When our acquaintance from Calgary said: “You could stay at my house as much as you want,” we didn’t know anything about Calgary. After a long flight as the plane descended below the clouds, we saw – nothing.  Vast prairie. But we knew it had to be better than where we had lived. 

Also, I was sick and tired of the lack of protection. I had a small apartment in Belgrade which was located on the ground floor. When I became a well-known activist and began to live with Adam, our apartment became the target of attacks. Someone tore up our clothes drying in the yard, and other one threw firecrackers through the open window.

The worst attack occurred when a neo Nazi group drew a swastika on our building and burned the window frames. We changed the windows, but a year later; all the windows of the apartment were broken once again. No one has been arrested for these incidents.

At one point I realized that leaving the country is a political act and that I could also send a message to the society I live in. The sad fact is that every week a few LGBT people in Serbia ask how they can leave the country.


If you had the chance to do it all again, would you change anything?

Not. Everything that I did as an activist, I did the best I could at a certain point. I’m happy because I am the one of us who decided to declutter a large room, now being set up by some younger generation activists.


How is your life now, are you continuing your activism?

At this moment I work at the “Center for Newcomers”, one of the leading settlement agencies in Calgary. My job is to support LGBT newcomers and help them to start a new life here. It is challenging work because people come with significant trauma and huge expectations.  I try to collect all those things and to improve services for LGBT people from all over the world who just happened to come in Canada. Activism here is very different because LGBT community here doesn’t have to fight for fundamental human right as we must do in Balkan region. But, those what I could do here and now, and it can be very radical, is to be a reminder how things can be changed over the night and how we must continue the fight for our right. 



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