Dragana Todorovic (41) is a lesbian feminist activist from Serbia who has been working for human rights and gender equality for more than 20 years. She is the initiator and executive director of the LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey (ERA).
Serbian LGBTIQ activist Dragana Todorovic’s goal throughout her life has remained steadfastly the same: “to do everything I can to make this planet a place in which we can all live in harmony and in mutual respect for each other and our environment.” Even back in kindergarten in her home town of Novi Sad, she was already standing up for people who needed protection.
The LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey, or ERA for short, was founded in 2015 as a regional alliance of 25 lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex organizations from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey, and currently has around 75 member organizations. People in the Western Balkans and Turkey (WB&T) who identify as LGBTIQ+ face high levels of discrimination and violence “in all areas of life but especially in social policy, healthcare, employment, housing and family rights,” says Todorovic. “Recent studies show there’s a resulting high frequency of LGBTI people becoming refugees, homeless, suffering from poverty, or facing health-related problems.” Trans and intersex people in the region are especially vulnerable to discrimination.
Deciding to become an activist
A study conducted by the World Bank and the ERA found that more than half of LGBTIQ+ people in the region have suffered discrimination. Todorovic describes her own experiences of discrimination and hostility, for example at the Pride parade in Belgrade in 2010. “After many years of government bans, we finally managed to organize the parade. It was held with an extremely strong police presence, we were surrounded by several circles of police, but it was unclear whether they would be able to keep the attackers away from us – it was truly horrific and traumatic.”
As a result, many people were injured on both sides. “Belgrade looked like a war zone, with people bleeding, property destroyed, buses and cars in flames,” she recalls. These images of destruction aren’t the only ones etched in her memory. “I still remember the sounds of aggression, the hate emanating from people who looked like they would easily kill all of us at the parade.” Among the attackers that day was her brother. “He was looking at me like I was his enemy,” she says. That was the day she realized that hate and homophobia know no bounds, how cruel and vicious they can be, and how they can come not only from strangers but also from acquaintances and even family members.
On account of the violence, the parade participants were driven in police vans to different locations outside the city. Upon leaving the vehicle Todorovic sat by the side of the road and resolved to dedicate the rest of her life to “fighting for the full equality of us LGBTIQ+ persons – and this was the moment I became an activist.”
Eleven years after the Pride parade in Belgrade, Todorovic and her brother are still not speaking to each other. And equality and tolerance are still a long way off for LGBTIQ+ people in the Western Balkans and Turkey. Of crucial importance in gaining equality, according to Todorovic, is the EU’s integration process for these countries. “If the EU and/or governments in the region stop viewing it as a priority, that would be a very bad development for the LGBTI community here,” she says. If they do stop, the situation for LGBTIQ+ people would quickly deteriorate and the successes of previous years would be lost.
Another threat to reform processes and overall democratization in the Western Balkans and Turkey would be greater influence by Russia or China. “Human rights in general, and especially LGBTIQ+ rights, would suffer,” she predicts.
The anti-gender movement gaining strength in western Balkan countries and Turkey is yet another threat to LGBTI equality. “It is a highly organized and well-financed movement whose main targets include the rights of womxn, LGBTIQ+ people and civil society in general.” Todorovic, who describes herself as strongly influenced by the ideological principles of socialism and the welfare system in Yugoslavia, explains that the anti-gender movement uses narratives to promote political hierarchies by which one group of citizens is considered superior to the rest. It therefore attacks concepts like gender and LGBTIQ+ rights, thereby promoting a world order dominated by white, rich, heterosexual, cisgender men. Despite their different ideological backgrounds, groups associated with the anti-gender movement share the notion that “gender ideology” is a threat to nature, nation and normality. “In the past, they framed their messages primarily within religious narratives,” she says. “The new anti-gender movement, however, is using secular language and the language of human rights.”
The Western Balkans and Turkey need further international support
To prevent anti-gender worldviews from gaining further ground in the Western Balkans and Turkey and to help attain the dream of LGBTIQ rights, governments in the region need to continue to prioritize the protection of human rights in their political agendas. “Pressure is also needed from the international community,” says Todorovic. National and international solidarity are important in enabling the region’s LGBTIQ movement to actively help shape public debates on democracy, human rights, social inclusion and the rule of law, and to influence policy and decision-making processes.
One problem, however, is the rapid decline in financial support over the past several years for LGBTIQ organizations such as the Todorovic’s ERA, as donors are turning their attention to organizations in other parts of the world. “There is this false notion of significant progress in the Western Balkans and Turkey due to EU integration, which has led donors to deprioritize the region to our disadvantage,” she says. “More often than not, progress and reform only exist on paper, while LGBTIQ people are struggling severely in almost every aspect of their lives, public and private. Governments in the region are successfully managing to get away with pink-washing. This leaves the LGBTIQ movement in the Western Balkans and Turkey as one of the least resourced in the world.” The region needs international support now more than ever.
Wishes for the future
When Todorovic looks to the future, she wishes above all for the strength and endurance to never give up her struggle for LGBTIQ equality in the Western Balkans and Turkey. “Wherever my life leads me next, I will always have the same goal and the same dream: to fight for freedom for my communities, for full equality without compromises for all of us regardless of our sexual orientations or gender identities, in the Western Balkans and Turkey, and beyond.”
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