Introduction to An Oral History of Homosexuality | kulturpunkt

English Essay

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Introduction to An Oral History of Homosexuality

This essay is the "Introduction" to An Oral History of Homosexuality in Croatia edited by Gordan Bosanac and Zvonimir Dobrović and published by Domino/Queer Zagreb.

by: Gordan Bosanac and Zvonimir Dobrović

Western Station, a well known cruising spot in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia / PHOTO: Darko Vaupotić

It appears that we needed five years of Queer Zagreb to become aware of something that was missing in our programme.Beginning in 2003 with the first Queer Zagreb Festival, we found ourselves before an endless expanse of queer topics that we opened up to the Croatian public sphere. However, although we never forgot the fact that it is important to understand what “queer” is in Croatia (to which we have dedicated not only several publications and, indirectly, all of Queer Zagreb’s productions so far), our programmes were largely concentrated on the queer that comes from “abroad.” We needed time to turn to ourselves. The decision to peer into our own history of gay, lesbian and bisexual identities brought us once again before an endless historical expanse.

The idea for this book came from a very banal fact: that research on the history of homosexuality in Croatia almost does not exist. The academic community in Croatia also does not demonstrate too much of an interest in topics related to sexual and gender minorities or queer identities. The public depiction of homosexuality is most often tied to everyday social happenings and the ever-increasing visibility of today’s LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual and queer) community. At the same time, amidst this current boom in activism, there exists an unnoticed generation of gays, lesbians and bisexual people who lived before the blossoming of the LGBTIQ movement in Croatia, which is more commonly tied to 2001. Out of general curiosity, the logical questions follow: “So how was it for you to live during that time? How did you socialise? Where would you meet?” It is this sort of curiosity that has brought us to this study and to this book.

It immediately has to be said that our goal was not to reconstruct the complete gay and lesbian history of Croatia. For that we would likely need the format of an encyclopedia, and the research method itself would not be based on the accounts of individual persons. Somewhat afraid of an awareness of the “endlessly open historical expanse,” we decided to open up the topic with this study, to scratch the surface and collect accounts, a subjective approach to our history. This approach brought us some archival material, opened up a whole range of possible research topics and, most importantly, reconstructed at least a bit of the atmosphere of what it was like to be a gay, lesbian or bisexual person in Croatia in the second half of the twentieth century. We are aware that it is difficult to research an oral history of homosexuality that refers only to Croatia, considering that Croatia was once a constituent part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Limited by time, finances and the work method, we decided after all to put the focus only on Croatia, that is, to interview persons who have lived in Croatia for most of their lives. An oral history of homosexuality in the SFRY is a research challenge that still stands before all of us.

Nevertheless, in spite of everything, this book is a pioneering attempt at documenting the life circumstances of the members of sexual minorities in times before what we could call “the contemporary battle for the recognition and equality of human rights regardless of one’s sexual orientation” (that is, before the emergence of gay pride). In the socialist and the recent wartime and postwar years, the conditions were such that the chosen research method of “oral history” might sound oxymoronic, considering that mostly, on all sides, homosexuality was something that was preferably not spoken about. The impression given today, with homosexuality being ever present in the media, is something that previous generations of non-heterosexuals and heterosexuals did not grow up with, and reading some contemporary writings and the ways in which non-dominant sexualities are presented in the mass media,  there sometimes appears a moment of nostalgia for that undisturbed silence. Things were more subtle, discretion was assured - be it according to the wishes of the members of the toilet and park homos and salon lesbos, or to the social constellation itself, which did not really like deviants of any sort, so it was easier to keep them quiet and to overlook them rather than to attack them out loud.

What is today called the LGBTIQ scene, with the legitimacy of its own public appearance, and which the members of sexual minorities then did not have, to such an extent, among their choices of options, has its precursor in these decades of surviving quietly. Those who for many years were silent about themselves, and who learnt for most of their lives to almost never verbalise a part of themselves, let alone realise it, have at least got the opportunity to speak out. With this oral history project, we wanted to study the modes of socialisation and the forms of functioning of the hidden everyday life inside the private and, as far as possible, public spheres. The method of oral history is in fact very simple and, without too much circumlocution, it tries to capture the intangible, subjective history, while battling with the optimism (or pessimism) of memory. Namely, through recorded interviews about past events that have affected the lives of the interviewees, and through their accounts about their own life conditions, with the main link being on the basis of identity, reference points are formed which assist us in understanding conditions that are broader than the private. Many possibilities for interpretation are open when transcribing the interviews and working on the collected textual materials, connecting what were until then unconnected elements and their comparisons, and all from unique raw materials. Taking into account the topic and the time that it refers to, the interviews presented here are set to become a document that will grow ever more important with time.

The materials that were collected during the realisation of this project and the preparation of this publication are unique in Croatia and the region, and the geographic distribution of the interviewees and their ages, which range from those in their thirties to those well in their seventies, contribute to the richness of the experiences described. This book is a sort of homage to an identity which is still trying to defend its honour in all spheres of its existence.

With the realisation of this project, the visible continuity of that identity throughout Croatia is an important factor for its further affirmation, while the mockery, silence and secrecy that has always surrounded homosexuality within the dominant heterosexual society is an experience with which today’s generations can view their own possible fate. Considering that the collected material covers a period of about fifty years, it is possible to see whole lives that are spent expecting the time when it would not be important who one wishes to spend that life with. It looks like that time has still not come, but before the flood of memories and the words of our interviewees in these discussions, progress is visible, and it is clear that it is a one-way street - with many roadworks on it and, unfortunately, protracted traffic jams. However, despite the clear positive direction of these changes, it is hard to read about the memories of people who were not able to realise the fullness of their intimate desires because of reasons that they were mostly not able to change. What is staggering is the adaptability of individuals to satisfy their needs with particular elements that can, according to accounts, be dispersed by geography and time to the extent that they no longer appear as a whole that would, except in parts, convincingly look like the systematic living of one’s own gay or lesbian identity.

Many subjective references have been collected, one could say a small treasure trove of recognisable gay and lesbian spaces all over Croatia, which were oases that many people had only heard about because fear did not permit them to visit such places personally. At the same time, however, we cannot expect from today’s perspective, in the whole of that subjectively professed wealth, to recognise the objective poverty of opportunities and the sadness that can only be discerned through comparison and ageing. There are some references from Zagreb, such as Bacchus, Bundek, the Botanical Garden, Zrinjevac and Western Station, as well as several nudist beaches along the coast, which were reputed to be commonly known places where a meeting was possible. These meeting places became something like cult locations, and with temporal distance they probably seem more important now than they actually ever could have been. However, this is exactly the attraction of the method of oral history, in that it also gives equal treatment to intimate experiences alongside the substantiated historiography – and all the more so because the subject of homosexual history is unsystematically and incompletely preserved through documents. Mentioned in this book are some covers of Polet [Zeal], moments in television and radio, such as the outing of Steven in Dynasty and Toni Marošević’s Frigidna utičnica [Frigid Socket] on Radio 101, some of Fassbinder’s film cycles, erotic films and things with similar content that were wrapped up under the all-permissive veil of art and culture. One interviewee told us that they grew up with the great artistic names of literature, film and theatre because they were translated and distributed regardless of their homosexual content. Genet, Cocteau, Foucault, Mann, Fassbinder, Warhol, Almodóvar and others were the main sources of homosexuality in the mainstream space - and identities were constructed based on them. Everybody remembers the mid-eighties in Yugoslavia as a golden era, and the oldest gay and lesbian film festival in Europe began in Ljubljana at that time. 1984 and 1985 were the most productive years as far as what was written in the media was concerned and homosexuality was spoken about more openly then. The magazines Danas [Today] and Start almost regularly had articles on topics relating to women’s, lesbian and homosexual issues, a space was opened up that until then was only imagined as being possible, a strange atmosphere of optimism was created – and it was not only caused by the intoxicating hairspray fumes.

The dispersion of that which occurred in Croatia over the decades, which was initiated and inspired just by the need for an identity to be lived, is enough to be able to say that a “homosexual scene” existed, at least even in fragments or in the excesses that occurred at the meeting places that occasionally appeared. It also demonstrates, a bit sadly, how little is required for something momentary, like a newspaper text or the projection of a film cycle, to turn into a common reference in the memories of generations of homosexual persons who fed their identities through exactly such moments. Scarcity has led to the fact that everything can become important and meaningful and, of course, remembered.

This pioneering project should ideally lead to an increased interest in a period of a parallel history that has never been researched. The results of this are evident precisely today, because non-heterosexuality is constantly experienced as something strange and recently imported from the West, as if it is not about the long-delayed, slow awakening of a stunted and abandoned identity. Hence, the publication of this book is, as can be expected, the first of many attempts to gather evidence about the continued presence of sexual and gender minorities, and even well before the time of those who continue to attempt to neglect and dispute issues concerning the right to diversity.

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This is the "Introduction" to An Oral History of Homosexuality in Croatia edited by Gordan Bosanac and Zvonimir Dobrović and published by Domino/Queer Zagreb. The original Croatian edition was published in 2008 and the English translation is available as an e-book from 2013 and comes out in print in 2016. 

Objavio/la vatroslav [at] kulturpunkt.hr 05.05.2016