Preface to An Oral History of Homosexuality | kulturpunkt

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Preface to An Oral History of Homosexuality

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

by: Dean Vuletić

The inscription reads: "A good faggot is a dead faggot" / PHOTO: Darko Vaupotić

Before you is a milestone project of oral history that uncovers a subject which has until recently been invisible, secret and taboo in Croatian public life: the personal experiences of generations of gay men and lesbians born in the country between the 1940s and the 1970s. In a public address at Columbia University in September 2007, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously remarked that, unlike in the United States, there were no homosexuals in his country. And yet, only a decade ago it would not have been surprising for a Croatian politician to have also remarked that homosexuality was a phenomenon that is foreign to their country. For those in Croatia who may still imagine that homosexuality is not indigenous to their society (although, fortunately, there are many less of them in Croatia today than there were a decade ago), here is a history of how gay men and lesbians in Croatia have lived among them. 

The people who appear in this book have lived most of their adult lives in a society in which there was relatively little open and positive discussion of gay and lesbian issues before 2000. Since then, significant cultural, political and social developments have occurred in Croatia that have resulted in the increased visibility of its sexual minorities. An array of organisations for sexual minorities has been formed all over the country; a pride parade and the Queer Zagreb festival have been held in Zagreb since 2002 and 2003 respectively; and gay and lesbian issues have been accorded more attention in the mass media. Political parties have become more comfortable with discussing such topics and have even addressed the rights of sexual minorities in their programmes, while the Sabor, the Croatian parliament, has enacted laws that give some recognition to same-sex partnerships and that outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.   

Although such developments have been nothing less than historic - and even revolutionary - for Croatia’s sexual minorities and the country as a whole, there has until now been little exploration of the personal experiences of gay men and lesbians before these changes occurred. Before 2000, homosexuality was so stigmatised in Croatian society that there were few people in the media, universities or nongovernmental organisations who would have conceived of this oral history project. For those who might have been brave and persistent enough to pursue it, they would have had trouble finding gay men and lesbians who would not be fearful to participate as interviewees. Funding the project would have been another obstacle: international organisations might have provided some help, but the local authorities would not have (especially when we consider that they gave no support to gay and lesbian organisations before 2000). Now, however, there are not only enough researchers and subjects to produce this book, but it is even financed by the Ministry of Culture and the National Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, as well as COC Netherland. Emboldened by the present, they are all now piecing together the past. The difference in political and social attitudes from 2001, when I first began researching the gay and lesbian history of Croatia, is astounding.   

The experiences captured in this book are profound and diverse not only because of the candour and openness of their subjects, but also for the temporal, geographical and social expanses that they encompass. The oldest interlocutor was born in 1945 and many others were born in the 1950s; they lived through a period until the 1970s in which male homosexual acts were criminalised in Croatia (lesbianism was not mentioned in the penal code) and there was hardly any discussion of homosexuality in public life. The youngest participant was born in 1976, a year before male homosexual acts were decriminalised in Croatia and some other parts of the former Yugoslavia, such as Slovenia, Montenegro and Vojvodina (but not in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo, where they remained criminalised until the 1990s). All of the participants lived through the 1980s, when gay and lesbian issues began to receive more attention in the Croatian media and the first lesbian group, Lila inicijativa [the Lilac Initiative], was formed. Some of them were even active in the gay and lesbian organisations that were established in the 1990s. However, the Homeland War and the problems that Croatia faced in its transition to a liberal democracy meant that the 1990s was a period in which scarce attention was given to gay and lesbian issues by the country’s political elites. They did, however, enact a major legal change in 1998, when they equalised the age of consent to fourteen for both heterosexual and homosexual relations (for the latter, it had previously been eighteen).  

In the following accounts, however, the interviewees define themselves less in relation to the political and legal changes in Croatia since 1945 and more through their personal ties - their relationships with lovers, friends, families and neighbours. Of course, this is to be expected from a project that seeks to uncover the intimate aspects of a person’s life, especially something so intimate as their sexuality. However, even though platonic and familial desires are such universal traits, they are often lost in public depictions of gay men and lesbians in Croatia. Instead, the media tends to portray the leaders of gay and lesbian organisations as the representative face of Croatia’s sexual minorities, or are most attracted to gay and lesbian stories when they have a sensationalist or celebrity element. The everyday experiences of gay men and lesbians rarely attract attention, and this book responds to that lacuna by providing diverse and intimate insights into their lives.

Gay men and lesbians in Croatia have made themselves more visible in culture, politics and society in the recent years, especially through activism. However, even though some of the interviewees in this book also expressed their sexual identity through their participation in activism, there are others who have decided not to participate in it, and some who also criticise it. Some have felt compelled to combat the stereotypes pinned to their sexuality not only by their families, neighbours and institutions, but by fellow gay men and lesbians as well. In this regard, gay men and lesbians in Croatia have contributed to the diversity of their society by asserting their sexualities, but these sexual identities often overshadow more complex personalities that the adjectives “gay,” “lesbian” and “bi” describe only one element of. Indeed, what comes out in the following interviews is not just the individual desire to express one’s sexuality in a society that has historically tried to keep homosexuality invisible, but also a struggle to reconcile one’s sexuality with other identities that the individual also values - like the supporter of Dinamo (Dynamo), the most famous soccer team from Zagreb, who seeks a boyfriend whom he can take to a soccer game.   

Another characteristic of this book is its exploration of the multiple ways in which gay men and lesbians in Croatia have discovered, shaped and expressed their sexualities, finding inspiration from global models as well as local ones. For some of them, international cultural references such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Mann or Boy George played a role in shaping their sexual identities, or they found local personalities such as Đukica, Marijan Košiček and Severina important for the same. Others left Croatia in search of sexual freedom and found it in Vienna, San Francisco or Latin America, while those who could not or did not want to emigrate abroad - or even returned to Croatia from their sexual emigration - found solace in Croatia’s relatively more tolerant urban centres, such as Zagreb, Pula or Rijeka. For others still, the discovery of their sexuality thrived at points where the global and local intersected, such as the nude beaches - including distinctly gay ones - that characterise the Croatian coastline and have been a magnet for foreign tourists.   

Alongside this synthesis of the global and the local, another quality of this book is that it captures the experiences of gay men and lesbians from all over Croatia, and not just its more cosmopolitan areas. Indeed, as the public image of gay men and lesbians in Croatia has been dominated by the experiences of those in Zagreb, this book is particularly valuable in offering insights into how gay men and lesbians have been treated elsewhere in the country. Particularly interesting are the references to how gay men and lesbians have lived in smaller towns and villages in Croatia, where they were often fearful of the attitudes of those around them or not aware of the existence of other gay men and lesbians in their vicinity. However, there are also cases in which they have survived in these communities less bothered by those around them, including on some Dalmatian islands.  

It is for these reasons that this project presents a unique and pioneering contribution not only specifically to the gay and lesbian history of Croatia, but to the history of Croatia in general. In line with the cultural, political and social prejudices against homosexuals that have for so long marginalised the public expression of gay and lesbian identities in Croatia, approaches in Croatian historiography have themselves perpetuated the invisibility of these identities by totally neglecting the experiences of gay men and lesbians in the history of the country. This can be attributed to the various intersecting cultural, political, religious and social factors that have pushed Croatian historiography to approach history through ideological prisms whose politics have excluded and ignored, persecuted and repressed sexual minorities. Yet, if an excuse for the neglect of a gay and lesbian approach to Croatian history can be found in the limited documentary sources available, then this project attests to the vitality of oral history in uncovering and enlightening Croatia’s gay and lesbian past. 

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This is the "Preface" 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. Dean Vuletić completed his doctorate in Modern European History in 2009 at Columbia University, where he wrote his dissertation, ‘Yugoslav Communism and the Power of Popular Music’, and is currently the Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Vienna, Austria.

Objavio/la vatroslav [at] kulturpunkt.hr 05.05.2016