Written by Florin Eduard Marin and Mehmet Erdoğan of the United Nations Development Programme Europe and Central Asia

This week, the UNDP and USAID are releasing evidence on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons across the Western Balkans — the biggest study in this region to date.

Though there have been some signs of progress in politics and legislation, most findings are grim.

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, nine out of 10 citizens disapprove of same-sex relationships. In Serbia, 70 percent of the LGBTI community have experienced psychological violence and harassment. In Albania, 94 percent of teachers say they have never known an LGBTI student. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 44 percent of parents say if their child came out as LGBTI, they would try to “cure” them.

In the studio for OutSpoken.
In the studio for OutSpoken.
In the studio for OutSpoken.
In the studio for OutSpoken.
In the studio for OutSpoken.
In the studio for OutSpoken.

It’s against a backdrop like this one that we set out to produce OutSpoken, a multimedia platform documenting everyday struggles of LGBTI persons in the Western Balkans.

We know legislation is inadequate and societies are still overwhelmingly hostile. But how big is the impact on the day-to-day lives of real people?

When it comes to advocating for LGBTI rights, statistics can only get you so far. The most obvious types of discrimination — being denied housing, losing your job, facing violence and harassment and not having your partnership recognized — only tell part of the story.

There are a number of more inconspicuous types of discrimination that LGBTI people face every day, adding up to a lifetime of anxiety, fear, and trauma.

A person who identifies as LGBTI usually goes through many experiences that others do not. Imagine not being able to kiss your partner goodbye at an airport or invite them to a family gathering. Imagine not being able to feel safe going out or on social media.

As a transgender man, Jovan spent many years in isolation and feared leaving his house in Podgorica, Montenegro. He talked to us about the long-lasting consequences of that.

For those who are not out, a lot of stress and anxiety goes into hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity so they can participate on equal terms in unaccepting or unsafe working environments.

For transgender and gender non-conforming people, these challenges can be even more daunting, because their gender expression can often make them a visible target. Some transgender people may go an entire lifetime having to hide their true self, in a body they don’t feel is theirs.

Helena was an officer in the military in Serbia until she was arrested and dishonorably discharged. But she fought back and now lives the life she was meant to live.

Intersex persons are perhaps the most invisible in the LGBTI community, with the I in LGBTI often left out completely. Because binary gender classifications exist in almost all legal systems, intersex babies must be registered as either male or female. This means their parents often have to define their sex on the spot and subject them to “corrective” and “normalizing” surgeries that carry life-long physical and mental consequences.

Although as many as 1 in 200 infants might be born with intersex characteristics, the topic is mostly met with total silence. Kristian overheard his parents talking about it one day.

OutSpoken came about at an interesting time. Globally, we may have reached a tipping point. Stories of sexual harassment in high places are coming out almost every day in the United States and other countries. Women are taking up the issue of power imbalances with full force.

LGBTI persons and their allies have to continue to do the same.

Some fights are already being won. Steffen and Damjan talk about what it’s like being married in Slovenia, now that the country has passed legislation to allow same-sex marriage.

The Western Balkans have active and growing LGBTI movements that have been pushing for change. We hope OutSpoken will help them win decisive battles.

For more stories of LGBTI persons living in the Western Balkans, check out OutSpoken.

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