|Femmes en Noir - Frauen im Schwarz - Women in Black - Mujeres de Negro - Donne in Nero - Zene u Crnom|
When I reread this essay I saw that I would have written it differently now. In the year of 2001 I am changed. The wartime made my knowledge of the meaning of my lesbian existence in relation to political situation difficult and deep. After going through this process I realized that the two are not connected, the lesbian existence and war are two different issues as much as heterosexual existence and war are two different issues. What connected in me was my own fear of being a lesbian in heterosexual world, with fear of being Albanian in Serbian regime, with fear of being disabled in the abled world – these are fears of abandonment and isolation, fears of stigmatization and culpabilization. This essay shows how difficult is this process of recognizing homophobia and melting its destructive particles in one’s own body and heart despite the cruelty and hatred in the outside world.
I know there are many lesbians in the regions of war, and I know that many have left these regions because it was a matter of their survival. I wish to dedicate this essay to all women who love women who are stranded in the war zones, who choose to support their families and neighbors by being there, and who do not have means to read essays like this or anything else which can inspire their lesbian lives. I also dedicate this essay to my dyke-sister feminist lesbian Igballe Rogova, founder of the women’s rural group Motrat Qiriazi, who worked all throughout the war years in Kosova with young girls and never denounced her lesbian self.
War narrows the spaces for every human rights issue.
From the time the war started in Croatia in 1991, in Belgrade where I live some men who walk down the streets became killers and rapists. You enter the bus, the cafe or a shop, and some faces are those of war criminals, and you don’t even know which one. Violence increased and reality became more male. Hanging out in town for some of us had changed, the bookstore windows showed only Serbian titles, theaters as well. The air of oblivion with regard to the crimes across the border was unbreathable. What happened in neighboring regions was no longer of any value or importance: Sarajevo, Zagreb, Osijek, Prizren... many citizens of Belgrade have agreed with the logic of nationalism: to bury the Other. They must not care about the injustices in these towns any more. Walking in the city was not the same joy as before. Men in uniforms, or men invalids for whom you don’t know if you feel angry or pity. Women and lesbians are absent as any possible subject in the street matters. Nothing new in the world, but in the wartime emotions of your absence in the public representation intensify.
The war in Former Yugoslavia started in summer 1991 and the social space for lesbians in Serbia which never really existed, became almost impossible. In the region where I live most of the women who love women are in the stage before they can say a word about their lesbian desire. They don't have the social conditions which would permit them to name their identity of a lesbian or see the political implications of loving women. Many do not permit themselves to simply enjoy their love. In fact they feel guilty for who they are. Many are self destructive – in drug or alcohol use, in depression, self isolation, continuing to be masked and self hated.
HIERARCHY OF DISCRIMINATION
In this impossible social context in which you are forcefully nationally defined and not asked for any of your other identities, the lesbian group Labris in Belgrade was confronting acts of homophobia. In 1994 the group was thrown out of the space used for its meetings on grounds of alleged 'incompatible projects'; in 1995 some lesbian activists were beaten up on the street by young fascists yelling 'You lesbians, you are dirtying my street, clear off'. In 1996, police was sent to a Lesbian Studies lecture on “Legal Aspects of the Lesbian Movement in Europe” with charges that “orgies and indecent activities were taking place”. Despite all this, the group met regularly, published four newsletters, many essays, gave interviews to the TV and newspapers, distributed a questionnaire and organized many workshops to discuss lesbian existence.
LESBIAN RESPONSE TO THE WAR
Others became involved in nationalism in order to feel a social identity. The phenomenon of lesbians entering a nationalist mechanism is particular because lesbians, before becoming nationalists, already live with the silence, guilt, fear and self-hatred specific to women who love women. Therefore, belonging to the group that glorifies one’s self and delegates hatred to the Other gives them some needed identity support. Nationalist institutionalized hatred enables many lesbians to join ethnic ‘ours' in order to survive. In order to belong, and never again say who they really are. In order to feel that they exist, even if that means a pseudo name, many women who love women become nationalists in the heterosexual way. Many other women and men who were not nationalists prior to the war also engage in a similar process of joining in nationalist and religious rituals in order to be socially accepted. In this false reality live many women who love women in Serbia and Croatia, in Kosova, Rwanda, Kurdistan. Few joined men's killer squads. Even if we know how lonely they remained.
RESPONSIBILITY OF FEMINISTS
Feminist politics has inspired many women to emerge from the desperation and pain that came with the first news of war crimes. In 1992 feminists in Belgrade (Serbia) and Zagreb (Croatia) started to establish groups in order to support women war survivors and to organize women against the war. The few feminists who identified as lesbians were safe if and when they were part of these initiatives. Lesbians in these groups as well decided to work for peace and with women survivors of war. Lesbian rights remained in the back. The difference between human rights NGOs and feminist NGOs was that feminists insisted on ethics of difference regardless of the aim of an organization. So we had a situation, from 1991 – 1996, that in Zagreb Center for Women War Victims, then B.a.B.e. - Women’s Human Rights Group, Women’s Studies and Women’s Infoteka insisted on lesbian issues, if they had opportunity. In Belgrade, Women in Black Against War, Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence, SOS Hotline and Center for Women’s Studies have always supported lesbians among them, privately as well as publicly. This meant, for example, that both Women’s Studies Centers (non-governmental initiatives) mentioned above have Lesbian Studies as an obligatory part of their program. It also meant that throughout the war, at every international meeting of the women’s peace group from Belgrade, Women in Black Against War, there was a workshop about lesbians. Making space for lesbian desire and politics was a must at least among some feminist peace activists.
In our lesbian group it was difficult to talk about war. Some lesbians thought this was not the place to contaminate with war issues. They wanted at least in the lesbian group to talk about desire. In regard to the serbian regime it was forbidden to be a lesbian and to be a pacifist. Because Milosevic’s regime ordered that it is against government to be homosexual, and that Serbia is not in war. If I asked a cashier woman in the shop to write me a receipt in the name of the Anti-War Center – she would look at me with strange fear, even more if I asked her to write Lesbian Group Labris. Then, in the peace movement only the war and nationalism were issues of discussion - feminism and lesbianism were avoided. In Belgrade the first feminist group was the SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence and there were twenty and more of us. At the beginning of the war, in 1991, everything separated us: nationalism, war and pacifism. I felt split: in each context I could turn one side of my face only, and everything else was unwanted or dangerous. Only in my flat was I able to believe myself. Lucky to have a room of my own.
And still I remember losing my mind in dilemmas in that same room. Few times I would make love and there would be a transistor radio on with the latest news from the frontline. The only news to listen were broadcasted from Prague, London, Paris. I would be in bed and not know: should I get up and leave the warm lover, turn off the radio and continue the pleasure, or not? Is knowing what happened to killed and tortured the only way to give respect to the dead? Is lesbian lovemaking in that moment inappropriate? And why? Then later, I would write a solidarity letter to an unknown woman in Sarajevo, and you know she is under the siege and bullets daily, and think would she be embarrassed one day when she see a lesbian in front of herself who wrote her letters? Why was it always so difficult to say that certain humanitarian aid came from lesbians? Some said it was not important - maybe, but not important to whom?
It went on like that for years, fragmented identities, desires, motivations.... I tried to understand what I could do. I would remember an essay in off our backs from many years ago, back in the eighties, where one lesbian writer from the U.S. who went for a year to work in Nicaragua came back and said, “No I could not talk about my lesbianism in Nicaragua, there is a war going on there, they have some other priorities.” I replayed this sentence in my mind a thousand times, do I agree with it or not, and what would I say now? Every time I though “No it isn’t right”, a lesbian should always be a lesbin, I would move on and think maybe it was right, people first of all need to be able to live. If I would start with “Yes, it’s right” we should not talk about it, I would think, is this an interiorized homophobia. One night in 1995 we had a Labris action in the old part of Belgrade, Dorcol, few blocks away from my flat. Three men stopped four of us while we were writing lesbian graffiti. They came and attacked us precisely as lesbians. Two of them were in the back with hockey sticks and one of them stood in front of me. He watched me, I watched him and I thought “This is a face that demands war. This is a face that kills. This is a face that has been produced as such in recent years, there are weapons of hatred behind him.” I had never seen him before. He pushed me to the wall, broke my eyeglasses and shouted “You dirty lesbian, I can throw you in this door and kill you - noone would know. Clear off!” When I asked him who he was, he exclaimed “Don’t you utter your dirty words. The mosque is the place for you.” Lesbians were dirtying his straight male street, just as Muslims were dirtying his straight Serb street. Gay men were being harassed in their parks, Roma people were being spat upon, women were forever first victims of their husbands.
It took me some days to recover. After that, it was evident that war implies hatred directed against every difference, against Moslems in Belgrade, then against Roma, Albanians, lesbians – ones upon a time in other places Others were Jews and communists. It was evident that opposing war means coming out with the logic of supporting all social differences at once. One of the aims of war and pro-fascist ideology is not only separation of people of different nationalities, but the separation of people's own identities as well. That is how they can control us better. They need to have only two sets to control: 'Us' and 'Them', to reduce the fullness of our social beings to one.
This was my process, I was split in the roots all throughout the wartime, and somewhere near the end of it, after this event in Dorcol, just around the corner from the mosque the killer mentioned, I went through the final steps of reinventing myself as a whole. As a lesbian. Do I feel guilt about insisting in being a lesbian in the wartime? Do I fell guilt as a citizen from Belgrade, where the headquarters of evil production comes from? What is a function of these feelings? After this homophobic violence night some of us wrote an information about the attack for our anti-war e-mail conference in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia named Zamir. We got lots of support as lesbians and one of the first came from one man I never met in my life, he was hiding from the snipers trying to connect his computer endlessly 100 times a day in his flat in Sarajevo. He wrote to me “We from Sarajevo send you support, take care of yourself, we know men like him are very dangerous.”
At the end of 1995 the war in Bosnia was ending, and different acts of hatred and solidarity were connecting with each other in me. As I worked with women who had survived war all throughout these years I was filled with hate stories of women refugees, who came to the Center where I work. Stories of women who were thrown out of their homes, in which there was usually somebody who told them to clear out. Only because they had Serb or Muslim, Croat or Albanian names. I was full of stories of women who had suffered through ten, twenty years of male violence from their husbands. Images of concentration camps were vivid in me. And I thought, I could draw the line of the beginning and the end of how male violence connects nationalism and homophobia, domestic violence, incest, and the armed conflict. These images of violence were boiling in my body and my mind long enough until it became evident to me that the same logic underlay the war in Bosnia as well as the phobias against lesbians and gay men. No, it is not the same thing, each hatred has its own particular form, but underneath there is a common patriarchal code of hatred of the Other. Only because she is a woman, only because she is Roma. Violence without immediate cause. I was slowly connecting different fascistic processes of terror and how they cross over me. Until not only the theory of fascism told me, but my own body also made it clear that the face of the guy who attacked me could be the face of a killer in a war, killer in the family, batterer of his wife, rapist, lesbian hater. And how this face is not necessarily always male and surely not caused by biology.
First, throughout the wartime acts of lesbian support continually arrived to our addresses: letters, packages, gifts, coffee, chocolates with words of tenderness. Sometimes from lesbians we had never seen and perhaps may never see, sometimes from women we knew. There were books, journals, newspapers from lesbians in France, Spain, Italy, and the USA that were sent to lesbians in Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana. Letters of support. Enough to keep reminding some of us about our lesbian existence.
Then, many lesbians from other countries supported the women's groups even though they never identified their support as lesbian support. They came to our women's centers to volunteer, to witness our misery, to widen our work and our knowledge. We haven’t yet studied why a higher percentage of lesbians become international volunteers than other women. But this was surely the case in our region.
Another story takes place in the same room. My friend Ria Convents, a feminist lesbian lawyer used to come all the way from Belgium with her car full of stuff for women. One day in 1995 we were packing the boxes to make packages to send to women in Sarajevo. Ria and I spent hours organizing the items... this is a box for a woman who lives on the seventh floor and there is no electricity and heating, who is biologist and has an old sick father.... this box is for a woman who is an actor and has a young daughter and a husband... this one is for an older woman living alone with many neighboring friends, ... what shall we put in which box, knowing who is the box for, who are the neighbors, where are the snipers in their town, how cold is it in the cellar, what might a woman like her desire to be surprised with. Placing inside beans, dried vegetables, the best nuts, expensive chocolates, the famous brands of cigarettes, coffee..... carefully, with all intelligence and patience of caring for the other we had acquired during our lesbians years of loving each other.
Some other lesbians gave their money, carried heavy luggage, some phoned to ask how are we doing, sent letters and cards with lesbian humor, dykes to watch out for, some wrote about our activities, some came to us to teach us different skills, in therapy, working with trauma, working with computers, e-mailing, writing proposals..... Some of them drove trucks. Yes, some lesbians drive big trucks all the way from Great Britain filled with food and clothes for refugee women and activists. In these six years... Tanya Renne, Juditka Hatfaludi, Ria Convents, Ingrid Foeken, Laurence Hovde, Rachel Wareham, Julia Penelope, Liza Coven, Shian Jones, Ippy, Therez Bloechlinger, Fabienne Hidreau, Béatrice Breitschmid & Judith Falusi, Charlotte Bunch, Cris Corrin, Rosa Logar, Masha Gessen, Antonia Burrows, Kathryn Turnipseed, Murph - Martha Ehman, Joanne, Stefanie, Monique, Nicolle, Jessica Hauff, Rebecca Johnson, Rebecca Casanova, Rina Nissim, Julie Mertus, Haya Shalom, Maite Irazabal, Marta Brancas, Gaby, Nelly, Shelly Anderson, Fran Peavy, Tova Green, Sarah Hartley, Katrin Kremmler, Julia, Dagmar Schultz, Anna Pramstrahler, Antonia Ciavarella...
If you ask me, I can tell you a story of war and lesbians behind every of this name. Like Laurence Hovde, who came from New York here in 1994 on the peace meeting and did not go back home anymore. Lesbians like she, like all those mentioned here and those I forgot to name were essential for our lesbian survival, to remind us of what Audre Lord said many years ago, We need to come out as lesbians as 'the summer soil needs rain'.
Belgrade, 1996 – 1997 - 2001
This esey was published in: The European Journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 8, issue 3, August 2001, Sage Publications, UK. p.381.-392.