Milan Djuric, who identifies as transgender and is a LGBT activist, describes a traumatic childhood growing up in Serbia.
Despite being born male, “In my childhood, I only saw myself as a girl,” Djuric recalls through a clenched jaw, adding that even the girls in his school taunted and assaulted him: “I was abused every single day.”
Djuric’s experience is far from unusual in the socially conservative country’s small and marginalized transgender community.
Ahead of World Human Rights Day, marked internationally on December 10, the UN Development Program, UNDP published a report noting that “personal security is a top priority for the LGBTI community” in Serbia.
The report, Being LGBT in Eastern Europe, stated that, according to a 2015 poll, over 70 per cent of LGBTI respondents said they had been “exposed to psychological violence and harassment.
“Another 23 per cent reported that they had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Asked about the biggest fear trans people in Serbia face, Djuric responds simply: “To be killed”.
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A 2014 Hate Crime Report stated that 34 trans-specific hate crimes were committed in Serbia that year alone.
Activists believe the real number of such crimes is probably much larger, however, as many of these offences go unreported because LGBT people’s lack of confidence in the police.
“The problem is that many people, especially trans people, but also this applies to gay and lesbian people, don’t report them because they don’t have trust, rightfully so, in institutions,” Djuric observes.
According to UNDP, trans people face particular challenges in relation to labour and employment and are more likely only to end up with “informal jobs.”
The fact that some trans people work in the sex industry furthers fuels their stigmatization. It also increases their vulnerability to violence and sexual health risks, including HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
While little research has been conducted on trans-specific sex work in Serbia, approximately 6 per cent of all sex workers in Europe are transgender, according to the European Network for HIV/STD Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers, TAMPEP.
Along with Being LGBT in Eastern Europe report, the UNDP on December 8 published a series of video testimonies from the LGBT community, called OutSpoken, which placed a spotlight on the status of the LGBT community generally in the region.
“Despite some positive steps, much remains to be done. Marginalization in the workplace, violence in the family, classroom bullying and exclusionary laws still persist and must end. Discrimination starts early and runs deep,” Rosemary Kumwenda, HIV and Health Team Leader at UNDP’s Istanbul Regional Hub, said of the launch of Outspoken on December 8.
Being LGBT in Eastern Europe report notes that, while gender reassignment surgery is available and covered by national health care in Serbia, the political and social environment surrounding trans people remains very discriminatory.
Trans-intolerance remains in spite of the fact that, in recent years, Belgrade has become an international centre for gender reassignment surgery.
According to the Being LGBT in Eastern Europe, the report published by the UNDP:
In Bosnia and Herzegovina
In 2012, The New York Times proclaimed Belgrade as “a hub for sex-change surgery”, saying that many foreigners had started going there for surgeries, as the prices in Serbian clinics were far lower than in Western countries.
Government-financed health insurance covers up to 65 percent of the medical costs of the procedures. The rest must be co-financed by patients, OutSpoken noted.
However, Serbia’s health ministry officially only ceased classifying homosexuality as an illness in 2008, and transgenderism is still classified as a mental disorder.
Until trans people in Serbia complete a full medical transition, the law also prevents them from changing their name or gender on legal documents. The UNDP noted that Serbia plans no legal provisions or procedures to further regulate this.
For now, Djuric does not care about what name or gender pronouns his friends use – and intends to continue the transition process. “In future, even officially, [my name] will be Agatha,” Djuric declares confidently.
But transgender Serbs who choose not to have gender confirmation surgery are left in limbo, said Jovanka Todorovic, advocacy program coordinator at Gayten-LGBT, Serbia’s first all-inclusive and intersectional LGBTQIA non-profit organization.
“Eighty per cent of trans people are not willing to go through that [surgical] procedure,” she explained.
Instead, some choose to hormone replacement therapy, HRT, or various trans-specific surgeries such as breast implants or reductions.
While Serbia’s government helps pay for these surgeries, HRT is not covered by healthcare, and trans people also face shortages of hormone products, UNDP noted.
“The problem is with the endocrinologists,” Sasha Lasic, a transgender man and LGBT activist said. “There is only one for the whole country who is trans-friendly.”
Gayten-LGBT is lobbying for a “Gender Identity Law” that would protect transgender rights in education, healthcare, and employment, and give legal recognition to transgender Serbs.
But such a law has a long way to go before it can be expected to be considered in the Serbian parliament. Activists expect a drawn-out lobbying process.
Despite all of these challenges, some transgender Serbs are optimistic about the future. One significant example reflects Serbia’s contradictory approach to specific trans people.
When Helena Vukovic, a former major in the Serbian army, came out as trans in 2014, the Defence Ministry forced her out of the military in January 2015.
Despite two decades of service, the army said her “psychiatric diagnosis” could harm the reputation of the military. Vukovic sued the military, however and won back her rank.
According to surveys, the army remains one of the most highly respected institutions in Serbia. Vukovic’s high rank and long service in the army, it seemed, was more important to the public than her trans status.
Despite the abuse and discrimination, Djuric finds ways to keep going and look ahead: “As difficult as it is, and it is very difficult still, I have seen and hopefully contributed to a huge amount of progress in a short period of time.”
“That doesn’t mean that all the problems and pressures and transphobia will vanish – but I think it is getting better, and can only get better still,” Djuric concluded.