In our monthly series, ‘Collectively creating change’, we highlight the work and impact of our grantee-partners. This month: Trans Mreža Balkan, a network active in the western Balkan region.

The issue

Over the past years, the western Balkan region – comprised of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia – has seen increased visibility for LGBTI issues. But like many other places in Europe and around the world, this progress has unfortunately coincided with an increase in hate crimes and intolerance towards queer and gender non-conforming communities throughout the region, which is strongly influenced by patriarchal, religious and gender-conforming norms. Racism is also a persistent issue across the eight countries, particularly against Roma people.

What also can contribute  to the struggle around trans identities is a cultural norm of sacrifice for the family, in which ‘being yourself’ is often seen as selfish. Adding to that, the expectation that ‘problems’ are swept under the rug and not talked about, creates a culture of shame and silence around taboo issues of all kinds – creating another hurdle for queer, trans, intersex and non-binary individuals to overcome in addition to the prejudice they face when they openly live out their identities.

While this situation clearly points to the urgency of trans rights activism, it has the opposite effect: as a result of the repressive political trends, trans organising in the region is shrinking, with groups closing down because of burn out and lack of funding.

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What they’re doing about it

Against this backdrop of increasing transphobia and lack of support for trans activism, our grantee-partners Trans Mreža Balkan are amplifying the voices of and creating safe spaces for trans, intersex and gender variant (TIGV) people. Founded in 2014, this regional network supports the activism and artistic expression of its members with an intersectional and inclusive approach based on the ‘nothing about us, without us’ principle.

Their chief aim? To facilitate the growth of TIGV rights movements across the region. Trans Mreža Balkan connecta trans and gender-variant communities to each other, and work closely with newly-developing groups, helping them identify their needs and capacities, sharing resources, and providing ongoing support.

Trans Mreža Balkan believes that increased visibility is essential for reframing the public discourse around the communities they represent and serve. To that end, they initiate and support community-led research as well as cultural and media production, all aimed at producing alternative and self-authored narratives. These narratives, which speak to the lived realities of the TIGV people and challenge stereotypes and norms, create a foundation for a fundamental cultural shift in the way that TGIV are perceived by the rest of society.

Trans Mreža Balkan also organises events to promote art and culture by trans artists, creating new space for expression by those who are often left out, or only depicted as subjects/objects rather than creators. By doing this, they challenge cultural norms about what is considered art and who can produce it, based on the believe that art is a universal human form of expression.

The impact they’re having

Trans Mreža Balkan’s work centers on community-building work has already had a clear impact. Many participants of their annual community event Transposium, have described it as a life-changing experience. Some participants – who ranged widely in age, have diverse gender identities, and included sex workers – came from small towns across the region where they never met another trans person. Transposium also connects trans activism with other issues, movements and communities (e.g. refugees, feminism, intersex, sex work) in order to create cross-movement solidarity.

Participants of Transposium have gone on to start initiatives of their own. In 2017, for example, during the Transposium there was the announcement of the founding of Spektra, the first and only trans organisation in Montenegro. Trans Mreža Balkan is also working closely with three other new youth trans groups that have been founded in Serbia, North Macedonia, and Slovenia, which are contributing to positive changes in their local contexts.

Regarding the broader LGBTIQ rights context, it was an incredible step forward that this past September the very first Pride march was organised in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though there was strong opposition from conservative politicians and groups, there was also with extensive international support, and the event took place without any incidents. Thehe first Balkan Trans Intersex March was also organised by Trans Mreža Balkan, Trans Aid, and Spektra in Zagreb, with over 300 participants and zero incidents.

Thanks to in part the work of Trans Mreža Balkan, the Western Balkan region is witnessing a new wave of activism that brings with it great hope, courage, and innovative approaches for trans organising.