by Andrea Spehar
Lesbian life in Croatia today is a life of women who are victims of totalitarian systems forced to hide their sexuality and to have a dual life--the private and the public. A few of us decided to struggle for our rights, to be public. I hope our activities will stimulate others to join us. Obviously in war time it is very hard to overcome the lack of courage. It is hard to struggle for truth when you can be fired from work the next day.
Lila was the first lesbian organization in Croatia, and was formed within the feminist group Tresnjevka. The idea for such an organization was due to an anonymous public opinion poll of December 1988, during the second feminist meeting in Zagreb. Those questioned felt that the issue should be treated in a more open way. During the organization's one-year of existence, about 70 women where in the group.
Lila wanted to make lesbians and bisexuals visible and popularize women's culture. It was not able to achieve all its goals, but there were some positive results: there was a place where women could be together and relax (there was no public place in Zagreb where lesbians could meet). The importance of Lila is best described by a member: "When my long love relationship ended, I was desperate and really alone. It was not possible to talk about this with my friends or my mother--I was a lesbian. When I came to the group, for the first time I felt that my problem was also a problem of these women, and that at least here, it was not a problem."
After the elections of May 1990, when Franjo Tudjman won, Lila lost her space. Even worse, the political situation for our movement was bad, so new women did not come to continue the work. Lila stopped. In December 1990, Croatia adopted a new Constitution. For the first time in our history, women and lesbians had an opportunity to take part in democracy. But 45 years of socialism had its influence on women's self-confidence: few women took part in the government, and our political influence was zero.
There were hopes for human rights and pluralism when the new government began. But it soon became clear that homosexuality was still to be invisible. In 1991, during the middle of Croatian television showing the British series "Oranges are not the only fruit" (after a scene where two actresses kissed), the series was stopped. Technical difficulties were claimed. The reaction from Radio 101 was great: one program was devoted to this event, in which the station's programmer explained that they had received telephone calls from church leaders who asked that the "immoral drama" be stopped.
The Church has great influence in Croatia, so the television series was stopped. Lesbian relationships were seen as dangerous to society, especially to the roles men and women play. Lesbians are dangerous especially now during the war, because lesbian sex does not result in children. Lesbianism destroys the hope of a strong, national state. According to the Croatian government, women exist only to reproduce the state.
Now when women and lesbians fight for our rights, there is a counter public information campaign, which says we are trying to destroy Croatia and Christianity. It is claimed that we are against an independent Croatia, that we do not love Croatia. We are suppose to be re-educated.
If you are a lesbian in Croatia today, you are forced to live in total isolation. We are not only isolated from society, we are isolated from each other. In Croatia there is no public space (outside of our group, Lesbians and Gay Men Action--LIGMA) where lesbians can talk and share their experiences, without prejudice. You cannot read a book based on lesbian themes, as there is no such thing in Croatian and books from abroad are few. The same is true for other media and scientific papers. The only thing you will hear about yourself from the public media is that you are a whore, or are ill, or do not even exist. In a direct, political sense, you are the destroyer of the state and all its moral values.
According to the new Croatian Constitution, being a lesbian is not a punishable offence. But in practice this is not true. Croatian families are very patriarchal, and there is great pressure on lesbians to marry. Today, it is impossible for young girls to be independent. The average monthly salary is DM 100. If you want to live on your own, a rented apartment costs at least DM 200 per month.
Lesbians who live in smaller towns see moving to Zagreb as their only chance of freedom. But in Zagreb there are no public spaces for lesbians to meet. Because of the unequal status of women in Croatian society, lesbians have lagged behind gay men in developing a sense of identity and community. The one gay male bar in Zagreb is regularly visited by police, who take personal information about those present away for their files. If you do not give the information, you are taken to the nearest police station, which is even worse.
In June 1992, a few of us decided to form Lesbians and Gay Men Action (LIGMA). LIGMA is only in Zagreb, but we have supporters in other towns. There are many more sympathizers who are afraid to act because of the fear of losing their job or family.
It is hard as people are more concerned about finding food in order to survive than about struggling for their rights. But we want to work for the protection of lesbians and gays in Croatia, to publish lesbian and gay magazines, and do AIDS education. We have been forced to give interviews to newspapers in order to publicize the group, but the government-controlled media usually made interviews scandalous and insulting.
Financing is our major problem. There is a great economic crisis in Croatia (annual inflation is from 2,000 to 3,000 percent). But we also need literature and other materials, advice, and your support. Our organization is young, but well organized and willing to fight for our rights until the very end.
by Andrea Spehar, LIGMA coordinator for lesbian issues. LIGMA, PP 488, HR-41001, Zagreb, Croatia.