SARAJEVO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ivan has not told his parents, or many friends, that he’s gay.
“I want to tell them, of course,” he said. “Every person on this planet needs to share nice things from his private life; to say ‘I’m happy, I have a boyfriend’.”
Now in his 20s, Ivan has known he was gay since he was a child but in Bosnia, where attacks on LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex] people are common despite mounting pressure for the government to tackle discrimination, he doesn’t feel he can be open about his sexuality.
Gay campaigners are hoping that Bosnia’s bid to join the European Union, which has put its human rights record under greater scrutiny, will lead to change.
In November, the European Commission released reform guidelines for Bosnia, including a warning that the country’s approach to LGBTI rights must be improved.
“Coming out is one of the biggest problems for LGBTI people. Our parents’ generation are very close minded,” Ivan, who did not want to use his real name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during an interview in a cafe in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital.
“Most people keep their sexuality a secret. The situation in that way is not great. There is lots of discrimination here.”
A poll by U.S. pro-democracy organization NDI Democracy, conducted in the summer of 2015, asked people in Bosnia what they would do if they found out their child was homosexual.
The most common answer – from 44 percent of respondents – was that they would try to help “cure” them. The next most popular answer, at 11 percent, was to stop communicating with that child.
The same poll showed these attitudes echoed in other Western Balkans countries with respondents in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia giving the same answers.
Ivan said secrecy overshadows daily activities for LGBTI people in Bosnia.
“Most of us need to keep our sexual orientation a secret from our landlords,” says Ivan, adding that being gay also made it harder to find a job in Bosnia - which has the world’s highest rate of youth unemployment, according to the World Bank.
“I cannot see a situation when I am going [for job interviews] and saying I’m gay.”
OKVIR, an organization which works within the LGBTI community, has been asked to leave two separate offices after the landlords found out about its work.
Azra, one of OKVIR’s core members, who did not want her surname to be published, said the main issue [for LGBTI people] is “violence in public and domestic spaces”.
The NDI Democracy survey found three out of four LGBTI people in the Balkans had faced psychological abuse and verbal harassment, one out of four suffered physical violence, and half had faced discrimination at school, at work, or elsewhere.
One of the most high-profile attacks on Bosnia’s LGBTI community was the attack on the 2014 Merlinka Film Festival, organized by the LGBT rights group Sarajevo Open Centre. A group of around 12 masked men interrupted the event, injuring three people. There have, so far, been no criminal prosecutions.
Adam Fagan, head of Queen Mary’s School of International Politics in London and a specialist in minority rights in the Balkans, believes the slow progress in addressing LGBTI discrimination in Bosnia is a consequence of political division and an inefficient model of government.
Although the Dayton Peace accord, signed 20 years ago this month, succeeded in ending the 1992-95 Bosnia war, it divided the former Yugoslav republic into two autonomous regions along ethnic lines - the Serb Republic and Bosniak-Croat Federation.
This complex political system, based on ethnic and regional quotas, has hampered the formation of a stable national government and left Bosnia bottom of the pack of Western Balkan states seeking EU membership.
Fagan said the law was “very patchy” on how to deal with hate crimes.
“There are no prosecutions, they’re not investigated particularly well and there are issues around the definition of what constitutes a hate crime,” he said.
“The implementation of any law in Bosnia is completely stymied by the political system. It’s very difficult to ascertain whether the Bosnians are against LGBT [rights] or if they can’t do anything at all really.”
The country has two Interior Ministries and neither replied to a request for comment.
Ivan has been working with one of the country’s leading LGBTI rights organizations for the past two years in a bid to push for legal amendments to make Bosnia more inclusive, but he sees little political will to make any changes.
“I have been told by government institutions, ‘We have too many other problems and too few LGBT people.’ For them, there is always something more important than LGBT rights,” he said.
This was also highlighted in a report by U.S. government development agency USAID, published in September.
“Many say that compared with the other social and economic challenges in BiH [Bosnia and Herzegovina], gay rights are not a priority. We say human rights are always a priority,” the report said.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org