Like many countries previously behind the Iron Curtain, a lot of the countries of the former Yugoslavia continue to be very conservative when it comes to sexual minorities. The people of the region are fairly religiously diverse, but it doesn’t really help gay people. Serbs tend to be Eastern Orthodox, Croats are generally Roman Catholic, and ethnic Albanians (like those found in Kosovo and Bosnia, in addition to Albania) are usually Muslim. So… pick an oppressive religion.
Pride marches in these countries have a pretty turbulent history. Taking Belgrade as just one example, the pride marches have experienced pretty extreme violence in the past. The march has also been cancelled by the government several years, including as recently as 2013. In 2015 the pride march went ahead without violence, partly because the “[p]olice deployed armoured vehicles and a helicopter circled overhead to deter potential attacks.” Yeesh.
I made a pretty whirlwind trip through the Balkans, compared to the longer periods of time I spent in other places. In all, I spent about three weeks in the former Yugoslav republics. It’s a fascinating place to visit. As someone who came of age in the ‘90s, the horrific war that led to the collapse of the common government was one of the first times I was really aware of world events. It’s a disturbing history, with crimes against humanity on all sides. ‘Balkanization’ has even become a term in political science for countries that crumble and splinter.
But you would never know it as you explore the ancient fortress-city of Dubrovnik, or walk the Riva promenade in Split, or walk across the river on one of the many foot bridges in Sarajevo, or explore the squares and cafes of Belgrade. Now and again there are hints, like a still-crumbling building in Belgrade or bullet holes in some of the walls in Sarajevo.
The days of war are gone. But for the gay people of the Balkans, the threat of violence continues in different forms.
As I left Romania, my first stop was Belgrade, Serbia where I experienced Orthodox Christmas (the Eastern Orthodox Church has a different Christmas at the beginning of January – learn something new every day) and ended up at their monthly gay bear party (didn’t hate it).
Belgrade has a reputation as a bit of a party city, but I think my trip was poorly timed for the partying. There were several gay bars and clubs, though; they just were fairly empty – what with Christmas and all – with the exception of the well-attended bear party and the girls’ night the same bar held the previous night.
Of the cities in the Balkans I visited, Belgrade had the most active gay nightlife.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Next stop was Sarajevo, a very charming and scenic small city. I was surprised at the beauty and charm of the city given that its claims to fame are the site of the start of World War I and the four-year siege that terrorized and impoverished the people in the 90s – and OK, yeah, the 1984 Olympics, too. (Side-note: bring some hankies if you go to their history museum.)
I wasn’t able to find any gay community in Sarajevo, and the lack of nightlife was confirmed by a native I met in Belgrade. Apparently Bosnians travel to Belgrade to get their fix. It’s close enough to do a weekend trip fairly easily.
Kotor, Montenegro is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Its main attraction, other than the very nice old city, is the hike up to the ancient fort at the top of the mountain behind it. From there, the views of the bay, surrounding mountains, and the Adriatic in the distance are truly stunning.
You don’t go to Montenegro for a gaycation. There were guys on the apps there, though. I had an odd experience while in Kotor: I went to a sandwich shop for lunch and then didn’t notice until later that a faceless profile had asked me, “How’s your lunch?” I’m sure he was just trying to innocuously strike up a conversation, but it really creeped me out.
I was also in touch with a young guy in nearby Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro (though still a very small city). He reported that he had managed to find gay friends and was actively involved in a gay activist organization there.
Just north of Montenegro on the Adriatic coast is Croatia. Due to its beauty and its comparatively developed state (it joined the European Union in 2012), Croatia has become a major tourist draw for European vacationers. It seems like it hasn’t caught on quite as much with Americans yet, but I’m sure it will. The beautiful and sunny coast, as well as cool and historic cities, make it a great place to visit.
A couple places along the coast have become known as gay vacation destinations. The main spots are Hvar, on an island near the city of Split, and Pula farther north. There is also an island just off Dubrovnik (which is an amazing city) that has a gay nude beach.
Gay life for the locals, though, is very different than for tourists. It seems to be just as closed off as the rest of the region. Zagreb, the capital and largest city, is inland and therefore less popular with tourists, but it still has the most active off-season gay scene. There are a handful of bars and clubs there. I found one I really liked and spent the evening drinking homemade pear brandy with a couple of friendly bartenders there. The part of the night I remember was a really good time. It turns out Croatian pear brandy is extremely strong. Learn from my mistakes.
My last stop in the Balkans was Ljubljana, Slovenia. (I know, the name of the capital seems bizarre, but if you keep in mind that the j’s are pronounced like y’s it’s a little more pronounceable. Still hard, but at least theoretically possible.) Slovenia is the most economically advanced of the countries in the former Yugoslavia and is the most politically integrated with the West. It’s part of the European Union, the euro currency union, and the Schengen open-border area.
It also has a reputation for being more liberal than other former-Communist countries. While it’s true that they have a longer history of gay-friendly laws, the community faced a major setback recently when a referendum rejecting gay marriage was passed with a crushingly large majority. Pope Francis made an explicit plea to the Catholic-majority population of the country and they heeded his ‘suggestion’ on how to vote.
There are a couple gay clubs in Ljubljana and a few other ‘gay-friendly’ ones. Gay activist organizations are active in fighting for gay rights. Ljubljana also hosts “Pink Week” in May, which you can learn more about here.
The Balkans are not exactly a gay mecca. But the region has so much else to offer. And gay people are slowly but surely making inroads on the way to equality.