Close-Up “Trans questions are a feminist questions”

Nadia Kučukalić

Interview with ​the activist Nadia Kučukalić from Sarajevo.

Ms. Kučukalić, for about three years now, transgender people have been more present than ever in the US and Western Europe. There are series like Transparent, the actress Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time magazine. All of this has also led to a greater public awareness of the rights of this group. Is this also evident in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region?

It is always somewhat unfortunate to draw comparisons when it comes to social change. Everywhere in the Balkans, be it in Serbia, Croatia or Montenegro, there are some changes, but overall things are not going in a desirable direction. However, the visibility of trans people has increased, which is why I often get asked in workshops, for example, if there are more LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, trans, queer, intersexual) people today than in the past.

Of course not.

They were always there, but they were frightened, lived in seclusion and didn’t talk about it. Male homosexuality was not decriminalised in Yugoslavia until 1976, but the republics of Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia ignored that. Only after the disintegration of the country were the laws changed here. Violence against homosexuals and transsexuals also prevented them from coming out. Meanwhile, there is greater attention for their rights. And I always like to remind institutions that Bosnia and Herzegovina has signed various human rights conventions. They have no choice at all: it is their duty to implement them. Queer rights are human rights; there are no exceptions.

Usually, pressure from those affected is also necessary.

In my personal experience, there was and is neither a strong feminist movement nor a strong queer movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While there are many women’s groups doing great work, I do not think society perceives them as a strong force that can change things. Feminism is still a dirty word in Bosnia. There is no awareness of the struggles of suffragettes for voting rights and no lessons on feminism in textbooks.

Nevertheless, women have always fought for other women.

Yes, but at the beginning it was all about very specific support, for example for women who were subjected to violence during the war. Only after the war did feminist groups tackle lesbian issues. Even today, most people have no idea what LGBTQI means. They think first of gays, then of anal sex and finally, that it’s a shame and ruining our traditional society. That is still very present. As far as lesbians are concerned, most people think of pornography first. And trans people were not paid any attention for a long time, not even by the medical profession.

When did that change?

The first NGOs dealing with these issues began work in the 2000s. There was one in Banja Luka and one in Sarajevo called Q. They were the first to bring queer people together – that was all before Facebook. I first met trans people at Q. Then when I was working at the SOC for the last two years, I got more contact with trans women, mostly online. The topic is now also slowly being put on the agenda even in this country. But we are still explaining to people that there are more than two social and biological genders. The process of conceptualisation and demystification continues.

In Tuzla there was recently the case of a trans person who was not allowed by the Ministry of the Interior to change her first name to match her gender, after which the Bosnia and Herzegovina Institution of Human Rights Ombudsman recommended that they permit it. What do you think? How this case will turn out?

The law is very clear here, because it allows it. For example, according to Bosnian law, I could adopt a male given name. The only condition is that I have to keep it for five years.

Then why was her name change rejected at all?

As far as I know, the law was simply not interpreted correctly. Out of ignorance and because it was the first time that such a request had been made. It was illegal to refuse it. Besides getting psychological help by NGOs, name changing is the only thing that trans people in this country can actually do.

A gender reassignment isn’t possible in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

No. When it comes to a transition, they can at most go to a psychologist. There are some who are friendly and up-to-date with the research. Then they have to go to a psychiatrist to get the diagnosis of transsexuality, which to my knowledge has only happened once or twice. With this diagnosis they could go to an endocrinologist for hormones. But since it is virtually impossible to get the psychiatric diagnosis, they instead get the hormones on the black market or go abroad for the process of transition.

To neighbouring countries?

Yes, mainly to Croatia and Serbia. They go there to the psychologists and psychiatrists and get the hormones prescribed. Also, operations are mostly done there. Belgrade has been a leader here for twenty years, a clinic there specialises in it. Of course, Bosnians have to pay for it themselves.

Even for gays and lesbians, it’s difficult to live openly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is not even a pride parade in this country like in Serbia and Croatia. How can trans people become more visible under these circumstances?

That’s a good question, because there are no safe places where people can show themselves without fear. As for pride: the majority society is totally against it. People have pictures of big cities in mind, half-naked men, etc. But it’s not just about celebrating; it’s about demanding something. It is a protest. I think at some point there will be a pride parade. However, the very diverse community has to join forces. We are all very busy trying to overcome our individual shame and guilt feelings.

This brings us to the question of solidarity and also to the topic of your lecture Trans Women and Feminism. There are some feminists, such as Germaine Greer, who deny that trans women can be women. They reduce them to biology, yet it was a feminist consensus from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler that gender is a social construct. Why is this questioned?

For some radical feminists, neither trans women nor pornography are part of the feminist agenda. But for me, there is only one feminism that advocates that men and women are equal. Along the way, among other things, the right to vote and the right to abortion were won. Trans feminism is not separate from this. Trans issues are feminist issues. I think we still have the same enemy: patriarchy and sexism.

This also affects trans women.

Yes, they are being attacked at several levels. Because they are women because they are trans women and also because they are accused of betraying men and masculinity. When radical feminists say that trans women are not women, that is not feminism but vaginaism. They also claim that trans women can not be empathetic with other women because they were never girls, have no menstrual cramps, and don’t have children. But what kind of criteria are those? I do not agree with that. As feminists we should stick together, we have no time for such quarrels. And trans women certainly don’t. They are fighting for survival. Who, if not us other feminists, should show solidarity with them? I don’t see any other ally except women. It is our duty to stand by their side. Even the queer community has to do more for them than putting them at the head of pride parades.