How, the author wondered, could she change hearts and minds around LGBT rights in her native Croatia? By coming out on national TV, and in the country’s most popular magazine.
This post originally appeared on The Daily Beast.
A small country for a great holiday. Rarely, an ad will tell you the truth, and this tagline that promotes Croatia around the world kind of nails it for me. You will have a marvelous time, as long as you’re only visiting.
During those years, I was growing up in Zadar, a small, picturesque Croatian coastal town with history longer than your regular reader would care to explore: a municipality of mere 80,000, yet a strategic point so important that from the autumn of 1991 until early 1993 it was besieged by the Serbian army, in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia.
To be starting high school under shellfire was pretty rough. But as hazardous as coming out of the house was in those years, coming out of the closet was much harder—and for those unaware of it, impossible.
In the country whose priority at the time was (re)affirming national identity and reviving Catholic tradition following the decades of the Communist regime, there could hardly be much room or voice given to those whose mere existence went against this tradition.
So, at 15, there was no language to describe myself with, nor what I felt. I had no reflections in the outside world—the world of same-sex desire was the world of silence. And so I was silent to the world, and to myself, too.
Right after the war, it took me some time—involving leaving Croatia and living abroad to connect the invisible dots—to come upon the wide “special interest” bookshelves at British libraries, lesbian magazines in bookstores, and popular TV shows, which finally threw a few sparks into my long-fortified personal closets.
This catharsis, as catharses often are, was like a 500-pound flash bomb that illuminated my whole past; my peculiarly passionate friendships, my unfathomable jealousies, my irrational fears, my self-hatred, my self-mutilating dreams. (A few years later, I would walk the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago; it wasn’t nearly as religious experience as coming out to myself had been.)
A short period of exhilaration was soon replaced by an incredible anger and rage at the system that had created and upheld the silence, and that had made me deny and hate myself for all those years. I would not let this silence bludgeon others, as long as I can speak, and write.
Back in 1995, when this revelation came upon me somewhere in Slough (a depressing British town fittingly commemorated by BBC’s The Office) there was no internet, and calling home to Croatia was quite expensive for an au pair.
So I wrote letters—to mom, dad, brother, uncle, all my friends and everyone I could think of. Writing has always been more powerful than talking anyway, and coming out in those letters was far more than just disclosing “delicate” information about myself and putting myself at my audience’s mercy, as is the common choreography of coming out.
It was about style, elegance, wit, some self-deprecation perhaps, strength, seduction; it was about bringing those people into my universe, on my terms—as writers tend to do. The response to my letters was less important than the act of writing them, but I won’t say I wasn’t relieved to be met with understanding and support. This in turn strengthened my belief in the importance of spreading the word, any which way.
And so I spread it. When I returned to Croatia to enroll at university three years later, I was out all the way. In the late 1990s, Croatian Pride marches were still only brewing: there was but a few gay and lesbian NGO activists who were out with their names and faces in the media, and represented the whole of the LGBT “community.”
There were a few clandestine clubs. People who frequented them were often ambushed and beaten up, it was almost never reported. Much like it was while I was growing up, no public figures, like writers, actors, singers or politicians were out, or vocal about LGBT rights. Silence was still the name of the game.
But then, in 2002 we had our first Croatian Pride, in Zagreb featuring tear gas grenades, neo-Nazi gangs hurling threats and abuse, and thousands of spectators, fellow citizens who had come to see the circus.
There were maybe 200 of us there, walking in fear, rather than celebration of diversity or freedom. But this turbulent Pride was also the first proper act of group visibility that finally got everyone talking about “it.” People were having opinions, people were getting information, it was in the media, we existed. There were suddenly cracks in the Croatian heterosexual monolith.
But for me this one day in the year wasn’t enough. Years of being invisible to my own self had taught me the importance of full-time presence, of signaling every day—with our faces, names, professions, hobbies, strengths and weaknesses, that our existence is possible, that we are everywhere. And that we didn’t really have to die/commit suicide/murder/convert to heterosexuality (like many popular American movies up until the 1990s would have us believe).
However, I knew how the media and the society of the spectacle operated. I knew, if I came out to them, that they would want the story of the victim; gay blood and lesbian tears. They would hardly want to discuss fine literature or the complexities of human identities; how it is to coexist as a lesbian and a writer (I already was one at the time), how fragile each of our identities are yet how easily they can be harnessed for war, or for love, utterly randomly.
Croatian mainstream media, much like mainstream media everywhere, wanted to premiere the LGBT topic with as much drama as possible. They wanted stories about people getting fired, or beaten up, or disowned by their families because they’re gay (which did happen, and still does); they wanted to open their big, generous paper hearts to gay stories, at the price of reducing their subjects to one single line of existence, to their (so boring, so boring) sexuality.
At the time, it was impossible to be out in the Croatian media, and be anything more, or other, than a lesbian. (How did your family react? Did you ever suffer physical violence? Wouldn’t you prefer to be straight? Who’s the man and who’s the woman in your relationship?)
Since I’ve always considered myself a much better writer than a lesbian (and all my girlfriends will testify to that), I could not accept this victimized frame for myself, this story wasn’t mine. But I still believed that public space needed to be seized immediately—as much of it as possible.
Then, in a flash of insight, I realized we needed to hijack the spaces where we simply couldn’t be asked any of those questions. I needed to go where I would not have to explain myself, or beg for acceptance, or a kind permission to exist.
Those would, for the purpose of raising visibility, also have to be the spaces with the widest possible outreach, the most popular spaces that people go to for entertainment, where they don’t expect politics. The spaces they enter with their guard down, their very homes. Eureka!, it struck me.
The perfect format for such an outing would be Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the most popular TV game show at the time, with millions of viewers in Croatia and in the region; with the most popular guy, Tarik Filipović, hosting it.
My simple aim was to go on the show and (like hundreds of contestants before me) tell the audience about my interests, my hobbies, my profession and, in passing, about my girlfriend, who’s watching us at home right now, taking care of our cats.
The format of the show would make it impossible to do anything else but accept this simple fact, and move on (there’s nothing to see here!) to the next question. Signaling to the audience how ordinary and commonplace our (love) lives really are—just like theirs, in their living-rooms, in front of their TV sets. And, if it is part of our weekly national entertainment, how could it really be a threat?
Cut a long story short, I managed to get on the show, pass the fastest finger round, and get into the hot seat.
Now, I’m sure you can imagine the stress and the pressure I felt, knowing I would out myself at some point. For, even if that went well, I would absolutely have to win some proper money—otherwise I would, as a stupid lesbian, only bring more shame to the invisible community.
To make things more stressful, there in the studio was my father, who—for some strange reason, well aware of my activist mission—decided to come and support me, on camera. A professor of physics in Zadar (the small conservative town from the beginning of the story), he stood to lose quite a lot, reputation-wise, as the stigma on the parent (and a pedagogue!) of a lesbian/gay is just as bad as on the gay person themselves.
Then, to make it even more complicated, we were told that this particular episode would be aired on Easter, the biggest Catholic holiday (in the country with 85 percent declared Catholics). As you can imagine, I was shitting my pants.
But the game-show host was absolutely brilliant. During the commercial break he asked me if I wanted him to ask me about my girlfriend (I had mentioned her in the form we had to fill out before the shooting).
I said, sure, that’s why I’m here.
So, when the cameras started rolling again, he asked me something about cats (of course), and then, in passing, he asked me about living with my girlfriend, as if it were the most normal thing in the world (on Easter, in Croatia!).
He even personalized it further by asking me her name. This most popular TV host in the whole history of Croatian independence was basically blessing our relationship by treating it as a completely mundane thing. It was a huge deal. I was so excited about how well that had gone!
However, at the point of my outing, I was winning only a couple of hundred dollars. The hardest part now was yet ahead of me—to perform well and win a decent sum, not to embarrass myself, my father the professor, the rest of my family, the lesbian universe.
Anyway, I won’t hold you in suspense; it turned out that God really likes lesbians. I was lucky with the questions and ended up winning 125,000 Croatian kunas (around $20,000), 3 steps away from the million.
I knew it was historic. (I also knew a lot of people would now want to hang out with me, despite my sexual predilection). And indeed it was. Several newspapers wrote about it (some conservative, condemning the whole thing bitterly), but most were favorable. People recognized me in the streets by the dozen—all friendly and cheerful—so much so that I wondered if they had actually noticed my disclosure.
In any case, this mission was a real break-through, not only for lesbian visibility in Croatia, but for me personally, as it was confirmed to me what a potent space for political activism popular culture was. Circumventing explicit political discourse, one could find so many pleasurable and joyful ways to do politics—so many exciting tactics and endeavors to bring people together and disperse prejudice. And have so much fun in the process.
Following the Millionaire show, I kept digging the media space for more inconspicuous spots to sneak in and hijack for lesbian visibility. I went on a cooking show to promote veganism (and lesbianism, and cats); I went on popular “women’s” talk shows, I took part in a few documentary films about love and/as politics. I went on political shows, too, but with a guitar, and a lot of humor, to tackle the rising neo-conservative movement that has washed over Croatia over the past years (you may have heard of the 2013 Croatian referendum which constitutionally defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman).
I really believe in humor—as therapy for society and as therapy for activists themselves. I’ve seen too many of them burn out over the years. I am absolutely sure that humor has been the only reason I have managed to stay in activism for 15 years now—because I genuinely enjoy it, because for me it is a space of creativity and seduction, much like writing, or any other art form.
Anyways, when the neo-cons saved marriage from us gays and lesbians—through a referendum initiative whose tactics and strategies and discourses dangerously resembled those of the U.S. neo-conservative movement (such as C-Fam) or the French La Manif pour Tous—my girlfriend Marta and I were trying to find the way how to fight back. With rice, rose petals and confetti, of course.
As part of a film project I was doing, last year we ended up in Las Vegas. Being the biggest Britney Spears fan in the universe, Marta had always dreamed of a Vegas wedding, to test if our marriage would hold out for more than 55 hours.
So we did it, with traditional vows and all (our song, which we asked to be played was a bit less traditional: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off'). But, of course, it was not about the wedding—it was about activism.
Britney aside, we really got married only in order to get our love story into the biggest Croatian women’s magazine, Gloria, the only magazine that survived the crash of magazine market, the most popular and widely distributed magazine in Croatia celebrating love, family, marriage, in a dignified and quite traditional way.
It had always been the ultimate goal of mine to end up on their cover, to sneak in, with a smile, into every hairdresser’s and every beauty parlor in Croatia where Gloria is being read. And lo and behold, the editor really liked our pictures and our story, and we got 5 pages in the magazine—with a (small!) picture on the cover and a headline, “Wedding in Vegas.”
The headline on the inside was “Love with mom’s blessing.” (My mother is a psychiatrist, and when she met Marta, 16 years younger than me—she commented: “Marta is 5 times more mature than you.” This was the blessing.)
There were huge photos accompanying the article: us in Vegas, under the sea, with our cats… And we made sure we used the word marriage throughout the article, although the institution had been taken away from us.
There were no politics in the article, but it was doing as much politics as any Pride march. It was the first lesbian couple ever featured in Gloria magazine, and the feedback was amazing—so much so that at the end of the year we were included in Gloria’s list of the “20 people of the year”. Even the most homophobic woman working at the magazine allegedly commented: “They’re so cute!”
My activist aim, obviously, is not to be cute—and if this woman knew me, she’d realize I was anything but. However, we live in the world that is increasingly distrustful of politics; of political discourses, of speeches and paroles.
There is a vast number of people who would never engage in politics, not even once in 4 years in order to vote. But most people, voters or not, do resort to entertainment industries when they want to unwind, chill, and disconnect. And that is the moment when we connect—that friendly space of their living-rooms, of their favorite magazines.
That is where LGBT visibility is most important, that is where it does the trick, without really tricking anyone, by simply being. Because, for LGBT+ rights, visibility has always been the key issue, and our most powerful weapon of change. And the more people do it, at the more places and spaces, the easier it gets for others, in small Croatian coastal towns, or in small North Carolina towns (excluding the oasis of Asheville).
In the 15 years that Croatia has had its Pride marches and increasing visibility, huge changes have taken place.
Marta was one of the organizers of the first student LGBT+ group at the Zagreb University—something that was unimaginable in my day.
From 200 people marching in 2002, our Prides have grown to 10,000 in 2017. There are so many more people who are out now—numerous writers, ballet dancers, a TV host. We are still waiting for major political or pop-cultural figures, though. But the change has been happening. We have the “life partnership law”, which isn’t marriage, but has all the same rights but one as marriage.
In a little over a decade LGBT movement has made huge progress. When we compare it to all other minority struggles, or women’s struggles over the centuries, this has been mind-blowing. For an activist to see such a change in their own lifetime it’s an incredibly powerful feeling to know you’re visibly contributing to a more just world, at least when it comes to LGBT rights. And—despite the tear gas and neo-Nazi and neo-conservative tsunamis—to be able to keep a sense of humor, and have fun with it all.
However, as I’m writing all this, I know too well that—despite the war that I lived through and the neo-conservativism and the backlashes we experience—I am, and have always been, privileged.
At a recent Human Rights Campaign conference I met some unbelievable activists from Africa, and Asia, and South America—people whose lives are in serious danger by mere being out, or by dealing with LGBT topics publicly.
It’s not easy to have fun with death breathing down your neck, so like James Joyce’s ‘young artist’ (and alter ego) Stephen Dedalus they often have to use for their defense the only arms they have at their disposal: silence, exile, and cunning. And I am in awe of these people: they are the true heroes of the LGBT movement.
What better moment to end the story than here—the moment where we all take a commercial break and examine our own privileges, and see what we can do about destabilizing the axes of power and injustice be they rooted in class, gender, race or sexuality.
And, of course, never forget to have fun in the process.
Mima Simić is a writer, cultural critic and LGBTQ rights activist who firmly believes in humor as therapy for activists and for society to counter the recent surge in fear-mongering political demagoguery. She is also a Human Rights Campaign Global Innovator.