As North Macedonia hosts its first Pride Parade, are its LGBTQ and feminist cultural activists making a breakthrough?

Skopje recently hosted its first Pride Parade — the most visible sign yet of the vital work being done by North Macedonia’s independent cultural activists. After years in the wilderness, are the interlinked worlds of the feminist and LGBTQ movements about to blossom?

9 July 2019

In May, the still slightly strange new name “North Macedonia” popped up on screens across the world during the Eurovision Song Contest. The renamed nation’s entry, “Proud”, performed by Tamara Todevska, captivated the jury and raked in the points. There was something apt about the choice of song: just a few weeks later, it was announced that the first-ever Pride Parade in North Macedonia would be held in Skopje on 29 June.

When the ground-breaking march was finally held last Saturday in central Skopje, Todevska was there to perform her hit again on home soil. Supported by local DJs and pop stars, and many politicians and diplomats, several hundred people marched through the sunny streets. When the march came across an Orthodox church, it was met by right-wing counter-protesters, but the encounter passed without incident.

As they marched through central Skopje, the Pride participants would have come across a number of Neoclassical statues that signal, indirectly, what the movement for gender and sexual equality in North Macedonia is up against. Near the entrance to the Old Bazaar stand four statues of the same female figure, the so-called “Olympias”, positioned on elevated stairs. The first is pregnant, gently touching her swollen belly; the second is breastfeeding; the third is relaxed, playing with her small son; the fourth is emotionally embracing the boy. Overshadowing these women and children in the distance, is another statue — of a man, overseeing the square with raised fist. (The statue is of Phillip II of Macedon, but has been anonymised as part of efforts to resolve longstanding tensions with Greece.)

This crass ensemble is part of the criminal, Neoclassical kitsch “urban makeover” project “Skopje 2014”, pushed by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to reassert a traditionalist, nationalist take on Macedonian identity. Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party were voted out following 2016’s “Colourful Revolution”. But the message they sent with this kind of public art was clear: the only good woman is a childbearing one; heterosexual family structures are the only acceptable variations.

Needless to say, the feminist and LBGTQ scenes are pushing back against this image, through a growing number of events that are bringing communities together in powerful new ways. The Pride Parade is the most high-profile event to be held in North Macedonia so far — but it is not the first.

Activists are starting from a disadvantaged position, though. Since the announcement that Bosnia and Herzegovina would hold the first Pride march in September 2019 came out earlier in the year, North Macedonia was technically the last country in the Balkans to proclaim a Pride Parade — an example of how the recent political culture of the country has severely stunted the expression of gender and sexual activism.

“For years, propaganda and kitsch have been completely dominant. We were erased, without money, weakened”

Slavcho Dimitrov, programme coordinator of the NGO Coalition of the Margins and curator of Pride Weekend — a queer cultural festival now in its seventh year, a separate entity to the new Pride Parade but organised by the same team — explains that two major preconditions needed to be met for the first march to take place. “The first and probably the most important is the strengthening of the LGBTI community itself. The second is the existence of a supportive government that would protect the rights of LGBTI people, and guarantee the safety of the participants during the parade,” he tells me. “The authoritarian, conservative, and homophobic government of VMRO-DPMNE not only failed to protect [LGBTI] rights — it was one of the main perpetrators of human rights abuses, with its explicitly homophobic policies and support of hate speech.”

“Like every party in power that tends towards totalitarianism, VMRO-DPMNE monopolised institutional culture and embedded it within its populist and nationalistic paradigm,” says Kristina Lelovac, a professional actress, docent at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Skopje, and one of the founders of Tiiit! Inc., an organisation that campaigns for women’s rights and the independent cultural scene in North Macedonia. “For years, propaganda and kitsch have been completely dominant.” In this political atmosphere, she says, there was precious little space for independent creatives. “We were erased, without money, weakened. First, they ignored our critical positions; second, they made access to public money impossible.”

Pansy House of Presents, a drag show from Berlin, at Skopje Pride Weekend. Image: Leni von Geleva

Despite these pressures, feminist and LGBTQ groups have managed to carve out niches for themselves which are now opening the doors for the kind of large-scale public expressions of conviction represented by the likes of the Pride Parade. Not far from the Olympias statues is the Youth Cultural Centre, home to many festivals, film screenings, exhibitions, and other events. This May saw the space host the seventh edition of the First-born Girl Festival (ПРВО ПА ЖЕНСКО): the only feminist festival in North Macedonia. The name is derived from a traditional Balkan expression used to indicate a stroke of bad luck — “it’s first and it’s a girl” — when a family’s first-born child is female.

“Before founding the festival, there was a space in our heads, an opportunity for everyone to express themselves, showcase what they do, participate, just be themselves,” explains Jana Stardelova from Tiiit! Inc.. “The connecting elements were always focused around music, art, film, theatre. We wanted to create a feminist space where all these different spheres could meet, with an added activist perspective.”

Read more After overthrowing its government and changing its name, North Macedonia faces up to the urban crisis in Skopje

June also saw the seventh edition of Skopje Pride Weekend. In a demonstration of the vitality of both queer theory and the lived experience of the community, both festivals centred the idea of the human body: First-born Girl paraphrased French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray for their slogan, “This Body Which is Not One”; while Pride Weekend ran under the title Glittering Wounds. “The human body has always been a place of control, resistance, discipline, and disobedience, and particularly a place where gender roles have been practised and examined,” says Jana Kocevska, an organiser of First-born Girl and one of the founders of Tiiit! Inc..

This is a rhetoric echoed by the organisers of Skopje Pride Weekend in their conceptualisation of queer experience as one of “glittering wounds”. “We arrived at this theme by considering the history of queer life as a history of tears,” explains Slavcho Dimitrov. “Queer history is the history of loss. The history of shame, exclusion, discrimination, homophobia, grief, suffering, pain, depression, melancholia, fear, regret, loneliness, and death.”

If this might seem like a particularly pessimistic approach, then the vibrancy of the programmes on offer at these festivals demonstrates that an awareness of trauma can coexist with defiance and subversion. “[For me, the highlight of Pride Weekend] would definitely be the performance by Ron Athey,” enthuses Dimitrov of the renowned American extreme performance artist. “His performance provoked massive reactions and hate speech from the conservative public.” Dimitrov also highlights performances from BOYCHILD and Rachael Young, as well as the increasingly international nature of the festival — one of the most striking events was a spectacular and politically significant drag show bringing together queens from Berlin, Belgrade, and Skopje.

North Macedonia’s #ISpeakUpNow campaign was the only version of the #MeToo movement in the Balkans to gain attention

Jana Kocevska agrees that the scene in North Macedonia is both fragile and defiant. “Existing with a lack of stability, no steady development or institutional support, the independent cultural sector nonetheless comes up with fascinating content in many artistic spheres: exhibitions, performing arts and theatre, and especially film.” (Cinema is certainly a strong point: directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year with their debut feature Honeyland, while the fifth feature from writer-director Teona Strugar Mitevska, God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, won two of the main independent juries prizes at the 2019 Berlinale.)

There are now finally signs that progress is being made in the political sphere, and that cultural groups are making their voices heard in decision-making processes. Since it began, First-born Girl has advocated vocally for free access to safe and legal abortion. There are encouraging signs on this front: it was announced this spring that a new law on abortion is being prepared
which will place the emphasis in the matter on women’s right to choose. The law will now allow women to choose to have an abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy, after consultation with their gynaecologist.

Since the Colourful Revolution, there is a sense that conversations are opening up in North Macedonia. In January last year, a group of women — largely public figures — started sharing their personal testimonies of sexual harassment by people in positions of power on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtags #ISpeakUpNow (#СегаКажувам in Macedonian and #TaniTregoj in Albanian). This campaign was the only visible and articulated version of the #MeToo movement in the Balkans to gain attention. The writer and professor Rumena Bužarovska, one of the organisers of the campaign, said at the time that the need to talk about sexual harassment and violence in North Macedonia had long been smouldering; the topic is traditionally pushed under the rug out of embarrassment and fear. The response from the media was massive: state institutions were forced to acknowledge these testimonies, since many of the stories shared cited harassment within the education and health sectors, and other state institutions.

Thinking about the Pride Parade, First-born Girl, and Skopje Pride Weekend, my mind returned to the statues of the Olympias. I thought about the treatment of women’s bodies, their cultural significations, how they are constantly exposed to pain and violence. The statues of Skopje 2014 violated a once-proud modernist city. But the truth is that they can be removed. The bodies of women and LGBTQ people, as well as the wounds that society inflicts upon them, are real and lasting. Our responses must run equally deep. The Pride Parade was a reminder that, for women and LGBTQ people, as Slavcho Dimitrov puts it, “our wounds glitter glamorously”. That is something worth remembering.

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