Kevin Sessums is dot429’s new editorial director, and is blogging about his experiences while traveling in Eastern Europe on behalf of the US State Department this month as part of an LGBT human rights/cultural exchange mission. _______________________________________________
I had a very busy first day in Slovenia this week on the second stop of my LGBT human rights/cultural exchange mission for the US State Department. In Ljubljana, the country’s lovely capital city, I was met by Mitja Blazik, one of Slovenia’s most important LGBT activists, who served as my tour guide.
He first took me to see Metelkova City – a kind of alternative city within the city of Ljubljana which was once the army barracks of the Yugoslavian army. After the revolution of 1991, the artists and intellectuals and LGBT community began to squat there and claim it for their own. The city council secretly planned to tear it down and put up a business center but the squatters refused to leave even after the city turned off the electricity and water.
There was a year’s stand-off before the city gave in and it now houses art studios and political NGOs and theatrical companies and alternative nightclubs. On the weekends the grounds are packed with young artistic people and those who feel at home with them.
In one of the buildings at Metelkova City, I was taken up to meet a committed young woman named Urska who is part of the feminist lesbian collective in its 25th year of existence that oversees the Lesbian Library in one of the rooms on the second floor. We had a lively discussion about the importance of being transgressive within the context of the “normalization” of so much of LGBT culture these days. And you’ve got to love a feminist lesbian collective which oversees a place called the Lesbian Library and sees fit to hang a poster of James Baldwin on its wall.
Mitja also hosted a lunch for me at the youth hostel Celica located in Metelkova City with many of the city’s other activists. He told me he was amazed they agreed to all gather together in one place since they have such different political outlooks and philosophies and often disagree and seldom sit around together although when it comes down to it they are there for one another, as they were for Mitja when he was beaten and burned and put into the hospital by right-wing thugs who gay-bashed him a few years ago. “You should feel honored they did it for you,” he said. I did feel that way.
After the delicious lunch, which was held at the Celica Hostel located in Metelkova City, I was given a private tour of the place which was once the prison where the Yugoslavian army held political prisoners. It has now been turned into what Lonely Planet called a few years ago “the hippest hostel in the world.” The private rooms are the cells where the prisoners were kept. Each is different and all are really cool.
Recently they opened up the downstairs cellar portion where the most unlucky of prisoners were thrown into these hole-like darkened rooms and tortured for months at a time. I was allowed to take a flashlight down through an opening in the cellar wall to take a look. It was eery. I said a prayer for all those who had once been held there.
In the afternoon I had an interesting meeting with a dedicated young man, Andrej Pisl, who runs the NGO known as DIH which does HIV outreach and fights homophobia in colleges and is involved with LGBT sports events, among other projects.
My last stop during my very busy first day in Slovenia was in a small city about a 90 minute drive outside of Ljubljana called Maribor. It is where a lot of the country’s rightwing voters reside and it’s also known for its football hooliganism. There is a building in the town square with a small balcony where Hitler infamously gave a speech to an adoring crowd.
I mention all of this to prove how brave the young men with whom I met are. They have begun to come out publicly and gather together as LGBT youth in the context of the town’s main youth center. They have given a couple of dance parties recently that have been well attended by others from Ljubljana and Graz, Austria, and Zagreb, Croatia. Around 300 people showed up for their last one they told me proudly.
We gathered at the only “gay friendly” cafe in the city which was down a deserted alleyway. The name of the place means “Hidden” in Slovenian. Our little group kept growing in number once word got out that they had an American visitor in their midst.
They have also begun to take same-sex ballroom dancing classes and as part of the last party they gave they did a choreographed routine, ballroom dancing to a Barry White song, all wearing identical outfits. They showed me a bit of the routine which was recorded on a cell phone of one of the guys. It was incredibly sweet.
They then began to pass around the memory card in that guy’s phone to all the other guys around the table so they could have a copy of it in all their phones. Each time a young man would insert the memory card he’d watch it all over again on his phone and smile at the audacious sweetness of the memory of their same sex dance routine that night.
I will always smile myself when I recall the time I spent with these audacious sweet young men that night in Maribor.