Amir Hodžić, Croatia: The making of: “Oral History of Homosexuality in Croatia""

"But, what was it like to live as lesbian, gay or bisexual in Croatia/Yugoslavia before the “revolutionary” 2000s, before the emergence of civil society organizations and Internet? (...) Where and how did they meet, socialize, find partners, have sex…? "
Book Cover
Amir Hodžić is an independent researcher and one of the co-authors of "Oral History of Homosexuality in Croatia: Documenting Testimonies about Private and Public Activities of Sexual and Gender Minorities- Precursor of the LGBTQ movement in Croatia". In his paper he describes his research experience of collecting and documenting the personal experiences of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Croatis/Yugoslavia in the second half of the 20th century. It is an insightful view into the complex research methodologies needed to reveal the immediate experiences of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Croatia. 

What do you think are the potential benefits of collecting oral histories? What can we learn from Amir Hodžić methodology? Comment, discuss and enjoy. To read Amir Hodžić full paper, click "read more".


Amir Hodžić, Independent researcher, Zagreb


This paper offers an insider view in the process of producing the book “Oral History of Homosexuality in Croatia: Documenting Testimonies about Private and Public Activities of Sexual and Gender Minorities – Precursor of the LGBTQ movement in Croatia”, published by Queer Zagreb in 2007. This publication was the result of a pioneer research attempt to collect and document personal experiences of lesbians, gays and bisexuals living in the second half of the 20th century in Croatia/Yugoslavia. The paper explores the entire research process, including the development of methodology (research approach and methods, interview guide/map, consent form), identifying interviewees and conducting interviews, facilitating authorization and anonymization procedures, analyzing and sorting of collected material/mapping of personal stories, searching for and collecting additional textual and visual archive materials, and the final structuring/editing of the book. At the end, the overview of public reception of the publication is described, and the follow-up plans are presented.

“In general, it was always more as an oral tradition… everything was through the oral tradition, and actually, wow, we should make a movie about it… nothing was black on white, nothing black, it was always… it was always a private archive… and she would be saying, mhm, we should do this, we should do that, we should make a movie, we should interview this one, that one, that other one… but, actually, nothing was ever done”.
(Born in 1963)

At the turn of the 21st century, in Croatia, more precisely in the capital of Zagreb, the growth and integration of LGBTQ community/movement was enabled partly by the changes after the 2000s elections[1], and partly by the development of Internet forums. The year 2002 marks the increased public visibility of LGBTQ community and movement in Croatia, and the beginning of more intense lobbying and advocacy for the protection of rights of “sexual and gender minorities” within the Croatian legal system. The same year the first Croatian “Gay Pride” was held in Zagreb, organized by gay and lesbian organizations Iskorak and Kontra from Zagreb, and the first national campaign for the promotion of LGBTQ rights was implemented by LORI, a lesbian organization from Rijeka. This campaign included a TV clip Ljubav je ljubav (Love is Love) which was banned by the national television as “inappropriate”[2].
In 2003, discrimination based on sexual orientation started being prohibited in many national laws. This was the result of intensive lobbying of civil society actors as well as the state's response to the requirements of the accession processes to European institutions and associations. However, the Same-Sex Civil Unions Act passed in 2003 grants to cohabitating unregistered partners only the “symbolic” right to legal regulation of property and mutual responsibility for financial support. In 2006, a proposal for the Registered Partnership Bill was rejected by the majority of the Croatian parliament. During parliamentary and commission discussions about the proposal, discriminatory statements were voiced by members of the Croatian Democratic Union, the ruling party at that time[3]. However, that same year, hate crime legislation covering sexual orientation was introduced to the national Criminal Code, as the first of its kind in Europe. The first person charged according to this law, for attempting to throw petrol bombs on Zagreb Pride parade in 2007, was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen months in prison. The Anti-Discrimination Act passed in 2008, which besides sexual orientation, also recognizes gender identity/expression as anti-discrimination basis, is the most recent and the most comprehensive of a dozen of legal acts relating to LGBTQ rights.
Although significant improvements have been made in the area of legal protection of LGBTQ individuals and groups in Croatia in the last decade, the legislation remains meaningless until it is actually implemented[4]. Realisation of many provisions has been impaired by discriminatory statements and actions by some state actors, as well as by their lack of commitment to protect and to prevent discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Without confidence in state institutions and the legal and law enforcement system, and fearing disclosure of their sexual orientation, many victims still do not report violent incidents to the police. In addition, the significant influence of Catholic values on private, social and political life also plays an important role in upholding the high-level of homophobia and transphobia in Croatian society.
Research from 2005, exploring violence against lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Zagreb, Rijeka and Osijek, has shown that every other respondent (N=202) experienced some form of violence since 2002, and 15% were victims of physical violence. More than half of the reported cases happened in public (Pikić & Jugović, 2006). In 2009, Zagreb Pride started the virtual gay-bashing map of Zagreb, marking the places where over sixty reported violent attacks on LGBTQ people have occurred over the past ten years. Public expression of non-heteronormative gender and sexual identities is still shunned in insecure and bordering on hostile heterosexist public spaces of Croatia. This is confirmed by data from recent survey on opinions and attitudes towards homosexuality in secondary schools in Zagreb. Both students (N=322) and teachers (N=117) hold the most discriminatory attitudes towards young men wearing make-up, two young men kissing in public, and holding a Pride parade (Bijelić & Hodžić, 2012).
Nevertheless, at the moment, in the summer of 2012, there are around ten active organizations and initiatives, almost exclusively based in Zagreb, the only place in Croatia, besides Rijeka, with the kind of critical mass of LGBTQ people that would produce a sense of a visible community. Besides annual Zagreb Pride and the Queer Zagreb festival (held since 2003), the capital has one club, a couple of gay saunas and cruising bars, a dozen of LGBTQ-friendly bars and cultural venues hosting various queer gatherings, as well as its own annual editions of Zagreb City Gay Guide.
But, what was it like to live as lesbian, gay or bisexual in Croatia/Yugoslavia before the “revolutionary” 2000s, before the emergence of civil society organizations and Internet? Before 1998, when the age of consent was equalized to the age of fourteen for both opposite and same-sex sexual activity[5]? Before 1977 when homosexuality was decriminalized[6]? Before 1973 when it was demedicalized and started to be officially treated as a “normal variant of human sexuality”[7]? What was it like for generations growing up in socialist Yugoslavia to articulate, perform or hide their non-heteronormative identities and expressions? Where and how did they meet, socialize, find partners, have sex…? These and similar questions initiated the research on private and public life of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the second half of the 20th century in Croatia/Yugoslavia implemented by Queer Zagreb, which resulted in the publication “Oral History of Homosexuality in Croatia”[8].
This paper focuses on the development of research methodology, and the method of oral history as utilized in the project. In addition, the research process is described, from the forming of a project team to the final editing of the publication. At the end, the public reception of the book is discussed, as well as plans for the next research on LGBTQ history encompassing all former republics of Yugoslavia. 

The main idea behind this research was to shed light on the existence of LGBTQ identities in Croatia in the period of 1945-2000; to reveal experiences of self-identifications, sexualities, behaviors and life styles which were mostly hidden and silent, denied, ignored or excluded by society and culture of those times. By producing this “unwritten history”, we wanted to testify to the ever-presence and historical continuity of our identities and expressions, and to confirm both uniqueness and commonality of LGBTQ experiences. Therefore, we started a search for personal stories of people whose sense and understandings of their identities did not fit into dominant heteronormative symbolic, social and political order. We were interested to explore many facets of LGBTQ lifes, from personal values and meanings, to socialization models and experiences of structural oppresion or support. We were keen to hear about everyday life; to document symbolic and geographical places of their coming out (of age); to find out about negotiating and balancing identities in-between private and public spheres. On the level of the community, our intention was to establish a new model/practice in Croatia – a model of “oral history” as a way of strengthening and supporting LGBTQ community. With this project we wanted to nourish the sense of historical continuity of LGBTQ identities, and to provide a tool for systematical self-reflection through the presented life stories.  
Having in mind the high level of homophobia in Croatian/Yugoslav society, and the general “secrecy” status of LGBTQ persons in the recent history, we turned to queer theoretical positions in developing research methodology. For us, this meant having an inclusive optics when considering life processes, different life periods, choices and identifications which could not be easily described within the “homo-hetero” binary. We also wanted to reveal other identities of LGBTQ persons, besides the sexual/gender ones, and to map the ways in which personal LGBTQ histories are embroidered into the matrix of social history. In doing so, we strived to bring the alternatives to the dominant and mainstream perspectives on LGBTQ people, whether produced in academia or coming from the media. We formed out epistemological framework on the notions of standpoint epistemology, a methodological approach stemming from feminist theory, and claiming that the way in which a certain oppressed group (women, LGBTQ persons) experience social life, gives the unique insight into the functioning modes of a given society.
To fulfill our aims, we decided to use the method of oral history, and to present subjective approaches to history, including all possible pitfalls and flashes of a personal memory. Through participants' recollections about key events that influenced their coming out processes, and through deliberations about life circumstances related to their non-heteronormative identities/expressions, we also wished to reconstruct a part of a wider, historical and social atmosphere. We envisioned that a collection of personal histories containing time-and-site specific reference points, could serve as a background for understanding broader social and political conditions. The mapping of personal histories in this way becomes the method of writing a history, a tool for reading contexts and discourses, a spotlight pointing out events and places, artifacts and locations previously concealed by the cultural and historical veil of heteronormativity.
 To facilitate collecting of personal stories, a guide for semi-structured interviews was developed. Two formats of the guide were produced: a list of questions distributed in topics and sub-topics, and a graphic map including interwoven themes and categories. The map consisted of several interrelated psychological and social levels intersecting with the interview themes and main analytical topics, which can be visualized as a kind of Rubik’s Cube: 
·      gender and sexual identification/identities – personal level [sex, gender]
·      intimacy – partner and family level [family, partnership]
·      coming out (social roles and socialization) – social level [class, status]
·      systems of oppression (values, norms, ideologies, power, politics, historical context) – structural level [norms, values, power]

The interview guide also contained suggestions about how to ask open-ended questions, how to paraphrase, and how to include sub-questions to reach to interviewees' emotions, attitudes, meanings, and values. The interview topics were listed as follows:
·      personal data
·      identity
·      identification
·      coming out
·      socialization
o   economic situation
o   nationality/religion/spirituality
o   education
o   work/job
o   marriage, children
o   social life
o   army
o   health services
o   historical events
o   politics and activism

Additionally, a consent form for interviewees was created to explain the research aims and procedures, as well as rights, and potential risks and benefits for participants. A special attention was given to the issues of authorization and anonymization of interview transcripts. For example, if a third person's name was mentioned in the interview, it was required that they themselves give permission for including their identity in the transcript. Otherwise, the research team had anonymized these names. Moreover, there was a possibility to use codes to alter (geographical) locations or other features that could contribute to identifying the participant.
The final, authorized and anonymized interview transcripts were treated as a research material, and were available only to the research team. Sorting of the research material, i.e. mapping of the stories, was done according to the minimum number of primary analytical categories/toponyms that served as anchors for the arrangement of particular contents.

The project team consisted of around twenty people. Half of them were volunteers, at that time students at the Center for Peace Studies in Zagreb, who were trained to conduct and transcribe the interviews. The rest of the project team included smaller working groups (2-3 persons) or individuals tasked with co-ordination and logistics, development of methodology and mapping of the narratives, searching and collecting of archive material, photography, proofreading/editing, and layout and graphic design of the publication.
At the beginning of our search for people willing to share their stories, especially those of older generations, we used our friendships and social networks. While using this “snowballing” sample method, we got in contact with almost 100 persons, but only ten of them agreed to participate, while the others declined, mostly with the argument that they do not want to share their private lives. Then, a public call for participation in the research was distributed via a couple of alternative news portals and LGBTQ websites and forums. More people started to respond, and at the end the interviews were conducted with 27 individuals, and 25 transcripts were included in the final research material[9]. The final sample consisted of participants coming from all parts of Croatia, in the range of 30 to 60 years of age, with roughly equal number of women and men. However, collected testimonies omitted trans histories, as well as experiences of people who were hospitalized or put in prison because of their sexual identities, about whom we only heard from some interviewees who knew about such cases. Likewise, there were no respondents who could tell about their specific experiences of being gay, lesbian or bisexual in the social areas such as education, sports, show business, and politics.
The interviews were completed during the period of four months, in the places where participants lived at that time. Some of them were willing to be identified in the publication by their full family name, some only by a name, and some only by their year of birth. At the end, as we belive that the stories told are more important than full names, the interviewees had the option to be listed by their name and/or year of birth. One person asked to be signed by other name, and  another one asked to change the birth-year.
After all the transcripts were authorized and anonymized, three members of the methodology and mapping team read them thoroughly several times searching for similar contents in relation to the themes, categories and processes outlined in the guide map. However, as we wanted to keep the authenticity of the interviewees’ experiences[10], our initial map kept being modified and reconstructed again by the participants’ accounts and stories told. After selecting particular resembling themes and topics throughout the transcripts, we rounded them up under the matching titles and sub-titles, and in that way came up with the following structure of the book's chapters, sections and sub-sections:
·      I am [Naming and articulating one's own sexual and gender identity]
·      Shaky/broken identities [Gender and sexual confusion]
o   How others see me
o   Gender troubles
o   I would also like to be a chick
o   Political identities
o   Double life – Excursion

·      Inner worlds [Survival experiences and strategies]
o   Fears
o   Cover-up
o   Suppression
o   Caution
o   Writing diary
o   Personal spirituality
o   Feelings of shame and guilt
o   And so we are “in trouble”

·      How I was becoming… [Constructing and developing of identity]
o   How everything began
o   How we were passing by each other
o   There are more of us – Recognition
o   I have tried – Check-up
o   You should be silent about that - Keeping secret
o   I do what’s expected from me
o   Naked on a beach
o   Support

·      Everything starts at home [Traditional discourses]
o   Upbringing and family relations
o   The talk of the town was
o   Keeping silence
o   Piety
o   Prayer after sex

·      Childhood memories [Coming out of age]
o   I was different
o   I was marked

·      Gender police [Heteronormativity of the childhood]
o   It was strange to my mum too
o   Kindergarten nannies

Coming out
·      When the time comes [Hesitation]
·      Everything is known, only it’s not said [Avoidance]
·      I’m preparing to tell them [Preparation]
·      How and to whom we talk about it [Articulation]
o   Children
o   Parents and family
o   Friends
o   Ex partners
o   At the workplace
o   Public
o   Support network

·      Love versus sex [Forms of desire]
·      My whishes, my dreams [Discourses of desire]
o   Relations
o   (Ab)normal love chaos
o   Seduction games
·      Games without borders [Homo-hetero interactions]

·      It was my first time [First experience]
·      Hello and goodbye [One night stands]
·      Top – bottom [Roles]
·      Good sex [Pleasure]
·      This makes me horny [Typology]
·      I had enough of sex [Sexual pension]

Public/political space
·      Inside and outside of my four walls
[Power relations and identities in community]
o   Activism
o   Homophobia and discrimination
o   Our rights
o   Ghettoization
o   Exclusively men party – Homosociality
o   Gay (un)solidarity
o   Generalizations and stereotypes

·      Inside and outside of someone else’s four walls [Institutions]
o   Schools and universities
o   Army
o   Police
o   Hospitals and clinics
o   At the workplace

·      Without walls [Normalization]
o   About children
o   About marriage
o   Gay daily
o   Through the media to the stars

·      Threats
·      Verbal violence
·      Physical violence
·      Structural violence
·      Gay-bashing
·      Hate crimes
·      Intimate partner violence

Historical reader
·      Wanderings [Locations, places and bars]
o   Small towns
o   Cities
o   Going outs
o   Beaches
o   Gardens, parks and dark places
o   Promenades
o   Saunas
o   Circles/Groups
o   Hotels

·      Someplace else [Dislocations]
o   Traveling
o   How it is elsewhere
o   Cyberspace

·      Decades [Time periods]
o   50s
o   60s
o   70s
o   80s
o   90s

·      Symbolic spaces [Cultural references]
o   Key persons
o   Books
o   Black on white – Magazines
o   White on black – Other media
o   Gay icons
o   Gay slang

In conducting interviews it was important to pay attention to the integrity of someone’s history, to listen for participants' feelings, fears and wishes, and not only for the stated facts and doings. Likewise, to secure wholeness of rich personal history accounts, when arranging and linking research material, we focused on actual stories and interviewees' experiences behind them, and restrained from interpretation and analysis. Nevertheless, besides mapped excerpts from the transcripts, for each chapter and section we also included quotes from contemporary theoretical writings about LGBTQ experiences, both from queer theories and from a “traditional” corpus of gay&lesbian identity politics. These citations were selected to suggest many different ways of understanding participants' personal reports, and to serve as a prism of interpretative perspectives through which to read and reflect on parts of those unique histories.
While the participants were explicitly asked to share possible visual archives and documentation related to their personal histories, our reading sessions through the transcripts have also led us to many subjective historical reference points. At the end, the visual identity of the publication included both material from private archives and visuals obtained through institutions (The Zagreb City Museum, National and University Library in Zagreb, Croatian State Archives, and The Croatian Cinematheque) and civil society organizations (Lesbian group Kontra and Women's Infoteka). One part of the collected visual material refers to the richness of identified LGBT oases throughout Croatia, which were mostly social hang-outs and cruising places at a variety of locations, such as parks, public toilets, beaches, islands, lakes, promenades, bars, clubs, saunas, hotels The other group of visuals includes representations of cultural and social references, which were singled out in the participants' narratives as some of the key points and influences in their identity formations and articulations. These include books, films, theater plays, magazine and newspaper articles, exhibitions, radio show… In addition, some of the first activist posters and leaflets from 1990s are also presented in the publication.
This Queer Zagreb project was funded by the budget of around 25.000 Euros provided by COC Nederland, Croatian National Foundation for Development of Civil Society and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia. The project format of the research process, namely available funds and a one year time-frame (January-December 2007), has influenced sample characteristics and a number of participants, as it has also limited possibilities to “deepen” the research: to do a second round of some interviews, to further significant issues and/or to articulate in more detail particular aspects of LGBTQ existence in the socialist Croatia.

The publication received a number of very positive reviews, and is being distributed through a mainstream publishing house. The book and the collected archive material were used and referenced in a couple of research projects, for example, the one on relations between national and sexual identity, and the other one about male gay-hetero friendship. Likewise, it is on the shelves of University libraries, especially at history departments. Moreover, at the moment, an English translation of the book is finished, and Queer Zagreb is searching for an international publishing house.
         Additionally, there are plans to broaden this research to all former republics of Yugoslavia in 2013-2014. Queer Zagreb will co-ordinate the research process that will bring together LGBTQ organizations from Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in co-operation with the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade and the Unstraight Museum from Sweden. The first meeting was held in April 2012, and an initial idea is to collect both LGBTQ personal testimonies (by employing the same methodology of oral history, improved by the research findings, as it was used in Croatia) and visual artifacts that can be presented in the format of a traveling exhibition. Also, an archives research is envisioned, as to collect materials focusing on court judgments, as well as documents from army, psychiatric institutions, and communist party.


Bijelić, N. & Hodžić, A., 2012. Izvještaj istraživanja o mišljenjima i stavovima prema homoseksualnosti u srednjim školama u Zagrebu (Research report on opinions and attitudes towards homosexuality in secondary schools in Zagreb). Zagreb: Domino
Blaće, Ž., 2008. Iskazi osobne povijesti za bolje sutra… (Testimonies of personal history for a better tomorrow…). Zamirzine. URL:http://www.zamirzine.net/spip.php?article6015
Bosanac, G. & Dobrović, Z. (eds.), 2007. Usmena povijest homoseksualnosti u Hrvatskoj: dokumentiranje svjedočanstava o privatnom i javnom djelovanju seksualnih i rodnih manjina – preteča LGBTQ pokreta u Hrvatskoj (Oral history of homosexuality in Croatia: documenting testimonies about private and public activities of sexual and gender minorities – precursor of the LGBTQ movement in Croatia). Zagreb: Domino.
Duhaček, G., 2008. Homoseksualnost od Tita do Tuđmana (Homosexuality from Tito to Tuđman). Dnevni kulturni info. URL:http://www.dnevnikulturni.info/vijesti/knjizevnost/690/homoseksualnost_od_tita_do_tudjmana/
Govedić, N. , 2008. „Bježna“ seksualnost („Escapable“ sexuality). Zarez. URL:http://www.zarez.hr/pages/232/kazaliste1.html
Kazneni zakon (Criminal code), 2011. Narodne novine. URL:http://narodne-novine.nn.hr/clanci/sluzbeni/2011_11_125_2498.html
Lazarin, B., 2008. Muškarci su se voljeli i u vrijeme Tita (Men loved each other during the Tito's time, too). Jutarnji list. URL: http://www.jutarnji.hr/muskarci-su-se-voljeli-i-u-vrijeme-tita/240212/
Pekas, K., 2011. Zagreb Gay Guide. URL:http://www.zagrebgayguide.com/zggg/
Pikić, A. & Jugović, I., 2006. Violence against lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Croatia: research report. Zagreb: Kontra.
Matasović, T., 2008. Mnogoglasja unutar različitosti (Polyphony inside diversity). Zarez. URL: http://www.zarez.hr/pages/232/kazaliste2.html
Matejčić, B., 2008. Preživjeti vlastitu seksualnost (Surviving one's own sexuality). Danas.hr. URL: http://danas.net.hr/kultura/prezivjeti-vlastitu-homoseksualnost

[1] The right-wing war-time government was replaced by the centre-to-left coalition of parties, which significantly improved political liberties and the state of human rights.
[2] Interestingly, also in 2002, the first mainstream Croatian film dealing with same-sex (lesbian) relationship, Fine mrtve djevojke (Nice dead girls) was released, and selected as the Croatian nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar Academy Award.
[3] One of the comments, The entire Universe is heterosexual, from an atom and a tiniest particle, from a fly to an elephant, was later used for a Queer Zagreb T-shirt. 
[4] According to the latest edition of the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map, which inludes the scale reflecting the national legal human rights situation of LGBTI people, Croatia is ranked at 13th place out of forty-nine European countries.
[5] In the new Criminal Code (2011) this age limit is raised to fifteen years for all.
[6] In 1977, Yugoslav Criminal Code was transferred to the level of each federal unit, and Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Vojvodina removed homosexual sexual acts from the list of criminal activities.  
[7] As it was stated in the expert opinions produced by the Croatian Medical Chamber and the Croatian Association of Psychiatrists.
[8] In the period from 1945 to 1991 Croatia was part of Yugoslavia. In this research, limited by a project time-frame and available funds, we decided to include only people who lived in the Socialist Republic of Croatia for the major part of their lives. 
[9] Only two individuals did not allow for their interviews' transcripts to be published, which considering the sensitivity of the research theme, testifies about the confidence established with the participants during the research process.
[10] For that reason, the transcripts also include all of the interviews' pauses, repetitions, and prop-words as they were recorded.


  1. I am fascinated by the chapters. In a sense, what the mapping team did is distilled an autobiography of every lgbt person.
    When it comes to the decades, there must surely be significant differences. I am not at all sure about the dates, but I remember a Serbian friend telling me that when she was 16 in 1968 her family had the freedom to move to the US and she felt that US girls desperately needed to be liberated, like Yugoslavian girls were. That is when she became a feminist. It was much later that freedom to travel outside Yugoslavia was denied. For lgbt who were 20 in 1985, the experience was probably very different from those who had had the freedom to travel to the centres of gay life in other European cities. Was this the case?
    Similarly, did you notice that the younger generation was able to talk about having kids as partners, while the older generation only had kids if they came from a previous straight marriage?
    In other words, I am very interested to hear how the layer of time influenced the universal autobiography.

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