On 19-23 October 2023, IGLYO's Annual Members' Conference Podgorica 2023 will gather over 70 young LGBTQI activists from across the Council of Europe Region for a 4-day programme, including joining the Montenegrin Pride March. On this occasion, IGLYO's Communications & Network Manager Jeremy met with three local young activists to hear their stories and give insights into the status quo of queer youth activism in Montenegro. Here's the portrait of Marija Jovanović (she/her), 26 years old, Programmes Coordinator at IGLYO's Member Organisation Spektra.
Marija’s friends like to call her “the queen of hobbies”. Tattooing, nail art, sewing, DIY crafts, reading, taking pictures, recording video journals, watching TV shows, looking for new music; the list goes on and grows every day. These are all the exciting things you’ll find Marija doing when she’s not busy making things right for our queer siblings in Montenegro. Because on top of being the queen of hobbies, Marija is also a powerful young queer activist, and one of the founders of one of Montenegro’s biggest queer organisations.
Although she's only 26 years old, Marija’s journey into queer activism goes back a long way. It all started when, a decade ago, aged 16, she volunteered for the Second Edition of the Montenegrin Pride. Back then, she went alone with her mother, who has always been supportive of her identity and, later on, her activism. Little did she know that she was about to become part of Montenegro’s most engaged young queer activists.
This first experience as a Pride volunteer led Marija to volunteering for our IGLYO Member Queer Montenegro in a work space at the Juventas’ LGBTQI Drop-in Centre. As she was engaging with more and more activities, employees of Queer Montenegro encouraged her to attend training opportunities to improve her skills.
This confirmed her inclination towards queer activism: “I always knew I was queer, and all the people around me were queer as well. It’s only at that point that I started realising that there’s a lot of wrong things with our society and not a lot of awareness of queer issues. From then on I knew I wanted to contribute to making things better.”
A few years later, in 2016, Marija and many of her closest friends joined a group of trans and non-binary people aspiring to bring change in the Montenegrin LGBTQI activism landscape. At that time, the trans and non-binary community still lacked visibility in Montenegro, and Marija and her group decided to found an organisation to remedy this. This is how our Member Organisation Spektra was born.
Founding Spektra from scratch and getting it to a well-established organisation was not a walk in the park. “We were not just doing what we could; we were doing everything that needed to be done. We were all really young and therefore lacking experience and knowledge in basic areas such as how to submit project proposals, how to frame messages, and so on. I remember watching design tutorials and producing our very first designs on an old phone, as we did not yet have the means to buy proper equipment. It was a lot of DIY!”
Despite the obstacles, they never gave up and kept fighting the good fight, driven by the milestones achieved, the learning opportunities that kept coming their way, and, most importantly, the conviction that they would succeed. And they eventually did.
After more than 6 years of existence, Spektra has now become one of the biggest queer organisations in Montenegro, where Marija currently has the title of Programme Coordinator. Of course, being located in a small country, Marija and her team still encounter challenges, such as a lack of funders who understand what they’re doing and are willing to contribute to their cause.
Nevertheless, Marija couldn’t be prouder of their achievements: “There’s still a long way to go and a lot of things we aspire to achieve. But we are way further than we thought we would be when it all started.”
In the eyes of Marija, there’s been a lot of progress for LGBTQI rights in recent years in terms of legal frameworks and visibility, which is mostly due to the relentless work of local activists and civil society. Although Montenegro is a small country of 600,000 inhabitants, she rejoices that a lot of organisations are working hard to improve the rights of LGBTQI people in the country. In addition, Montenegro’s current wish to join the European Union is playing in their favour, as some of the criteria to join the EU acts as good motivation for local policy-makers to create positive change for our communities.
When it comes to queer youth, Marija can really see the difference since her adolescence. “I really relate to them now. I love seeing them so confident, it’s very comforting.” To her, positive representation of queer identities on social media, in international movies, TV shows, and other artworks, combined to the increase of visibility of queer identities in Montenegrin media played a key role in allowing queer youth to thrive.
“Us activists are constantly visible, appearing on TV, in the media, and not only to talk about queer topics but also intersectional topics such as youth rights, women’s rights, and so on. Looking at queer young people now, I can see this visibility has a positive impact on them and allows them to be their authentic selves more than before. I feel proud because I know there’s a whole movement that brought them to that point.”
However, Marija acknowledges that today’s queer youth still face many challenges, especially facing the rise of anti-trans rhetoric, particularly on social media. “In many aspects, it is not really easier; their challenges have evolved but they are nonetheless still present. However, what gives me hope is the fact that I know they have far better chances of finding someone to reach out to when in need of support.”
Marija’s take on activism is one of kindness and compassion, where empathy should prevail over rage. “How we view love and care for each other all needs to be reinvented in order to move away from oppressive systems, which have a way of creeping in on us and creating bad ways of how we communicate and view the world.”
To her, some of the narratives rooted in our societies make it so that we, marginalised communities, often fall into traps, such as being placed as victims looking for saviours. “We need to dismantle the idea that this is all a fight; it’s not a fight, it’s a process. A fight implies that there are two sides, but we’re not on different sides. I don’t think anti-LGBTQI people are evil, they have simply been directed towards thinking that this is an ok way to behave. We need to move out of these patterns.”
Marija witnessed with her own eyes the positive effects of adopting a more human and sympathetic approach in activism when she delivered two public speeches at previous editions of the Montenegrin Pride: “Instead of the usual rage, I showed how bad we are wounded on the inside, how all the anti-LGBTQI rhetoric is harming us, and the essence of how vulnerable we are. I try to focus on the universal human feelings behind it all, in the hopes of creating a sense of commonality between the queer community and all other communities.” Both speeches were extremely well received both by activists and the general public, which she hopes can provide a different perspective and serve as a call to vulnerability and courage.
“At the end of the day, it’s not only about social justice but rather about accepting ourselves as beautiful flawed human beings trying to find their way. The most important thing has been to accept that I’m queer but I’m not perfect, and that I’m not only a victim but also someone who’s trying to make something out of it.”
Marija feels grateful for everything that activism — and working for Spektra specifically — has brought her over the years. The opportunities she has seized and created within the organisation have given her a great deal of creative freedom to achieve the change she wants to see and the change queer Montenegrins deserve. She also appreciates the ways in which her work as an activist has shaped her, always pushing her to be a more refined and precise version of herself.
But what Marija values the most is how activism allows her to make other people thrive: “Seeing people flourish has been one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced in my life. Sometimes you can see significant change happening in people when they’re given a space that they usually don’t have, and it gives me so much hope that all our efforts are actually working.”
Just like all of us at IGLYO, Marija is counting the days to the Montenegrin Pride, which she now describes as her “favourite day of the year, more than her birthday and New Year’s Eve combined.” Every year, she’s happy to see more and more people joining, both from within and outside the community. “Pride allows us to see what it would be like if there was acceptance, and to gather around shared values that are not only those of the queer community. It creates magical energy, which boosts me up for the entire following year.”
So much has changed since the first time Marija attended Montenegrin Pride as a volunteer in 2016. She’s now a seasoned activist with more than 10 years of experience, who has never stopped believing that change is possible and keeps on learning and growing every day. And her work place, Spektra, has grown beautifully from a self-organised collective to a well-established organisation brimming with new projects and activities.
What Marija hopes for the future is a genuine and deep personal liberation that would allow everyone to accept themselves as a whole, with their strengths and their flaws. And when it comes to addressing a message to queer youth, Marija says: “I have so many messages, but what I can hope for them is: Look out for yourself and the people around you in essential ways, feel feelings deeply and do not run away from them, and, above all, never lose hope.”
This article was written by Jeremy Gobin (he/him), IGLYO Communications & Network Manager. Liked this article? You can also read the Portrait of Nikola Ilić (he/him, 23 years old, Spektra), and the Portrait of Enes Pucurica (he/him, 28 years old, Queer Montenegro).