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, Jeremy from IGLYO met with three local young activists to understand what queer youth activism in Montenegro looks like. Here's the portrait of Nikola Ilić (he/him), 23 years old, Programme Coordinator for Community Building and Civic Activism at IGLYO's Member Organisation Spektra.
When invited to introduce himself, Nikola smiles. Every time this question comes up, his answer is never the same, purely and simply because he is learning something new about himself every day. On this day, Nikola introduces himself as “someone who is trying to be free while helping others do the same, who loves sports, who dreams to see revolution happen in his lifetime, and who believes in the power of change in any kind of context”.
At the age of 23, Nikola is not only a proud trans activist, he is also one of the most visible trans people in his home country, Montenegro. Living in the capital, Podgorica, he currently works as Programme Coordinator for Community Building and Civic Activism at Spektra, one of our local IGLYO Member Organisations which promotes and protects the human rights of trans, gender diverse, and intersex people. An organisation that played as much a key role in Nikola’s life as in giving visibility to trans people in Montenegro back when they had none.
As part of his work, Nikola often meets trans youth who, just like him some seven years ago, seek support, guidance, and love. They remind him of the importance of his work and his visibility. “Every time I’ve been on television, I knew that there was at least one trans young person in need of support watching me, and that my example would show this one person that they could be happy too.”
Whenever he is able to help someone or publicly speak about trans rights, Nikola never hesitates and dives right in: He knows he has the right information and experience to make a positive change, no matter the time it takes. That’s what he likes the most about his activism.
Being more visible, however, means being more at risk of receiving hatred and violence. Nikola explains that straying from the norm doesn’t go unnoticed in his country, especially when you’re young. “It’s difficult to grow up in Montenegro when you are different. Even if your difference is as slight as dying your hair, people here will try to change you.”
For Nikola, Montenegro is not the safest place for LGBTQIA+ people, let alone for trans peers. LGBTQIA+ people have a hard time finding jobs, and even when they do, employers indulge in discriminatory practices, such as using the dead name (name given at birth) of trans employees on their name tags. Same goes in school: “I remember begging some teachers to at least call me by my last name instead of my dead name if it was too much for them; some did, some didn’t.” At the moment, it is also not possible to legally change your gender unless you went through surgery and received a medical diagnosis.
[Start of trigger warning: Violence against trans people]
Violence against our communities is also not uncommon. In 2017, a man physically assaulted Nikola’s girlfriend in the street, and the only passer-by who tried to help her stopped as soon as he realised she was a trans person. Last year, an intruder tried to smash their door with a hammer while two others were watching but thankfully got scared off by their dog. Nikola also received death threats from a man right in front of a judge, who showed little concern for Nikola’s safety. All these stories include violence against our communities, and a lack of justice from the country’s courts. But Nikola keeps his spirits up: He and Spektra are currently working on bringing these injustices to light and introducing change in the way future anti-LGBTQIA+ cases are being judged.
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Regardless, Nikola knows the importance of community when society doesn’t have your back. To him, queer young people in Montenegro still have plenty of opportunities to meet each other and easily access support despite all this: “There are a few organisations like us at Spektra, but also Queer Montenegro, Juventas, STANA for LBTQI women, as well as a few psychological support groups that provide queer young people with a safe space and all sorts of activities. At Spektra, for instance, we offer one-on-one psychotherapy sessions, self-defence workshops, a lot of educational activities, courses on various topics, and so on.”
As soon as they have a chance, Spektra and previously mentioned organisations also apply for funds to provide people with food or help them to pay their rent. “Only privileged people in our communities can manage to stay alive by themselves.”
Despite his many achievements, Nikola acknowledges he wasn’t always the assured queer activist he is today. His journey towards self-love and acceptance goes back a long way, into adolescence.
Nikola told his close friends he was a man at age 13. Back then, he did not see himself as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, but rather as a man like any other, the man he always knew he was. “At that point, I was extremely transphobic towards myself. It was a kind of denial.” This denial made him short-tempered, full of rage: “I was engaging in fights and defending myself all the time, no matter how big the opponent group was.”
When he was 16, one of his highschool teachers recommended him to get in touch with a former pupil of hers whom she saw a lot of in Nikola himself. The former pupil in question, Jovan Džoli Ulićević, happened to be one of the founders and current Executive Director of the organisation Spektra. “I found him on Instagram and immediately started to ask him all sorts of questions about gender identity. I didn’t know anything about it back then.”
This conversation led Nikola to the LGBT Drop In centre held by Juventas, a local organisation working on empowering youth and promoting active participation of young people. Pushing the door of the centre was like opening a door to a new part of himself. “It was great to, for the first time, find a community where everyone was so accepting and loving, and doing many activities together. It truly empowered me.” This is what inspired him to start volunteering with Spektra. This is also how he began the journey to accept and love himself.
“Spektra was the first place to provide me with information about sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as protection, safety, and acceptance. It gave me the chance to love myself. When I realised this was possible, I knew I wanted to be the same for others, to give them the space for self-love in this society of hate.” This is what Nikola defines as his greatest achievement to this day: “Getting the act of self-love in my life, and passing it on to others.”
When talking about his family, Nikola mentions: "I am lucky to have a supportive family now. It wasn't always the case."
When he was younger, before he joined Spektra, his family, in particular his step father, would disapprove of his identity. “Although I never really acted ‘as a girl’ after I was born, they believed it was just a phase.” His mom would take him to church and force him to pray, at times even consulting priests.
[Start of trigger warning: Violence against trans people]
At 17, Nikola was staying in a dorm. One night, a group of boys and girls violently attacked him in the bathroom. He spares the details, only mentioning that the attack lasted an hour and that his finger was slammed in a door. When he told his mom about the attack, it was like a wake up call for her, and she immediately contacted the head of the dorm to express her fury. "She told me that I could be anything, a demon even, she wouldn't let anyone do what they did to her child." This was the start of her acceptance journey.
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Around the same time, Nikola tried to make his grandparents understand who he was. "Every time I visited them, I would leave some documentation to educate them on my identity. They would of course call me afterwards saying they had thrown it away, but for months I persevered and kept on leaving them documentation in my next visits anyway.” One day, Nikola changed tactics and poured his heart into a long letter in which he explained to them in minute detail who he was and how he felt growing up. This letter was a turning point: “It allowed us to get to know each other again.”
Since they read the letter, Nikola’s family has been extremely proud of who he is. “I believed that if I tried hard enough, I would succeed in proving to them that I was still the same person and that there’s nothing wrong with me.” The letter, titled Vremeplov (Time-Machine in Montenegrin), is available on our IGLYO Member Trans Mreža Balkan’s website.
Just like us at IGLYO, Nikola will join the Montenegrin Pride 2023 in October, his favourite day of the year. He remembers his first Pride when he was 17: “The first time I went to Pride, I was wearing a mask because I was scared my family would see me with all the cameras on site. But when the Pride march started, I got so carried away by the energy and joy of the event that I just took off the mask. It felt so amazing to walk on the streets we’re walking on every day, except that, on that day, we were owning them.” This story is a beautiful metaphor of everything he has achieved and where he is now.
Nikola’s story is one of growth, perseverance, resilience, and love. He is a self-loving and inspiring 23-year-old young man living with his partner and their dog, and has the support of a family which grew into accepting and being proud of him. He dropped any form of anger and violence from his adolescence, and found solace in boxing and creative writing, his two favourite hobbies. He loves his job at Spektra and thrives in a community to which he is giving back what he once received. And he has plenty of projects ahead of him to keep on advancing the rights of trans and queer people and youth in Montenegro.
When asked if he had a message for queer young people out there, Nikola replied: “I will share what I’ve always been telling myself: If you choose yourself no matter what, everything will be ok.” He smiles. “Just choose yourself.”
This article was written by Jeremy Gobin (he/him), IGLYO Communications & Network Manager. Like this article? You can also read the Portrait of Enes Pucurica (he/him, 28 years old, Queer Montenegro), and the Portrait of Marija Jovanović (she/her, 26, Spektra).