BEING TRANS IN SERBIA: THE MEDIA’S SILENCE

Serbia seems to have built a wall of silence around the trans community. This approach is flawed in many aspects, especially as some from the trans community report it can have detrimental consequences.

“Gender is one aspect of our identity and it is defined as one’s innermost concept of self as a man or a woman. Gender identity is formed in early childhood, about the age of three. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth. People whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth are called transgender or trans.”, (retrieved from transserbia.org.)

When Ana Brnabic was elected she was the first member of Serbia’s LGBTQ+ community to be elected as the country’s Prime Minister. Although Brnabic election was seen as a step forward for the LGBTQ+ community in Serbia, she has done nothing ever since to promote LGBTQ+ rights in the country. This is especially the case for those who identify as transgender. The lives of people whose biological sex differs from their gender identity in countries of the Western Balkans are in some ways much harder than the lives of transgender people in more socially and economically developed countries, or in those countries which are less patriarchal.

In addition to all the difficulties they have as citizens and members of the LGBTQ+ community, trans people are almost invisible in the society and the media; when they are visible they are usually depicted in a negative way

Serbia seems to have built a wall of silence around the trans community. This approach is flawed in many aspects, especially as some from the trans community report it can have detrimental consequences, including suicide and prostitution.

“The biggest problem in understanding the trans community in our country and in neighboring Hungary is the same, and that is a lack of information. People have no idea who trans people are. They know what it means to be a gay, but for trans people, most people think they are ‘some idiots who wear women’s underwear’,” Zoltan Puskas tells Media Diversity Institute.

Zoltan Puskas is a theatre director born in the small town of Senta in northern Serbia where the Hungarian national minority is located . He describes himself as a double minority; his national and gender identities afforded him minority status.  At the age of six he discovered that he was different from other boys. His parents let him dress like a woman, but he never talked to them about his gender identity or sexuality. When he was in school, everybody used to say that ‘it’ was sick, so he was scared and hid his identity. People around him used to say that the traditional way of living should be followed. When he was eleven, he walked in a dress around Senta for the first time. He felt as if he was flying. Today, when he goes to the local market in his hometown dressed as a man, everyone asks him what’s wrong with him. He jokes that it is not easy to be a woman.,

“Those who think that being trans or gay is in fashion these days are also wrong. That is not true. It’s not a choice, that’s how you are born. A transgender person is someone who was born in the wrong body: you were born a man, but everything else is like a woman, your brain works like a woman’s brain, you have a woman’s soul, when it comes to men – you are annoyed by the same things that annoy all other women, and only when hormones overwhelm you,” Puskas continues.

By amber_85 / Shuttertock

Invisibility is the hardest

“It takes time to understand who you are and accept yourself as such, because nobody talks about it in public. When I was a child you could not even read or hear anything about it, you have no idea what’s going on with you, you think you’re going crazy. This is how your uphill struggle begins and it lasts as long as you live, your life-and-death struggle, because you will never be accepted no matter how you choose to live. There is no normal life for you.

The wall of silence surrounds you – you are ignored by the society, by the media. What is more, when you go to see a doctor because of a common illness, he or she is puzzled and doesn’t know what to do with you. He looks at you frantically and suspiciously. There are constant reminders that you are worth less than other people. Therefore, if you are not strong enough, you sink into depression again and again. Because of that, a lot of trans people end up committing suicide, or they move to the escort zone. These issues are not addressed in patriarchal societies and in countries with social, economic and political problems.” said Puskas.

The way Serbian media treat transgender people is less than ideal. According to Puskas the majority of the population are not aware of the what it means to be a trans person, and that includes journalists as well. 

When asked what he thinks how Serbian media understands and portrays transgender people and what issues the media should cover, Puskas says:

“If journalists know nothing about trans people, how can they inform the public?” he says. 

In addition Puskas stresses the fact that people simply do not care and even though he partly understands the reasons why it still baffles him as they all live in the same space.

“Of course, I am aware that sexual minorities will never be accepted in this country. Trans people have even experienced rejection and ignorance by the gay community, so, how can I expect someone who does not understand what a trans person is to accept a trans person? A few years ago, the organizer of Belgrade’s Pride Parade did not want to walk side by side with trans people. The gay population does not accept us! So, where are we? The Dark Ages?!” Puskas emphasises.

The director points out that the media in Serbia, and in neighboring Hungary, report on trans people only during the Pride Parade or when trans people are involved in an incident. This exclusionary way of reporting could lead to stereotyping trans people as troublemakers. 

Serbian media seem to be interested in ‘trans’ stories that can collect a lot of clicks: stories in which a politician, a sportsman, a public figure is trans, gay or bisexual.. Zoltan Puskas, however, has to deal with two different issues due to his identities: being transgender as well as part of the Hungarian minority. This means that he is concerned both about issues to a personal level.

“I don’t know what is worse: the silence about our existence or the situation in Hungary. A few months ago Orban’s regime in Hungary’s parliament voted to end legal recognition for trans people and they even banned talking about anything connected with ‘sexual minority’ in schools. So we practically don’t exist there. I do not suggest that children should be taught transsexuality or transgenderism, but I think that the society cannot be silent about our presence,” Puskas tells Media Diversity Institute.

In his attempts to bring the life of transgender people closer to the public, theatre director Zoltan Puskas has often dealt with this topic in his work. He has directed two plays with transgender people. Last year he directed Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ in which the three sisters were three transgender individuals who spoke about Orban’s repressive laws in neighbouring Hungary. Apart from dealing with Hungary’s repressive laws the play also dealt with topics of sexuality.

The director says that he wanted to talk about the things the media ignore even though they should not. He wanted to show people what the lives of trans people look like, how trans people think and feel, what problems they have, what they look like when they are unhappy, that they suffer and cry when their love is unrequited or when they are left by their loved ones. Puskas wanted to show that transgender people are just like anyone else.

“I have never had positive or negative media coverage because of my sexuality. It has always been about my work, which is good. I have had negative experiences because I am a trans person in other life situations. That’s why I spend a fortune on taxis in order to avoid unpleasant situations while I walk around the city, because people look at me like I’m a miracle – everybody, men and women, the young, the old, although I never provoke, but you can see my sexuality from the helicopter. On the other hand, wherever I work I am well accepted by the colleagues, in theatres in Serbia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia. I get the respect and love that I do not have in everyday life from them, as well as from my male and female friends,” Puskas tells Media Diversity Institute.

Puskas believes that artists, media and journalists who deal with culture, and even part of the public, accept and understand him better through his art, and it is, according to the director, a matter of talent and ideas, not sexuality. At the same time, Puskas says that his works are differently shaped because he has both a male and female part in himself, that it is something that differs him from those who are only ’men’ or ‘women’. Sometimes, the duality he has in himself is not good for him personally: “But what can I do about it, I am married to myself? You accept it, or you divorce it! ” stresses the director.

Despite the fact the LGBTQ+ community is increasingly thematized in all arts, from film and theatre to dance, fine and visual arts, the trans identity is still a taboo in Serbia. It is not even mentioned for much-needed educational purposes:

“You can’t find it in the media, or only very, very rarely, you can come across a story about people who change their sex. You can’t read what it all means, what kind of process it is, how difficult and dangerous the journey can be. It is not just an operation, but also taking hormones that change the personality, lead to depression, destabilize the personality. You have to go to a psychologist all the time. Most people have no idea what awaits them, because it’s not just – today you are a man, and tomorrow you are a woman, and that’s it. Therapy is never over: you drink hormones till the end of your life. The media should write about it. ” emphasizes Puskas, adding:

“Also, the media should write about the difficulties transgender people have when seeking job. If they are out as transgender at the first job interview, they usually aren’t invited to the second round. They experience various insulting situations, they are made fun of and ridiculed. I know that this is not only a problem of Serbia, but all over the world as well, but in Serbia a trans person can only be an escort, meaning a sexual object in the context of married people. The married, the single, sportsmen, politicians, young and slightly older men, they all flirt with trans people, but only in secret,”says Zoltan Puskas.

Closer to a dignified life

“Senta is the only place where I feel protected, and, although I would say for myself that I am a very brave person, I don’t think I am brave enough to change my gender by surgery. One of the reasons is the fact that in that case, the zone of my work would change, it would be narrowed and shortened. I couldn’t stand it. I love theater, it’s my life, it is my comfort zone. However, with or without the surgery, it is increasingly difficult for me to find the strength for the courage to be my own on a daily basis. However, it is getting more and more difficult for me to find the strength for the courage to be myself on a daily basis, with or without the surgery. Every day you get up and carry your cross. Besides, like any other person, I want a relationship, I want love, I want understanding and mutual respect, but as long as Trans people are kept invisible it is almost impossible to have these things. ” says Puskas, who does not believe that in this environment he will live long enough to see a time when a trans person could have a normal life, life worthy of a human being.

Given the circumstances, it would be normal to expect that Puskas is connected with trans community, but he is an exception:

“I am not connected with any trans community, primarily because 98 percent of trans people in our country are in the escort zone, and I cannot accept that. If you do something for money, it’s business. It is not love. That’s why I’ve been hanging out with heterosexual women for 30 years, my female friends who understand me well, and I understand them. There is no mistake here,” Puskas points out.

The arts and specifically theatre gave Puskas the sanctuary that he needed in order to find himself. Through his work he is able to show the difficulties that the trans community faces in a country that they are visible and in his way he manages to put them in the forefront of society. Although the media in Serbia have failed in every way in their reporting of transgender stories, the arts are providing a safe space and a start to a more visible life.


Note: Zoltan Puskas identifies as transgender and uses both male and female pronouns depending on social situations.


Autor: Snežana MIletić

This article was first published on Media Diversity Institute website.

Photo: nito / Shutterstock