By Paula Gordon
Image: Dragoslava Barzut. Photograph by Vincent Urbani.
In December 2015, I read in Autonomija that Dragoslava Barzut, an author I have been translating, and three other women had been attacked in a Belgrade bar a few months earlier. She was hit in the head and knocked to the ground; another woman in the group received graver injuries. They are calling it a hate crime. Barzut was already in the public eye in Serbia as a writer and as an activist with Labris, a lesbian human rights organization. A few days after the incident, she spoke out at a press conference, defying the norm of remaining silent about these kinds of attacks. She is being represented in her court proceedings by the Serbian Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights–YUCOM.
Barzut described the attack in an email to me (lightly edited for English grammar and punctuation, clarifications in brackets):
“On the night of Saturday, 26 September 2015, I was in a café with three other lesbian friends from the lesbian football [soccer] team. We were enjoying an evening of conversation and live music along with about forty other people who were in the café at that time. At around 1:00 a.m., an unknown male ran into the café and started hitting me and my three friends, one after the other, while shouting ‘Lesbians, lesbians!’ He was punching and kicking us and throwing chairs at us. As a result we were lying on the floor, and after he was done beating us up, he ran away. While I was trying to call the police, another man from the crowd started beating us again, shouting, ‘Mother fucking lesbians!’ I was hit on the head and I fell down, and then I managed to escape with two of my friends to the toilet, while one of my friends didn’t manage to escape. She was beaten up badly, and if it weren’t for the surrounding people who helped her, the attacker could have killed her. The second attacker ran away as well. The police came and took notes and our statements. After this, we were taken to the emergency room for treatment. There are strong indications that this attack was well organized in advance and that the two attackers collaborated. Also, judging from the music one of the attackers was requesting from the live music ensemble, the attackers were fans of a local football club, ‘Rad.’ No one has been arrested.”
The article in Autonomija, an online publication of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, featured an interview with Barzut that I felt should be more widely available. Barzut gave me her blessing to translate and publish the interview, and Nedim Sejdinović, editor-in-chief of Autonomija, granted permission. I am gratified that Words Without Borders feels as strongly as I do that Barzut’s voice should be heard.
Hatred, Silence, Violence, and Kafkaesque Institutions
Q: How did your journey as an activist begin?
Dragoslava Barzut (DB): Regarding lesbian and feminist activism, they are a result of my desire for completeness, my need to comprehend and engage with all parts of myself. I joined Labris for deeply personal, almost intimate, reasons—out of a desperate need to know and accept myself, out of the desire to learn, to discover. I got into activism because I was weak. The weakness was reflected in an inability to counter patriarchal ways of thinking, exactly where they were most severe and where they mattered most: in myself. I did not have counterarguments and I was weak, I had only my emotions. Adequate, maybe. But it was not sufficient for me. I wanted to counter those centers of power, destroy them, starting with those within myself, because activism starts from within, from inside each of us. For me, at the beginning, activism was a place to deconstruct my shortsightedness, a place that could reduce the imbalance between knowledge and emotion, to bring them into an equilibrium of understanding. As Audre Lorde said, “Understanding allows us to put knowledge into practice, and that is essential, that is urgency, that is action.” I didn't want to see myself as a lesbian who was ashamed of her sexual identity, as a lesbian who didn’t dare to utter, portray, or embody that word, as a lesbian who would use masculine pronouns when speaking about her partner, who would resign herself to that for the sake of being able to go to her parents’ house for the holidays, who would silence herself. I wanted to transform that silence into action. Hence activism.
Q: Where did you get the courage to commit to being a writer and activist?
DB: Art is an excellent training ground for practicing courage. Only when I started to write did I arrive at a position from which I could (begin to) speak. Art, or in this case, literature, was the place where I came into my own. Literature was my tool for reading emotional maps. Literature was the place where I steeled myself to speak. When I began to write, I also accepted social responsibility, with the understanding that someone who writes must be accountable for what she writes and to whom she writes. I chose to write about things that affected me, provoked me. I wrote about people on the fringes because I see art as a force that transforms the margins in relation to the center. A successful artwork prompts people to recognize themselves, connect with each other, and empathize. The space that I found in literature gave me courage. Literature was and is my safe place. And in my most difficult moments, I found understanding there, the understanding that I must be more supportive, more decisive, more courageous.
Q: What changes has this violent experience brought about in your life? Have you changed your everyday routine, the way you move around the city, your regular errands and activities?
DB: I stopped going to the office—now I work from home (which is not a bad thing). I started getting panic attacks while riding public transportation. When night falls, I find myself worried, anxious. I’m like Batwoman: By day I fight and at night I withdraw into obscurity. Right now I am just trying to transform this traumatic experience into constructive activity.
Q: How did your circle of friends and family behave when you spoke out in public after the attack? Did anyone you had counted on disappoint you? Where did your support come from?
DB: In the preceding month and a half, a handful of things happened that changed my life. Bad things come in bouquets. However, I choose to look on the bright side. In a certain sense, I gained my freedom, but I lost my protective bubble, which, I’m convinced, lulled me and pushed me into a state of compromise and stagnation. Those blows jerked me to my senses. Now I understand that a woman who has been shaken by violence cannot remain the same. I am (un)fortunate to be able to see the violence that I experienced as part of a bigger picture. The decision not to remain silent about the violence was for me the most important decision. I wanted to turn the pain, that echoing silence, into action. And I think I succeeded. The decision not to be silent reinforced my desire to change reality, made me ready for change—painful but necessary change. In Serbia, a physical attack on someone who is “different”—however that is understood—can only be a consequence of a distorted traditional model of upbringing and system of values. From this perspective, every difference is seen as a threat that seeks to destroy the potency of this rigid system and is reacted to in a manner true to the system—with violence. That uneasiness we have been experiencing—perhaps that is just the quiet spreading of the monstrous violence that has been continually seeping into the very wellspring of the most innocent expression of friendship and justice.
Support was lacking from some key locations, from people who were closest to me, out of fear or for some other reason. But support came from places where I least expected it, from an outer circle of people who moved into the inner circle—people from whom I neither expected nor sought support, who were there with the understanding that this affected them as well. With this attack some paths were blocked, but new ones opened up, and I am walking those paths with some other people. There are those of us who are on the same path, and these kinds of things allow us to recognize each other.
Q: What are your intentions and plans? Will you go abroad or are you staying here?
DB: I’m staying here. After the physical attack and the threats that followed on the heels of the attack, “conditions were achieved” for asylum. But asylum is not an option for me. That would be just one more compromise towards mediocrity. I’m staying here not because Serbia is the ideal place to live, but because I truly believe that if we don’t leave, it could one day become that ideal place. My fight is here.
Q: What has your experience been like with Serbian institutions?
DB: Kafkaesque. We live in a state whose police, months after the attack, cannot find the attackers. We live in a state whose courts are not adequately sensitized to recognize a hate crime, even though the legal definition is well established. We live in a state that ignores all these problems, sweeps them under the rug, and forces you to be silent. The entire system is structured so that you are best advised, if you are to save yourself, to stay out of it. But this is part of the same fight. Institutions must change, laws must change, and for that we are all responsible. With our acceptance of inaction, we all become participants in this state of affairs, which we then criticize. Institutions and citizens alike do not take responsibility and behave like terrible cowards. One of the biggest problems I see with the LGBT movement and the work of institutions is the lack of courage and will for change. As if no one believes in the possibility of a better tomorrow.
The article in Autonomija contains the following sidebar about Barzut’s dog, Marla, and their symbiotic relationship:
A few years ago a puppy named Marla entered Dragoslava Barzut’s life. Barzut found her in a dumpster and she has since been depicted in many of Barzut’s writings. In the meantime, Marla has grown from a helpless little animal to be big and strong, and—perhaps due to her early life as a BSD (Belgrade street dog)—has quite the coping and survival skills. She has recently—since the attack—become Dragoslava’s unofficial bodyguard.
Says Barzut: “Marla right now is a reminder of the importance of everyday routines and discipline. I learned from her that it is important to get up in the morning, go outside, return home, eat, and only then sit at my laptop to work. I learned that this daily hygiene is a prerequisite for energy and motivation, which are so often critical in the battles we are waging. Marla has disciplined me, or she is at least trying. I am by nature a lazy person and only exert above-average energy at the last minute. What I learned from Marla is that I should invest that kind of energy continuously, every day. Aside from that, Marla has become, along with literature, my safe place. My relationship with her has replaced and overshadowed my relationship with my immediate family. She and I are a family with a unique dynamic. With Marla I have the courage to go out into the city.”
While translating some of Barzut’s stories and poems last spring, I asked her a number of questions, so I knew that in the poem “Christmas in My Parents’ House,” she really was referring to her dog chained up in the yard. And as a child of the suburbs who “moved away” right after high school, I am familiar with the feeling of not being able to bring my whole self to the table at family gatherings. But only after reading this interview did I begin to understand the depth of the pain, frustration, and longing at the heart of this poem.
Božić u kući mojih roditelja
Psi u Singapuru.
Na krstarenju raskošnim katamaranima.
Dok ona i ja cvilimo,
svaka u svojim lancima.
Christmas in My Parents’ House
Dogs in Singapore
take cruises on luxury catamarans.
While she and I whine,
each on our own chain.
Dragoslava Barzut is one of the initiators of Da se zna!, which translates to, approximately, “So it is known!” or “Make it known!” The initiative provides a portal where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* people can report incidents of violence and discrimination, and serves as a database for such incidents in the interest of holding government institutions accountable.
More Information and Resources
A description of the Da se zna! initiative on Democracy Works with quotes from Barzut, March 2016
Information about Da se zna! (in Serbian)
Press release from the EU parliamentary group on LGBT rights
Press release of Labris, a lesbian rights organization, about the attack
Coverage of the attack on the LGBTI-ERA website
Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – YUCOM press release from April 2016 on the dangers faced by human rights activists in Serbia and lack of action by authorities to apprehend perpetrators
 Article byline: Gordana Perunović Fijat (Autonomija); published on 12 December 2015. Acknowledgement and disclaimer from the article: This article was made possible by the Antidiscrimination Journalism Project, which is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Information of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, Serbia. The Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina and the editorial board of Autonomija are solely responsible for the content of the article. Opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Ministry.
 Translator’s note: The original quote is from “An Interview with Audre Lorde” by Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, in Signs vol. 6, no. 4: 713–36 (Summer 1981): “What understanding begins to do is to make knowledge available for use, and that’s the urgency, that’s the push, that’s the drive.” Barzut is quoting this sentence from the Serbian translation of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, translated by Dragana Starčević (Belgrade: Feministička 94 i Žene u crnom, 2002).
Published Jul 6, 2016 Copyright 2016 Paula Gordon