Serbian LGBTQ leader finds sanctuary in Calgary

Growing up in Zaječar, a small city in Serbia, Boban Stojanović was only aware of one thing about queer people: they were weird and mentally ill.

Boban Stojanović is now helping other refugees in the city

Boban Stojanovic was an LGBTQ leader in Serbia. Now he’s helping LGBTQ refugees and newcomers in Calgary. (Georgia Longphee)

In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city. 

Growing up in Zaječar, a small city in Serbia, Boban Stojanović was only aware of one thing about queer people: they were weird and mentally ill.

"There was a very flamboyant guy that worked with my mom, he used to wear pink and dressed very strangely. I think it was more of a personal style, but he was labelled as a homosexual," said Stojanović.

"All I could catch from this was that if you're gay, it has something to do with your mental health."

Stojanović went on to become a LGBTQ and anti-war activist in Serbia, but was forced to flee to escape the violence he endured as a member of the queer community. Now in Canada, he works helping other refugees.

A bad place to be different

Violence was part of Stojanović's life from an early age.

The older boys in his school would ask him questions about his relationships, and when he didn't answer, they would bully him.

"I remember when I was eight, in second grade, I was alone in the schoolyard and a group of older students came up to me and pushed me to the wall. One of the kids unzipped his pants and started to urinate on my shoes, telling me to look at it, asking if I liked it and calling me [names]."

After secondary school, Stojanović went into broadcasting and eventually produced a small radio show for his town. There were several other queer people who worked on the show, as well as a Jewish producer.

For one of the show's segments, Stojanović interviewed a Muslim woman from Bosnia, the main targets of the Bosnian genocide.

The day after it was broadcast, Stojanović said he showed up at the office "and saw people standing in front. It was foggy and eerie, like a movie. I joined them and read graffiti the words 'Death to Faggots, Muslims and Jews.'"

After the subsequent backlash the network decided to cancel the show, leading to Stojanovic moving to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

Once there, he met members of the anti-war organization Women in Black, who let him stay in their offices.

Stojanović also worked for the group, going to war-ravaged places like Bosnia to help the refugees, before he founded Belgrade Pride.

Ill-fated march

In 2010, Stojanović and his colleagues tried to hold a march but it resulted in a riot. According to CNN, anti-gay protestors threw petrol bombs and stones at the marchers. None of the participants were injured but 40 police officers guarding the parade were.

Citing the riots, Serbian authorities banned Pride for the next two years.

After those two years, Stojanović said, "We had a lot of hope. We hadn't heard any talk of a ban, so we assumed that we had somehow convinced people to accept Pride." 

I remember taking out a banner and spray painting the words, 'This is pride'. It was so stupid, but it was the most impactful.- Boban Stojanović 

Stojanović and his colleagues set up everything for the 2013 parade.

But then, a day before the march, the government announced it would be banned again.

"We were so frustrated. I remember talking at our office and we just decided then and there to protest. We had no idea what would happen. I remember taking out a banner and spray painting the words, 'This is pride.'"

That protest, according to Stojanovic, became known as Serbia's Stonewall, referring to the Manhattan riots of 1969 that kick started the gay rights movement in the United States.

Threats of violence

It did not mean Stojanović was safe.

In early 2016, Stojanović was walking in the streets of Belgrade when he was recognized by two men. The men called out to him, shouting slurs before they attacked him.

"I just decided to leave," said Stojanović, who fled to Canada with his partner, Adam Puškar. The two moved in with friends in Calgary.

Stojanović and Puškar received asylum in January 2017 after documenting approximately 1,000 different pages of violence against them.

Puškar says the violence put a lot of pressure on them.

"Through the physical attacks and threats, it was hard for me to constantly observe who approaches us on the street and to pretend that I did not hear homophobic insults."

After moving to Canada, Stojanović was nervous about his future career, as a lot of his activism experience wouldn't translate to regular jobs.

However, Stojanović started to volunteer for Calgary Outlink's New Canadians Program, which supports LGBTQ refugees and immigrants.

An 'inspiration'

Kelly Ernst, the founder of the program, believes that Stojanović is an inspiration.

"Usually, the title of executive director of Pride comes with a level of prestige. We would never question that in Canada. But in Serbia, it was the exact opposite for Boban. He had to fight for the respect that the title usually entails."

Recently, Stojanović began working for the Centre of Newcomers after obtaining Canadian residency.

At the centre, he spearheads a pilot program to aid LGBTQ refugees and immigrants.

Stojanović's main goal at the centre is to give support and a sense of community to queer refugees and immigrants.

Looking forward, Stojanović hopes his program will succeed, and hopes to make the centre, and everywhere else, a supportive place for LGBTQ refugees.

"Most of these refugees and immigrants, they have no one. Their families often abandon them because of their sexual orientation. I just want to give them a place to be accepted."