Navigating the Western Balkans as a Queer Traveler

The Balkans are a beautiful – but complicated – part of the world. Blogger Chantel Loura (aka Voyaging Vagabond) shares her experiences as an LGBTQ+ traveler, what to expect and how to make the most of your adventures.

I started traveling to the Balkans in 2015 and have been all over; Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo. I can never stay away too long. The pristine coastline and less frequented natural wonders always call me back.

From island hopping in Croatia, to waterfall hunting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, raki sampling in Albania, sunset hikes in Montenegro, dancing the night away in Serbia and sailing through canyons in North Macedonia, the memories I carry from this region are endless. Here, amazing, unforgettable travel experiences happen freely and often; the vast, diverse and beautiful landscapes offer activities for all kinds of travelers on all kinds of budgets.

A beautiful view of trees, mountains and a lake in Western Europe

Yet, despite my love for this part of the world, it is an undeniably complicated region. There are thousands of years of history that still actively influence and shape today’s politics, culture, society and even borders. Centuries-old land claims are still aggressively contested to this day. The geopolitical nature of this region is deeply rooted in today’s views and is often categorized as “uniquely Balkan.”

LGBTQ+ Experience in the Western Balkans

Based on my past experiences, I feel accepted and welcomed as a queer traveler. I feel safe and able to be myself in whatever form that may be. I have never been subjected to verbal harassment or the risk of physical harm. But it’s also the privilege of traveling as a cis woman with a cis female partner that is often confusing to my sister.

Two smiling women on holiday in Europe

This region is more conservative than some of the LGBTQ+ friendly destinations I’ve visited in the past. On the surface, conservative practices are easier to deal with when passing through a place for a few days. But the experience for those who live in these areas is very different.

Local members of the LGBTQ+ community have faced widespread discrimination and abuse. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in some of these countries. Advocates in the Western Balkans are pushing policies that empower and protect the LGBTQ+ community in the face of adversity. Even this year, Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, will host Europride 2022 and there have been major setbacks from the predominantly Orthodox country.

An old church surrounded by trees

Despite these risks, advocates refuse to stop fighting for inclusive human rights. Undeterred, businesses, safe spaces, and organizations are popping up all over the region with the goal of improving the lives of the LGBTQ+ communities in these countries. As a movement, they focus on advocacy and community spaces, self-organization and grassroots movement creation. While these efforts and progressive movers and shakers are mostly seen in larger cities and less so in smaller villages, their work helps create a safe place for travelers to come and appreciate the Balkans. And it works. On my latest intrepid ride in four Western Balkan countries, the majority of my group was part of the LGBTQ+ community!

Two women stand on top of a bridge

Safety and cultural customs

This region is predominantly conservative and very binary, but in larger cities such as Zagreb, Budva, Dubrovnik and Pristina, people are more liberal. It is suggested that you practice the same care and awareness when it comes to safety as you would when traveling to any new location.

Culturally, there are still many closeted members of the LGBTQ+ community in the Western Balkans, especially from the older generation, which presents difficulties in dating or finding a sense of community. PDA among same-sex partners is rare, and although some practice this, there is a risk of risk.

Social media plays a huge role in the LGBTQ+ movement here, and the younger generation is hopeful, well-informed, vocal and proactive when it comes to creating LGBTQ+-friendly spaces. If you attend LGBTQ+ events, don’t go with a preconceived notion of queer spaces – come with respect and an open mind.

A red lit bar with a neon sign above the bar

Be aware that people at these events may not be out to their local communities for fear of discrimination. Avoid exposing people – ask before taking photos to post online or tag on your social media. Part of our responsibility as LGBTQ+ people is to be empathetic to the safety of others in our community.

Before you go, read the news or search online resources to find answers to questions about safety, venues, accessibility, and LGBTQ+ events. Contact some of the organizations listed International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). A quick email can turn into an exchange full of helpful advice, answers, and even new friendships!

A cliff covered with houses

How to support local LGBTQ+ businesses and organizations

While there’s still a lot of work to be done, the community is there and the advocates are putting in the hard work—and you can definitely find ways to support them as you travel.

Feminist organization The Bijat Collective puts queer parties in Pristina on the map and creates a platform for girls and women who want to DJ or produce music. Their events, popping up in Kosovo and Albania, are dedicated to queer culture and accessibility. They also empower others by offering access to DJ equipment and spaces for people to learn for free.

Consider donating to or volunteering in organizations such as Streha Center, which supports the new needs of the LGBTQ+ youth community. Services include provision of safe housing, housing, psychosocial support, group therapy, career counseling, negotiation with families, and medical and legal assistance. Their work empowers people so they don’t have to choose between safe shelter and being their truest selves.

Finding LGBTQ+ nightlife spots can be challenging, but not impossible. Some are unofficial LGBTQ+ friendly places like Casper Bar in Budva, while others are the first of their kind to openly declare themselves as LGBTQ+ businesses like Bubbles in Pristina and Milk in Dubrovnik.

An old boat moored under a willow tree

Recognitions

I would like to thank Amarildo Fecanji, Executive Co-Director at ERA (LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey.) ERA is an organization dedicated to improving the LGBTQ+ community in this region. They have written in their mission statement:

“We are here to create and deliver resources, give a unified voice to our shared challenges, identify opportunities, respond to threats and build a common platform to advance our rights.”

Their website is a wealth of knowledge and a great resource for gaining a better understanding of the LGBTQ+ experience in the Western Balkans.

Amarildo was gracious enough to accept my invitation to chat so I could better educate myself about the local experience for LGBTQ+ people in this area. As travelers, it is important to think beyond the context of our own visits and consider the experiences of people who live in these regions to paint an accurate picture and gain a better understanding. Amarildo’s expertise was essential in the creation of this article and I appreciate every bit of insight he so kindly offered me.

I look back fondly on my travels through the Western Balkans with my wife. I remember enriching cultures, late nights, stunning views, bustling cities, historic must-sees, loud laughter, deep conversations and many meals shared with new friends. This region is waiting to be explored and I implore you to do it!

A woman sitting at the front of a boat moving along a river between wooded mountains turns and smiles at the camera

If you want to follow Chantel’s adventures, check out her website, voyagingvagabond.com or follow her on Instagram @voyaging_vagabond.

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