David Tasevski is the Executive Director of Subversive Front, an association for sexual and gender minorities based in North Macedonia. In this interview, he discusses the importance of mental health within the LGBTI community and how Subversive Front is working to develop evidence-based policies, programs, and services that support the self-identified needs of LGBTI people.
By Alexandra Kuenning
How did you initially get involved with activism?
My first contact in the NGO sector was through volunteering in an organization for people who use drugs. I was a psychologist in their counseling center. Since then, I have started to work actively on projects. I think that professional positions are also a part of activism, because we are talking from a professional point of view, and, of course, we are getting involved in engagements, including advocating for changes in laws, field activities, meetings, and guest appearances on shows, among others. Activism is a part of each of us, regardless of our profession.
What led you to join Subversive Front?
After years of working as a service provider, I decided it was time to get involved in creating programs and preparing projects based on the experience I had gained from working directly with the target groups, perceiving their needs. Currently, at Subversive Front, I am the Executive Director. I also manage the Skopje Queer Center — our psychosocial center — and the National Helpline for LGBTI people. I first came to Subversive Front as program coordinator, with the thought that with my ideas, I could have a greater impact on — and create a faster change in — the current situation in terms of the rights of LGBTI people, which is not good.
What is the focus of your work?
The focus of my work is still mental health, given that I am a psychologist and that I have additional education as a psychotherapist. I think the focus on mental health in Macedonia is very small, so I personally push projects that are long-term and that provide services to the target groups. In Subversive Front, I worked on the opening of the first National Helpline for LGBTI+ people, which we also opened up for the families of LGBTI people, and for the professional teams from the schools and the centers for social work if they have a case with an LGBTI person which they have no idea how to approach.
Currently, my colleagues and I are working on the Skopje Queer Center, which started to offer psychological counseling and psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, support from a social worker, legal aid, and information and referral services. It is important to note that all of these services are free. The center was an idea I had had for a long time, and finally in the Subversive Front I had the opportunity to realize it. What Subversive Front has been doing so far, and keeping its focus on, is research and evidence, community development, and advocacy & policy influence.
Can you tell me a bit more about the Skopje Queer Center?
The Skopje Queer Center was opened by Subversive Front a month ago. So far in Macedonia there are counseling centers for other target groups, but we opened the first free counseling center for LGBTI people. As it only opened this year, I would say we are actually late, because we can say that LGBTI people are the most discriminated group in Macedonia, and before, there was no such service for them. However, I am now proud to be behind the first such service.
What is the importance of mental health for the LGBTI community?
The lack of acceptance of LGBTI youth in the environment in which they live, from an early age, can negatively affect their mental health. In many societies, different sexual orientations are spoken of as unacceptable, and even at crucial ages during their development, children receive the message that they must not be LGBTI. Given that LGBTI people do not choose [to be LGBTI], and cannot change [who they are], it creates a lot of pressure and, in some cases, self-hatred. Imagine how it is for those young people who may not know what is happening to them, but society sends a message that if they are LGBTI, they will not be accepted because it is “unhealthy,” “it is a sin,” and so on. Later, discrimination and stigmatization — and in some societies, continuing to hide one’s different sexual orientation even as an adult — cannot have a positive effect on mental health. Therefore, projects related to mental health and support for LGBTI people, and those who are going through a process that is difficult for them, are important. Let’s not forget that we still have a large number of families who chase their children [out] because they are LGBTI. For a young person this is a serious blow, and our task is to lend a hand and help them in the process of empowerment, with counseling, accommodation, and a job search, among others.
Can you go more in-depth regarding what life is like for an LGBTI person in North Macedonia?
Unfortunately, we still cannot say that we have an open environment on this topic. Stereotypes and prejudices are still very much present, and there is a weak political will to work on these issues. The Balkans is still a place where interethnic tensions are heating up, where corruption is still present, and political parties are not interested in discussing our issues. My last appearance on our national television, which I did to talk about the services we offer to LGBTI people, caused many negative reactions and I saw a lot of hate speech and calls for violence. What is most frightening is that the hate speech came from certain political parties, as well as the journalistic media. The call for violence by individuals almost always occurs without any convictions or legal settlements. After eight years of working in several positions at the same time, and investing in further education in my profession, there are days when I feel disappointed, but we must continue with our work.
Has anything changed over the last few years? Has the first Skopje Pride in 2019 had an effect?
Of course there are changes, but the changes are quite slow. We had a fantastic Pride in 2019, in which we were part of the organizing team. Behind the organization of Pride, there are several groups that work on LGBTI issues and we united under the name Skopje Pride. However, as I said, the weak political will for change is something that slows down the whole process. Discrimination is still normalized and we see it in politicians who get [political] points by discriminating against the LGBTI community. We also notice discrimination in certain institutions, such as the police, hospitals, and social work centers, among others.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
Of course it has had an impact. We have increased the focus of our work with activities that include helping LGBTI people in poor financial condition. Of course all people were affected by this pandemic, but what was more specific about LGBTI people is that some of them live with families that do not accept them, and there is domestic violence. So, during the curfew, they were forced to stay at home, locked up with their families, without any contact with the supportive environment, which inevitably negatively affected their mental health. After we opened the Skopje Queer Center, we saw a large number of clients register, even without advertising the services at all. We hope we will not be in a situation where we cannot provide psychotherapy for all clients.
How can readers support your work?
We are also currently implementing partnership projects with other European countries. The cooperation with the activists and organizations from abroad began even before the establishment of the organization in June 2013. We are currently partnering with organizations from Norway, the UK, Luxembourg, Spain, Greece, Latvia, Bulgaria, and the Western Balkans in the implementation of several projects and actions addressing gender-based discrimination, anti-LGBTI and anti-gender narratives, as well as advocacy for LGBTI rights and status. We are one of the founders of the Balkan Pride initiative that gathers all the pride organizers from South-East Europe in a joint platform with the aim of increasing the solidarity and partnership among LGBTI and Pride organizations from the region. We are also one of the founders of the LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey (LGBTI-ERA), where over 70 CSOs and groups are members. Last but not least, we have worked with ILGA-Europe and EPOA [the European Pride Organizers Association] — the pan-European organizations on LGBTI advocacy and pride organizing — as well as with the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBTIQ Victory Institute on LGBTI political participation and innovative LGBTI advocacy.
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