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The Team of Maribor Pride — Maribor Youth Cultural Center, Slovenia

Since 2014, the Maribor Youth Cultural Center has been supporting young LGBTQ+ people via the Maribor through Pink Glasses program. I spoke with the team behind Maribor’s first Pride, held in 2019, to discuss this historic event and the impact it has had on Slovenian society.

By Alexandra Kuenning

How did you each become involved in LGBTI activism?

Matej: I’ve engaged in it more actively for the past couple of years. I didn’t fully unpack my own identity until after high school, so it took a while to get comfortable with being visible. Then, a few years back, I worked at my old primary school outside Maribor, and that reminded me how much I would have needed the space to be a queer or curious 12-year-old in order to avoid some of the struggles later on. And while the school itself is lovely, I would think to myself, how much have we really normalized LGBTI topics in the years since then? Kids have access to information online, sure, but who talks to them about it? Who is making sure that there is space for queer kids? How much space is there for queerness, period, on all levels of society?

Not long after that, I got to know Maribor Pride and the youth center, and I felt I had found an avenue where I could help generate that change and give back.

Doris: I first got involved with LGBTI activism in college, when I joined the campaign for the 2012 referendum on the family code bill that had been passed by the government. If passed into law, it would have expanded certain legal protections and addressed the systemic discrimination of LGBTI individuals in Slovenia. The referendum brought out strong reactions and caused endless fierce debates on the subject, mainly among conservative and religious groups and political parties —who all opposed the bill — on one side and queer rights activists and supporters on the other. A lot of the debate came down to the sanctity of marriage and the traditional family unit, which is still a very normalized ideal here; the Catholic Church has considerable influence, especially in rural areas and among the elderly, so that was one of the main angles opponents would enter the debate with. Many people spoke out against the bill and the referendum, but obviously it ended up failing, so that felt like a strong indicator of how the public feels about LGBTI rights. Ultimately it showed that many Slovenes disapprove and hold prejudiced views of the LGBTI community and effectively ended my belief that I lived in a progressive society.

That was a very disappointing moment on a personal level; I couldn’t understand how a bill could get rejected simply for extending rights to a marginalized minority without taking any rights away from those who already have them.

Tanja: Campaigning for the family code bill on a local scale in the run-up to the 2012 referendum was my first major involvement in LGBTI activism, too. Even though the referendum was unsuccessful, and the bill wasn’t passed into law, I met plenty of open-minded groups and individuals, among both members of the community and allies; the campaign was truly a beautiful effort because we worked together so closely and invested so much time and energy into various events and activities to inform the public. It was an effort that I knew would keep producing change in the future.

That campaign was actually my earliest engagement in serious activism in any area — not just LGBTI issues — in terms of being able to do tangible work and be part of an initiative.

What led you to join the Maribor Youth Cultural Center and become involved in the Maribor through Pink Glasses program?

Tanja: I joined the center as a volunteer on the Living Library project, where I actively participated from 2012. The project included a youth exchange, a training course on the Living Library method for new contributors, as well as other activities. I later got my first full-time job as a youth worker at the center. I’ve been co-creating the Maribor through Pink Glasses program since its inception in 2015, when it was founded by a small group of volunteers. At first, we would only organize a few activities a year, such as literary events, the Living Library, and movie nights, and back then, we couldn’t dream of a Pride event in Maribor. As the program began to grow, we organized the first Unicorn Road Trip weekend workshop and participated in youth exchanges, along with many other activities.

Doris: I was involved in volunteer work with refugees, which first brought me to the Youth Cultural Center. Initially, I continued to work in that field, coordinating the center’s refugee program, and later on, I joined their team as a youth worker. Today, I’m the coordinator of three of the center’s youth programs, one of them being Maribor through Pink Glasses.

Matej: I’ve been part of the team for nearly two years. Attending the first Maribor Pride in 2019 was a crystallizing moment: I saw that a space was being carved out, that there was an effort, and I knew I had to be part of that effort. Months later, I went to an orientation meeting. It felt really affirming from the start and we all meshed together well, so I became a volunteer.

What is your role in Maribor Pride and the focus of your work at the Maribor Youth Cultural Center?

Doris: As the program coordinator, my job includes executive and administrative work in addition to directing and planning. I also mentor and support our contributors throughout the various stages of our projects; as a youth worker, my main focus is on recognizing both the needs and potential of those involved in the program. With their help, we plan activities and create resources for our target audiences and the general public. In the past year, we have strengthened our efforts to increase LGBTI visibility and acceptance in the Maribor area.

Matej: I started out as a writer and content contributor; early on, this mainly involved writing, translating, and editing copy for social media posts, on top of various other tasks related to concept creation and event planning — which is a role we all share. Soon, I started writing statements and press releases, and my role gradually grew to cover communications in general. I also emcee many of our events, and this past year, I was kindly asked to join Doris and Tanja on the Pride 2021 team as a co-organizer. I also provide administrative and executive support.

Tanja: I would describe my current role in the program with the word “support.” I run our LGBTQIA+ support group along with Nina Vareško. At this year’s Pride, I was the volunteer coordinator: in addition to logistics, my duties included mentoring our volunteers, as well as working with Matej and Doris on planning the event. I’m also the group’s instructor on their European Solidarity Corps project, offering support and assistance with organizing activities and tracking their learning progress.

What are some of the services you provide through the Maribor Youth Cultural Center?

Doris: Though most people know us as the organizers of Maribor Pride, we are much more than that. Thanks to Maribor through Pink Glasses, we are the only organization in the region with a regular program that serves the needs of the LGBTI community, particularly queer youth. The program covers three areas: education and raising awareness, both within and outside the community; LGBTI empowerment and support; and increasing the visibility of LGBTI individuals. In 2021, we also established an LGBTI support group.

Many of our activities are based online to ensure accessibility. This includes various informative and educational posts, publications and other resources (such as our Queer Alphabet booklet from last year). We also cover sexual health; for the past few years, we have partnered with the Ljubljana-based organization Legebitra to provide anonymous testing for sexually transmitted infections for men who have sex with men.

Matej: Many of our activities are underscored by a common denominator, which is the lack of LGBTI spaces and resources. In the long run, we want to establish a safety net for LGBTI people in Maribor and the surrounding areas and strengthen the community so that it can thrive and achieve empowerment. A big part of that, at this stage, is giving people more avenues to express themselves and communicate their needs — through workshops, volunteer opportunities, our support group, or any other activity. We want to enable young LGBTI people to participate more actively in public life and society at large.

We’re expanding our activities aimed at educating and raising awareness. Starting with online content, it’s vital to challenge stereotypes because they still dominate the discourse on LGBTI topics. We’ve held workshops on gender identity and sexual orientation for audiences that include questioning or curious individuals, LGBTI youth seeking information, and professionals in training. Among other things, we use them to provide examples of LGBTI-inclusive approaches.

Tanja: For the fifth year in a row, we recently hosted a weekend workshop known as the Unicorn Road Trip, organized with and for young LGBTI people. From Friday to Sunday, participants stay at our youth hostel and take part in various workshops, presentations, team building exercises and other activities. The main emphasis is on spending time together: we cook, we talk, we play games, and every year we also try to address a specific LGBTI topic such as relationships, sex, drag, media representation, etc. What also happens every year is the realization how much LGBTI youth need these safe spaces — not just once a year, but in a permanent capacity.

At the beginning of this year, we realized one of our long-term goals and established a youth support group. The group meets for two hours every two weeks, and currently we have between five and eight participants attending regularly; we’re also accepting new members. In our sessions, group members discuss topics and issues that are important to them in a given moment, while my co-leader Nina Vareško and I also maintain a general safe space that offers various forms of peer support. The group has clearly addressed a long-standing need, which is supported by the fact that membership has steadily increased since it was first started. Currently there are up to a dozen members at any given time, with five to seven attending regularly and others on an as-needed basis. The group leaders are talking about moving to Zoom for a while due to new restrictions, so we’re hoping that will allow some new users to join from home.

In the future, I hope we can strengthen and expand our program to include working with parents, guidance counselors, and others who interact with LGBTI youth, as well as individual psychosocial support.

How would you describe what it is like to be an LGBTI person in Slovenia?

Matej: Queerphobic attitudes are not uncommon, especially outside the big cities. I’ve been out for years, but for many, any act of visibility is something they’re going to think twice about. There’s a lot of “silent homophobia:” queer identity still isn’t fully normalized or talked about, so for me, it was difficult getting a grasp on who I was as a gay man — and that was despite growing up in an open-minded home, which many still don’t have today. I grew up in a small town outside of Maribor where these issues tend to be even more pronounced. Today, I’m still luckier than many for feeling safe and secure in my identity.

In heteronormative environments, your existence often isn’t considered a possibility, and that erasure can feel lonely. Another issue is the lack of queer spaces and few to no resources serving queer people in, say, rural areas. It’s an isolating experience because it’s harder to be in a community with other queer people. Technology has made that easier (and safer), but even on the apps, many gay and bi men emphasize discretion above all else. Many are only out to a few of their closest friends, if that, while keeping it a secret from family and at work. It’s a very mundane thing, but I didn’t see same-sex couples holding hands or being affectionate in public until I visited other places in Europe and the US as an adult.

The community itself is not nearly as mainstream compared to those places, but it can feel very tight knit as a result, and there’s a special beauty in that. As LGBTI communities tend to do, we find ways to survive and to evolve, and hopefully it only gets easier for future generations.

Tanja: From a personal point of view, I can say I haven’t had a specifically homophobic experience, which I’m very grateful for. I live openly: I’m out to my friend circle, to my immediate family, and in public. I feel seen and accepted by those close to me and those whose opinion I find important, and I feel safe and free in Slovenia. That said, I’m aware that my experience is largely informed by the fact that I studied social pedagogy and have always actively surrounded myself with people who are open to various topics and issues: migrants, disadvantaged youth, members of the LGBTI and other marginalized or stigmatized groups, etc.

At the same time, as Matej already said, it’s important to point out that not everyone has the same kind of privilege. Individual LGBTI experiences differ starkly, with factors such as background, social status, location, and access to resources all playing an important part. All families aren’t accepting or even tolerant of LGBTI issues, and that remains a serious challenge — especially for children and teenagers who are still in school. Individual positive experiences don’t necessarily translate to systemic change, and there are certainly still issues that need addressing.

Do you see a difference between the bigger cities (i.e., the capital Ljubljana) and the rest of the country? What about in Maribor specifically?

Matej: There is absolutely a difference. For comparison, Ljubljana has had its own Pride for two decades; Maribor got its first parade in 2019. Ljubljana has several strong and long-standing LGBTI organizations, while Maribor through Pink Glasses is the only one in our region — and we have no dedicated clubs, bars, cafés, or other public queer spaces. As a result, LGBTI communities in the Maribor area (and eastern Slovenia as a whole) are quite fragmented, so it’s harder to normalize queerness.

Ljubljana is much bigger, more liberal, and open-minded, as well as more diverse, so I would say it’s easier to be visible there. And the longer tradition of groups and organizations and networks means that their LGBTI community has more of a safety net. Queer individuals have more places where they can gather, so it’s just generally easier for the culture to flourish openly; there’s more of an actual “scene,” so to speak, like one might expect from a major city.

Doris: Whatever shifts do take place here tend to happen slowly. It’s always a process. For example, as little as five years ago, the idea of Maribor having its own Pride would have been a radical one at best, and even when it finally did happen in 2019, it was considered a major, daring milestone. It was groundbreaking and a huge leap for LGBTI people to be so visible on the streets of Maribor, even if for a couple of hours. We have tried our best to keep that momentum going, but for all the positive changes in our region, sometimes when we start a new project or activity, there’s still that brief pause where you wonder, “Is this going to fly around here?” It’s not always linear, and there’s some trial-and-error involved.

Tanja: But we are seeing other regional efforts at establishing that safety net. Last year, the Koroška (Carinthia) region held its first-ever Pride in Slovenj Gradec, with their second one this past July, and in September, Friuli Venezia Giulia Pride from Italy organized a joint Pride between Gorizia in Italy and Nova Gorica in Slovenia—which means that Slovenia has now held our different Prides. So, we are doing the work, and collaborating with both old and new LGBTI organizations in Slovenia is a huge part of that. That mutual solidarity is very important, both for decentralization and for giving the community a national platform.

Doris: And that’s why it’s also important to develop these programs beyond the annual Pride festivities. It’s a very important event, for visibility, for the culture, for the normalization of queerness, but LGBTI people have needs that have to be addressed outside of June, so that is something that we are working on.

Have you seen any changes in societal attitudes over the last few years?

Tanja: One change I’ve observed in my own circles that I find significant is that people are discussing LGBTI topics more openly and in a more relaxed way; I would also say there’s more room for these discussions in certain public spaces. In the last six months, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at quite a few of my friends casually mentioning, without a big “coming out,” that they feel like they’re part of the LGBTI community or have had a few experiences. That makes it feel like a normal (or more normalized) thing. However, I have noticed a few times that I tend to live in a bit of a progressive “bubble” with plenty of acceptance and relaxed attitudes, and when I venture outside of that bubble, I’m frequently disappointed to learn that society as a whole is not as open-minded or progressive as my circles.

Working with young people, I’m increasingly noticing that there’s more room for questioning one’s gender identity and the concept of gender in general. In my view, that was far less common even five years ago and I see it as an indicator of a changing society. If there’s more flexibility that allows young people to use names, pronouns, and identities that feel authentic and comfortable to them, even if they’re outside the traditional binary, that can only be a good thing.

Matej: I agree with Tanja; a lot has changed since we were teenagers. It can be very encouraging, and you start to take that for granted, but then you go out and see that there’s more work to be done. There’s been plenty of progress in the past decade, but large parts of Slovene society lean conservative. LGBTI topics are still stigmatized, so a lot of the time, they don’t really have a place in public discourse. The right is very strong, the Catholic tradition is very strong, and heteronormativity is very much an ideal that needs “protecting” in the eyes of many. Lately, things are absolutely changing, but you still have to carve out almost every space you want to exist in authentically, especially publicly. And not everyone has the privilege of being able to take that risk.

And, again, you have that urban-rural split, where it’s that much harder to make inroads in many rural places. One of the root causes is absolutely lack of information: people know “gay,” they know “lesbian” (and even then, it’s mostly stereotypes), and the rest is alphabet soup to them. Even the term itself — LGBTQ or LGBTI or LGBTQIA+, which is what we’ve been trying to use — is unknown to a lot of people, let alone terms like “queer” or the concept of queerness. Educating people often means starting at square one, with the very basics. That knowledge gap is especially prominent with those who grew up before the internet era.

As you’ve stated previously, Maribor held its first Pride Parade in 2019. Can you tell me more about that landmark event? What sort of reaction did you receive?

Doris and Matej: The idea for a Pride festival in Maribor was created by a group of youth workers who, in October 2018, attended a training course called P.R.I.D.E. (Promoting Rights, Inclusion, Diversity and Equality) în Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Back in Maribor, they gathered a group of volunteers via the Maribor through Pink Glasses program and the youth center, and they began to collaborate on an Erasmus+ project with the Romanian organization Go Free, which had similarly organized the first Cluj-Napoca Pride in 2017. The project was an important source of financial and organizational support, and it included two youth exchanges in the early months of 2019.

Marja Guček from the youth center, now the head of the organization, was the project coordinator, and our Luka Kristić and Adrijana Kos were the main organizers. The team also included participants of the youth exchange from Maribor and Cluj-Napoca and of course the many volunteers that were part of Maribor through Pink Glasses. Leading up to the event, security was one of the main concerns; the parade was considered a high-risk event, so the organizers had to work closely with the police and security team. The announcement of Maribor’s first Pride invited some negative reactions, including quite a few instances of online hate speech and threats by the local soccer team’s fan club. It was difficult to predict what the reception would be on the day of the parade.

The parade was held on Saturday, June 29th, with several supporting events in the preceding weeks and months, including a fundraiser that was vital from both a financial point of view and as practice for the organizing team. It also served as an opportunity to drum up support for the parade, which was still deemed a big risk. By late June, the project had drawn considerable interest from the media and the public.

Doris: Back then, I was part of the team as one of the volunteers, and at the event, I was in charge of merchandise. I remember everyone on the team being shocked at the response and public support: we were expecting attendance to be at about 250, but officially, more than 800 people showed up. The atmosphere was incredible and welcoming, and aside from a few minor incidents involving outside provocations, we managed to ensure everyone’s safety.

We really appreciated the support from certain public figures, starting with the mayor of Maribor and the then-British ambassador. Notably, we also received a letter of support from UEFA head Aleksander Čeferin, who wrote that there was no room for discrimination in soccer, which was a powerful statement in light of the threats we had received. All in all, the event really put our program on the map, and that kind of legacy gives us a valuable platform in the fight for systemic change. This year, for instance, the University of Maribor issued a public show of support for the parade, in addition to announcing measures to combat gender- and orientation-based discrimination in higher education. All these developments and shifts were made possible by the success of the first Pride. And last year, organizations such as Koroška Pride built on that effort, citing Maribor as a direct inspiration.

Matej: From a personal perspective, I wasn’t part of the team at the time, but as someone who was in the crowd, I’ll probably never forget that feeling. To see Maribor belong to everyone for a day, to see and hear all the positive reactions… It took a while for the enormity to really sink in.

And as one of the organizers this year, I gained a further appreciation for the hard work that went into it. It was a remarkable feat, and we owe everything we do now to that first effort.

Tanja: I wasn’t actively involved with the organization at the time, either, so I was there as a visitor. I remember thinking how important and groundbreaking it felt to march the streets of Maribor, both for me personally and for the city itself. Emotions were running high; I had very strong feelings during the event. There had been a few threats in the run-up to the event, but the march went smoothly, and there were no issues or complications, so it was a great experience.

How have you kept the Maribor through Pink Glasses program and Maribor Pride active during the pandemic?

Doris: The pandemic hit not too long after we decided on our program for 2020. In early-to-mid February, we were starting to come up with ideas for Pride. We had all these events planned to raise our profile (and raise some money), and then everything shut down. Once it became clear that this would not be a short-lived crisis, we had to pivot really fast. It was definitely a challenge; one of our main goals is bringing queer people together and creating a safe space, and suddenly, we had to come up with things that didn’t involve contact.

Matej: One of the first things we did semi-remotely last year was a street intervention commemorating May 17th, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia. Our volunteers went on (socially distanced) walks and took photos of queerphobic graffiti all over the city; we then posted those on our social media along with commentary on the rise of hate speech and how the presence of violent rhetoric can pave the way for hate crimes and other types of violence. The posts were very successful, so we started putting out more online content: informative posts, book and movie recommendations, commemorations, etc.

Doris: That’s when we started thinking about Pride month and how we could keep it alive remotely. We came up with the idea of a month-long series of activities called Rainbow June in Maribor that included Instagram Live cooking shows, Pride anniversary posts, and explanations of the LGBTQIA+ acronym. We really grew our audience and engagement during this time, and our online presence has only grown further since. And in the end, we were even able to hold a few small in-person events such as outdoor movie nights when things reopened in early June. We still had to cancel the parade in the end, but we managed to create an alternative Pride celebration with great results, which was a tremendous success. That’s why we decided to keep using the Rainbow June name in the future.

Matej: We kept up that momentum through the rest of 2020, too. Thanks to relaxed measures over the summer, we organized a volunteer picnic, a drag show featuring Maribor’s first drag house, our annual weekend gathering called the Unicorn Road Trip, and we even successfully submitted a project to the European Solidarity Corps, which helped us secure funds for this year’s program. We also published our series of posts on the LGBTQIA+ acronym, which we called The Queer Alphabet, as a booklet available online and in print. Finally, we had a week of in-person activities planned for October that was cut short when we went into lockdown for the second time, but we were just barely able to hold a roundtable on queer visibility in Slovenia.

Doris: The early months of 2021 were remote-only for the most part, but we still managed to hold a few Zoom workshops and presentations on LGBTI-inclusive care for psychology and medical students. Then there were Instagram Live interviews, educational posts, and other content that our audience was able to access online. We were also starting to plan this year’s Pride, but there was a lot of uncertainty until mid-May; it simply wasn’t clear what June was going to look like up until the last minute, so it was important to keep up our online presence. At the same time, we held training and team building sessions with Tanja to maintain a good group dynamic, especially since we had welcomed some new volunteers.

Tanja: We held regular online meetings with our volunteers when we couldn’t meet live. This was in order to maintain the group dynamic and connections, as well as to provide everyone with a sense of security and routine. The support group met online during this time, too. What became even clearer, though, was that many young LGBTI people didn’t have a safe enough home environment to attend these sessions. That’s why, as measures began to relax, we were quick to establish a hybrid mode where those who were able had the option of attending in-person, while still sticking to all the necessary measures.

I also headed a few Zoom training sessions aimed at promoting team building and helping each member of the team achieve their full potential within the program. These sessions also produced some of the ideas for this year’s Pride; we really tried to create an open, collaborative environment that mimicked a joint workspace as closely as possible. This often forced us to get creative, but in many ways, that brought us closer as a team.

How can readers support you?

Doris: They can follow us on social media for the latest updates, announcements and other content; our Instagram is @maribor_pride and our Facebook page is called Maribor skozi rožnata očala. There’s also the youth center website, mkc.si, where we post speeches, statements, event descriptions, and other pieces. We really appreciate any engagement on that front, as it helps raise our profile.

Matej: Most of our content is currently only in Slovene due to our individual responsibilities outside the program, but we truly do welcome any international readers and supporters. We are available for questions, support, or resources (as well as possible collaborations) in both Slovene and English, so like Doris said, follow and support us online and keep an eye out for future content.

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