For the past several years, Joan Lipkin has traveled to Belgrade each fall to do cultural organizing as a guest of the Civil Rights Defenders, an international human rights group working in the Western Balkans. Her work there included founding the Queer Café, a site for intentional conversation with LGBT+ community members and their allies. That work became the genesis for a short docudrama called The Queer Café: Hear Our Voices from the Balkans that premiered at the Pride Info Centre in Belgrade on September 12, 2019.

 

The history of Belgrade Pride is troubled. Before establishing an annual Pride event in 2014, Belgrade’s attempts at a Pride March were met with threats and violence. In 2001, the small group at the first Belgrade Pride march was attacked by a group of nationalists. Organizers cancelled a planned Pride parade in 2009 amid threats of violence. In 2010, Belgrade Pride was subject to violence again, when Pride attendees, homophobic protestors, and police clashed in a riot that ended with 25 civilian injuries and more than 250 arrests. For the next three years, the Serbian government banned the event, despite multiple Constitutional Court rulings that such bans were unlawful. It was not until 2014 that Belgrade Prideoccurred without interference or violence, and has been able to continue peacefully in subsequent years.

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Since the Pride Info Centre opened in 2017, it has offered services like counseling, HIV testing, and information on Belgrade Pride, as well as a multitude of cultural events such as lectures and film screenings. The Queer Café: Hear Our Voices from the Balkans was the Pride Info Centre’s first play, and a cultural milestone for the whole community. “The LGBT+ community of the Western Balkans is deeply oppressed and our stories are rarely heard. The effort Joan Lipkin put in this production has created a great impact within the LGBT+ community but also brought us closer to the mainstream public,” said Marko Mihailović, Belgrade Pride Coordinator.

 

The show explores the experiences of LGBT+ people living in the Balkans. Participants came from Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and more. The range of topics is vast. Four performers share the stories of more than 40 participants of Lipkin’s conversation series, following the trajectory of coming-of-age: from first same-sex attractions, to coming out, bullying, family, church, work, marriage, and broader socio-political issues. “The biggest beauty of both the text and the show is that it creates a polyphony of voices with different attitudes, thinking and life experiences,” Borisav Matić, a dramaturgy student at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad, notes in an article he wrote for The Theatre Times about his work as co-translator and dramaturg of the piece.

  

The impact and potential of the work spread quickly. After witnessing The Queer Café, young activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first annual Pride Marchinvited Lipkin to direct the show in Sarajevo. The Queer Café was remounted on October 11, National Coming Out Day. It was the first event by Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) Pride following the Pride March, produced in partnership with the Open Society Foundation, an international human rights organization. The simultaneous productions in both Belgrade and Sarajevo on October 11 marked a historic collaboration between the LGBT+ communities of the two cities to present a new play.

 
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Because homophobic violence is still rampant in BiH, organizers were concerned about safety. There were threats of violence to the 2019 Pride March. To lessen the risk of a conflict, organizers in Sarajevo promoted The Queer Café through private channels and word of mouth. But the night of the performance, audience members trailed out the door. “Plays such as this are necessary for Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as for the LGBT+ community because they empower people and give them strength and hope that they will be able to one day live their authentic lives,” said Lejla Huremović, a member of the BiH Pride March Organizational Committee.

  

After each performance, Lipkin and the local organizers led a discussion with the audience. The reactions were strong and audiences overwhelmingly agreed that The Queer Café fills a void many feel. One student remarked, “After I watched The Queer Café: Hear Our Voices from the Balkans, I felt a lot of different emotions. I love that the stories are so different, from laughter to shock. I think that everyone managed to find themselves in it successfully.”

 

The positive responses did not surprise Borisav Matić, who co-translated The Queer Café into Serbian with Pavle Menalo. “The reactions of the audience and their eagerness to hear the stories from The Queer Café proves to me that this kind of grassroots theatre is very much needed in Serbia and in the region. LGBT+ people want to be represented in theatre and, in my opinion, theatre should be created by and with local communities, not just inside institutions. Both the play and the performance are important pieces of art for the local and regional scene,” Matić said.

 

According to Ajna Jusić, president of the Forgotten Children of War Association, the visibility of art like The Queer Café is an important tool in the early stages of the LGBT+ rights movement of the Western Balkans region. “I believe that The Queer Café: Hear Our Voices from the Balkans needs to take place in the public space because it makes people think, and leads to the change that finally leads to empathy, solidarity, but also to an equal country.”

 

Local Serbian media agrees. After the successful performances, with Lipkin, Matić adapted the play script into a radio drama which won first prize for the Best Socially-Engaged Radio Play from Radio Aparat, a community-run internet radio station based in Belgrade. According to Project Coordinator Senka Latinović, “Radio Aparat, with the help of the jury members (playwrights Sara Radojkovic and Ivan Velisavljevic), opted for this text because we believe it is extremely important to use radio’s public space to learn about real experiences of people who still represent vulnerable minorities in our society.”

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The accolades brought The Queer Café to the attention of Serbian radio director Marija Balubdžić, who then recorded the play, which premiered on Radio Aparat December 22, 2019. The Queer Café radio play will be broadcast on radioaparat.com, and the recording is now available to stream on the station’s mixcloud profile (link found here).

 

Organizers hope to leverage The Queer Café’s momentum into a tour of the show across the Balkan region so more audiences have a chance to connect to the material. One young audience member who requested anonymity said, “These weren’t four people sharing the opinions and stances of tens of others loudly; this is an amalgamation of millions who are screaming from bravery and perseverance and love.”

 

Lipkin, who is the recipient of numerous awards, including Leadership in Community-based Theatre, a Visionary, Ethical Humanist of the Year, and a Bravely Award, said writing and directing The Queer Café is a fitting way to observe the anniversary of her landmark play, Some of My Best Friends Are…, the first piece of original LGBT+ theatre produced in Missouri.

 

“I am humbled and honored by the reception of this play and grateful to everyone who worked on it or came to see the show,” she said. “I especially appreciate everyone who participated in the Queer Café who, through their bravery and honesty, are helping to forward the cause of human rights." 

 

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