Transcript of interview, Queer Archive, 2017
Tyresia, can you tell me something about your roots and origins? Where are you and
your parents coming from?
OK. I am from Sarajevo. My parents, as well.
Can you describe your growing up?
Well, it was quite turbulent. Because, that problem of mine appeared somewhere around my fourth or fifth year, and that was all supposed to be a secret, because at that time the family was very conservative, which I don’t blame them at all. Because back then, there was no access to information, nor the will to expand knowledge.
How old were you in the nineties?
90s, that means I was 32. It wouldn’t say they were religious. As for the morals, they were quite conservative, regressive.
And they tried to pass it on you?
What was your life before the war? So, what were your thoughts, what were you
planning to do, what were your ambitions?
There was always this secret dream that I would go through transition but back then there was no possibility to do it here. This could be done only abroad, but the prices were astronomical, at least for me.
And when was the first time you started thinking about your gender identity?
Well, sometimes at the beginning of puberty. Well, there was this key moment when Oslobođenje published this famous article, which was talking about Kočinela who was one of the first transgender people, and then it became clear to me that if this is in us, there must be someone else out there. So, no, that does not happen to me alone. Because one must understand that at that time, there was no access to information like now. So there was one TV channel on a black-and- white television and the only way to get some information was if you’d come across some newspaper article. However, there was more misinformation than truth in those articles.
What was it like when you saw that article, when you read it?
Just like when Archimedes exclaimed “Eureka!”; So, a new horizon was opened, light showed behind the clouds, but again, at the age of 14, I was too little for the beginning of the transition, and of course I could not tell it to my family because they were very conservative.
So, you couldn’t share with anyone what was going on?
No one. Maybe this was my mistake, but it was clear to me that it would be a disaster. Moreover, because my grandma was present in my upbringing and she was very traditional. God created man and woman, for her the Bible was the foundation of everything.
And what about school? You couldn’t talk to anyone, either?
No, no. You have to understand that it was different times. Because nowadays, children in elementary school have an iPhone, and at that time there was no black- and-white TV in the house.
And was there someone you liked? Some crush you had?
Well, there was, however, there is always this problem that, when it comes to transgender people and their attraction, people immediately start mixing gender and sexual orientation. So, I liked some girls, but again, I had problem approaching them.
What was your biggest fear?
That the war is about to start. Because, as I said, first the bankruptcy of the country occurred, right? We all remember inflation, when one mark was 7000 dinars, when League of Communists fell apart, it was questionable if Yugoslavia will fall or stay strong, whether it will be federation or confederation. And of course, nationalisms emerged on the left and on the right side of Bosnia. It was clear to me that Bosnia would be harmed the most.
How old were you then?
33. And how did it all look like, when the war started?
No, that’s, that’s what I… I was already out of the country. I was in Italy. All right, first there were those tiny clashes in Croatia, and it was clear to me that this would expand. Because all extremists had ambitions, and of course, that couldn’t be prevented or influenced.
So, you made a decision, to leave?
Yes, in the summer 1990.
And, why Italy?
Well, because there were jobs at that time. In the beginning, it was work at an auto waste. It meant removing parts, disassembling cars. And it was a solid life. It wasn’t any high standard but it covered basic living costs and there was some money left to save aside.
And how long did you stay in Italy?
How did you explain starting of the war to yourself? How did you realize that all of a
sudden everything fell apart?
Well, since elementary school they taught us, that when someone asks us what Yugoslavia is, we have to say that it is joined community of equal peoples and nationalities. So, before learning how to write and read, we had to know this. However, tension was always present throughout Yugoslavia, right? Because nobody was satisfied, with either economic planning or constitutional arrangement. By my opinion is that there were two categories of people: those who were too satisfied and hose who were absolutely dissatisfied. And sooner or later conflict was inevitable.
I understand. While you were in Italy, and the war was happening here, what was
your biggest fear?
Well, there were plenty of my relatives in Sarajevo. And, one uncle was killed, the other was wounded, his son who was in the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina was wounded two times, he suffered hepatitis, but they survived, somehow.
And while you were in Italy, was there anyone with whom you could talk, someone
who could give you support, someone you could openly talk about your gender and
Yes. Because there it wasn’t a taboo anymore. It was in the media. Transgender people didn’t have to hide, like here. Even though, tolerance and homophobia were equally present there as well, as anywhere in the world. But they are visible, they are present. Some of them are famous media personalities, fashion creators, actors and actresses.
What did it mean for you, suddenly being in such environment? So, we’re talking about your 30 years of secrecy and darkness.
Darkness and inquisition.
And then you get there…
So how was it, I mean, it was a big change? And here, the war is ongoing, and you are out in a completely different environment.
Yes, it was much more relaxed, because when you realize that there are people like me, that they are not seen as some freaks, nor as some perverted people, but as regular people who are not so different than other people. People who live their lives, work, pay taxes, respect the laws.
And could you talk to anyone about yourself? Did you have any friends, did you have
Well, there was one trans person, her name was Rafaela. She also lived there, and then she disappeared, all of a sudden. Actually, she was like a man, and came back as a woman. Then she opened a bar in Milan, and so, we used to hang around.
And you could exchange with her a lot of information…
Yes, yes. For example there were lots of trans-themed moves that were a normal thing at that time in Italy. The best thing was access to information.
Do you remember anything special, for example, something with Rafaela, some dear
memory you have?
At first it was exchanging experiences over the coffee. Then you realize that all transgender stories are the same, we can say 99% of them. Differences are in small details. And it always comes to this notion that when this happens to a person there is always this defensive reaction, when you try to get this out of our head, hoping it will pass as time goes by, because it’s the least painful. Because it changes everything in your head, but it just cannot be suppressed. Then for example, there was a lot of misinformation as well. There were people coming mostly from South America who were sex workers, and many people even there don’t differentiate transvestites who are sex workers from transgender persons.
What did you actually learn from Rafaela?
Ah, that we all need to be just what we are. But I was always lacking courage, or I was delaying things, I used to say “Come on, now is not the time”. That’s the worst thing that can happen. Because time flies, and it can never come back. And one more thing, it is easy to find people who understand us and support us in their circle, but it is difficult to live everyday life in everyday environment, because not everyone’s reaction is the same. And there is always this fear of the reaction, of attacks, provoking…this fear is always present and that practically prevents transgender people from the transition process.
And do you think the war had to do anything with that, with your identity?
No, because my identity was formed long before the war.
And did it affect your possible transition process in any way?
Well it did stop the process in a way. Because at that time, sex reassignment surgery started taking place in Belgrade. This was done by a famous urologist, Sava Perović. And then there was some hope for me to go to Belgrade, but the war unfortunately…the health system of former Yugoslavia broke down in 1992. And in Italy, there is a law from 1982 on sex reassignment surgery, but the tools for implementation of the law were never actualized. There was possibility to do it in Thailand or in the US, but those were astronomical figures, at least for me.
So after 12 and half years in Italy, you are deciding to come back to Bosnia. How did
Well, it just happened because of the introduction of the euro. When the euro was introduced, the price doubled, earnings rose slightly. So the earnings were just enough to cover basic costs. And, the first people to get fired, when the firm came to a crisis, are foreigners, of course. And that is understandable to me.
And then you decided, in fact, to come back?
How did coming back look like? What year was it already?
It was in 2003, sometime in February. Since then, everything has changed. The war was over, luckily. Peacekeepers were present, larger and more mobile than before. And in my opinion, there was more democracy.
You say – the war is over. What was the end of the war for you? When did war end in
your head? Is there some memory?
Well, that was in November when a Dayton agreement was signed. And I remember, my acquaintances, Italians were just as happy as I was. And yet again, there was some pessimism in me. Because, they were thinking when something is signed on the paper, it is immediately implemented on the field. However, it is well known that there were conflicts after that as well, and the question was – what now? What will be the country’s development? Renewal?
When was the moment when peace started for you, if it started?
Well, OK. There are no shootings anymore, so the peace has arrived. But sadly, there are hotheads here who think that the war isn’t over. The first, the second, nor the last war we had. These are those who live in the distant past based on it on myths, instead of turning to progress and the future.
Were you in the army and when, which year?
Back in 1976.
What was that experience for you?
Very bad experience for me, because the army was a practically communist ideology. All officers had to be members of the League of Communists, and of course, they had… Before I went to the army, I spent a couple of years in Germany. There I had an opportunity to see American, German, English army, and I noticed that they are far better armed and trained, than our army. However, we had officers in charge of propaganda, who kept telling us that we were the best, the most capable, the most educated…
Tyresia, what was it like to be a transgender person in the army?
Well, harder than in everyday life.
In what way?
Well, in the army, especially… it was complete self isolation – I wasn’t interested in the stories, and the soldier’s behavior wasn’t close to me. Some of them were thrilled when they would get the rifle at their first going to the city, after taking the oath. They would spend two hours in front of the mirror, and then they’d take a picture and send it home. And to me it was compulsion, in fact. Likewise, the training was very often meaningless.
In what way?
Well, we were trained in a case of nuclear war…or for example we were on the training ground and the corporal would say “Atom on the right!”, like if he is seeing atom bomb falling, so we all have to turn on the left side, lay down and place our hands above our head. “Atom on the left!”, “Atom from the front!”, and so on…
And was there anyone that you could talk to you about yourself, about your gender identity in the army? Was there a single person, anyone?
It was a breakthrough moment, for this corporal and this sergeant noticed something strange in my behavior. Let’s say, as far as weapons are concerned, I was good with that. Because my previous experience was dealing with mechanics and so on, so there was no problem splitting, concatenation, shooting as well. But it was obvious that my attitude towards JNA training was repulsive. And I remember, it was Sunday and I decided to come out to sergeant. And his reaction seemed to be a lot smoother than I expected. Then he talked to the lieutenant. Then the lieutenant told sergeant to tell me to put everything on a piece of paper, one page, one and a half. Then they called me and told me to go to the stationary. There they referred me to Vojna bolnica in Sarajevo and they put me in psychiatry. And about 7 days later, they gave me Resolving temporary incapacity, with the explanation that the situation did not deteriorate during the military service. And 4 years after, since my temporary disability has expired, I have never been called for military service again. It was probably hot potatoes for them that they wanted to get rid off as soon as possible. Because for example, the psychiatrist who examined me, actually had no idea about transgender people.
How did it feel, those seven days being there?
Well … well, there were really people who were on the verge of nervous breakdown or who have already had one. But being at psychiatrist was funny, because he asked me if I had sexual relationship with women, and I said I had. Then he says: “All is fine with you, then”. So he mixed the sexual orientation and gender identity, and talking to him was in vain since I knew more about the subject than him.
And when they gave you resolution on temporary incapacity, did they say why?
Yes, the reasoning was, like, emotional immaturity. And then I got back to the barracks. This was the best period of military service. Normally, I don’t have to go, I get up when I want, I go to bed when I want, I go to lunch when there is no crowd, I don’t have to go to the training field. Because, as I said, the training was ridiculous.
Did you knowingly decide to out yourself to them? Was it a conscious political act?
Well, that was the result of practical coercion. Because, the sergeant insisted on explanation what was going on, why was I behaving differently than other men? And then he accused me of lying and inventing things. And that was it.
And when you came out of the army and all, did your perception of the army change?
How did you perceive army afterwards?
My biggest wish was to never go back, again. OK, well, every country must have armed forces. But here, first of all, there was political propaganda, ideology, and brainwashing. And comparing to the armed forces of Germany, France, the United States, England that were present in Germany, we could not even compare to them. But they always told us that we are the second or third power, I do not know, in Europe, in the world, which was not true.
Tyresia, were you afraid of the reactions when you came out, were you afraid of
Well, of course there was fear but that was a breakthrough moment. I told myself – this can’t go like this anymore, I will come out and what will be will be. It can be either better or the same, it cannot be worse than it is.
OK. Let’s go back – so you are coming back to BiH, the war is over and it affected
your identity development?
How is the story going on, does the idea of transition come back to you?
Yes. Because then there many things already. There was internet, there were non- governmental organizations, and so this wasn’t that much taboo anymore. Yes, the problem here remained, that BiH was excluded from health system, and it was not possible to make a transition here, as it is not possible now, because there are no psychologists, psychiatrists, or endocrinologists who deal with it, especially the surgeons. This is understandable, because we are a small country and the Ministry of Health cannot afford to train the team of experts, when there are people who are really seriously sick and don’t get adequate health care.
And, so there was no one to turn to?
Was there anyone you could talk to, when you first came back from Italy?
Yes. There were several contacts with the associations led by the Svetlana, couple of phone conversations. And then that incident happened in 2008. After that, the association fell apart, she went to America, and so this contact was interrupted.
Was there any motivation and desire to initiate the transition by you?
What year was that?
2008. We have had internet since long ago, and there were a lot of web sites with tips, and I decided to do-it- myself. You can find it online, what one should take, from antiandrogens, estrogen, and so I decided to take hormones. And it lasted for about 8 months. And now, what worried me most was these changes began to be visible. To me, I lacked courage and material resources to go all the way. And then I decided to stop it, which I think, is the worst solution but, mistakes are being made. And then there came again a period of apathy, exclusion, hopelessness, because not all people go all the way. Some have no courage; some have no possibility, so… on the internet there are more stories with a happy ending than those with a bad finish or no end.
And after that period of apathy, did you come into contact with another trans people
Well, no. It was only known that there is one person in Bijeljina, who has performed the surgery in their later stage of life. Then, the other one, who did the transition before the war, and later moved to Serbia. But there was no networking. I think there were a very small number of transgender persons. There are people who think they are transgender, there are cross dressers, I have nothing against them. If you allow me – for example, there is information in the media that there are 16 or 18 people who have completed transition in Belgrade. But of course you won’t see those people publically, so you can’t really reach them and get in touch. Because, some people want to forget those dark times of their life, and don’t want to be contacted, they don’t want to be reminded of the past and it is not be blamed. So someone has the right to anonymity, to privacy, and doesn’t want to be exposed in the media.
Tyresia, how do you see this period in which we are today, in terms of human rights,
equality and freedom?
Well, some will say we still have a long way to go. But in relation to previous decades, the progress is amazing. Because today, there are non-governmental organizations, right? Today LGBT people can connect through social networks, communicate with institutions, let others know they exist, they can submit a request to institutions to establish some dialogue, which was unthinkable before. Because during socialism, everything that did not fit to socialist ideology, was hidden away. Although LGBT people existed at that time as well, they certainly didn’t have the opportunity to communicate with institutions, to come out, and those very institutions were saying that we are a healthy socialist society and that this belongs to the West. That it doesn’t exist in our society. Which was pure demagogy.
Would you say that ending of the war contributed to your opening more to yourself
Is it related to the wartime, or is there some breakthrough moment from your past
when you felt you are opening more to other people?
The war had no significant influence on it. Internet connection had an impact. So, the ability to communicate, network. And you realize you are not alone, that there is still big number of people, a few hundred thousand in the world, or millions. And you see different life stories, some similar to yours, some happier, some less fortunate. So, that was the motive to open myself a little more to the outside world.
Do your see war as close to the distant past?
Well, distant past.
And do you think that the war has also impact on our daily lives today?
Well, of course. There is no day when you won’t hear something about war in all the media, or in everyday dialogue, in discussions, remembering… I think we should overcome that. Because, it’s been 20 years and over, but we never turn to the future. And then it is easier to regain the film and keep swirling in the past.
Tyresia, does your war experience, in terms of your immigration and refugee, shape
your relationship to diversity?
In what way?
Well, first of all, in Italy, there is much more freedom and much more population, therefore there is this connection. It is clear to me that we must be aware that we are not the same.
Did everything that happened in the 1990s, the war, does it affect your perception of the body, gender and sexuality?
Well, war didn’t affect it much, really.
Do you find ethnicity important in building friendships?
Not even a little. Not even a little. Because, in my opinion, here is one nation, we speak one language, we have same customs. And that may be a stumbling block with us.
Tyresia, what is freedom for you?
Well, this is a million dollar question. Freedom is a utopia for me. Because we all have our own vision of freedom, but we will never have the opportunity to achieve that vision. Because there will always be some an obstacle, someone who obstructs us. It would be very nice if all of us could be free, to live our lives as we want, without hindering anyone and without compromising. But…
Do you think it is possible, that such a vision is possible?
Well, it’s possible, just inside small communities. But on the global level – never. Because, freedom is to choose what we are in every place at all times. Unfortunately, we know that we can’t do it globally.
Tyresia, what guides you through life? What is it that you’re coming back to? Is there something that can you always get back to?
Hmm… I don’t think so. I often think that my life was a mistake. There, I should’ve come out earlier and do something about it. My indecisiveness was enormous and all that waiting – and the years have passed.
To what extent was connecting with other people, especially in the last year, year and a half, meaningful to you?
Well incredibly much. Because, in any case, these people are not different from the other people on the street, same thinking, same behavior, acceptance of diversity. Because, we all have countless shades, like in gender identity, sexual orientation, that’s all normal. Because, the pink and blue drawers are past. Even science proves that. But it’s hard to explain it to ordinary people. Unfortunately we have to be in touch with ordinary people every day, people who are uninformed, who are not educated nor they want to be educated and informed.
Tyresia, is there anything you’d like to add?
I don’t think so.