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The Gift of Gender

By - 14.09.2022

Unearthing trans lives in the post-Yugoslav space.

“Gender is always in the gift of the other.” 

Even in the banal way that I need another to call me “she.” 

-McKenzie Wark (2019)

November 1995 was an important month in the history of the post-Yugoslav region: throughout its first three weeks, Alija Izetbegović, Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević, met at a military base in Dayton, Ohio, with the task of putting an end to the Bosnian War. Breaking a sequence of unsuccessful efforts, the three warring leaders finally reached an agreement that brought peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the cost of dividing it and cementing ethnicity as the major principle of political life. 

Just a few days ahead of this long-sought, if eventually contentious, outcome, the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia charged Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić with a series of war crimes, including genocide. At around the same time, Croatian Prime Minister Hrvoje Šarinić and Serb representative Milan Milanović, overseen by U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith and the UN intermediary Thorvald Stoltenberg, signed a document which terminated armed operations in Croatia, opening the way for the areas under Serb control to be integrated into the newly established Croatian legal system. 

Peculiar as it may seem, everyday life in northern Serbia where I was growing up in a small town on the fringe of the armed conflicts continued to unfold among such tectonic political shifts. As our space went through a succession of state formations, the unspoken norms of our community sporadically loosened their grip, allowing the marginalized to protrude through the ruptures of the social tissue into an unexpected visibility. 

Thus, in November 1995, as a counterpoint to the masculinist “high politics” that pushed us into decades of devastation, Serbian television spectators had a rare — in many cases first — encounter with two trans women. Vjeran Miladinović Merlinka and Nenad Milenković Sanela were invited by the Novi Sad journalist Tatjana Vojtehovski to give an account of their work as Belgrade street prostitutes. 

Noticeably tense about her live program, Vojtehovski probed into the most private aspects of her guests’ lives. To such invasive incursions, which encompassed everything from their genitals and voice modifications to surgeries, hormone levels, and sex practices, Merlinka and Sanela responded with disarming sincerity. Although they differed in the way they talked about their gender and sexuality, they struck at the heart of bourgeois hypocrisy, probably thinking that their scandalous honesty was their most powerful “weapon.”

That unusual, one-time interview with Merlinka and Sanela, to which I would occasionally return in the subsequent years, confronted me with the up till then unknown intricacies of gender diversity. I had already become familiar with the mercilessness with which school bullies endeavored to bring some of my friends into line with strict gender norms. And I had some experience with the price one must pay for not conforming to the masculine canon in such militarized circumstances full of supposedly potent men. However, never before had I had a chance to witness how bodies illuminated by television studio spotlights could defy predetermined gender scripts and how this fascinating practice could even be articulated in a resolute and engaging way. 

By means of their sheer presence, Merlinka and Sanela, who earlier that year played themselves in Želimir Žilnik’s ground-breaking film “Marble Ass,” offered a celebration of difference at a time when ethnic homogenization was draining politics of any meaningful content. They not only brought us into the vicinity of a radically different life, but enabled an immersion into “trans worlds” which were then — and still are today — impregnated with danger and uncertainty. 

As they unleashed the mesmerizing energy of those who can afford to say the truth because they have so little to lose, they became a milestone in the fragile histories of our movements. Merlinka more proudly and Sanela a bit more shyly stood at one of the beginnings of the tortuous but resilient liberatory lines that traverse our time to converge with other strands of emancipation into better, queerer, trans futures.

That program was for me and many others an unexpected entry point into the universe of gender difference, one that was more complicated, richer and occasionally much more confusing than our then self-evident divisions into boys and girls. While watching it, I could have hardly imagined that more than two decades later I would join forces with two trans friends to put together a volume about trans lives, activism and culture in our turbulent region. 

With this book, we have tried to separate the emancipatory gestures of the socialist era from its unfulfilled promises by drawing the Yugoslav space through a queer-trans lens. In the course of this re-reading our erased state is resuscitated by many of its own erased. It thus acquires a new political charge and becomes legitimized as a political project on novel grounds. Such queer rearticulations challenge the silence that envelops socialist gender trajectories so that dissident gender practices of the past start living new lives. This does not only connect us with the most progressive strands of transnational gender and sexual liberation, it also stimulates us to think about and act towards forging transformative alliances in the present. 

Transgender in the Post-Yugoslav Space: Lives, Activisms, Culture, edited by Bojan Bilić, Iwo Nord, and Aleksa Milanović, was published by Policy Press/Bristol University Press in September 2022.

Feature image: K2.0.