Antonio Mihajlov: We forget how easy it is to normalize oppression

23 April 2021 is Day of Silence, a day commemorated every year in April to draw attention to homophobic and transphobic bullying.

Over the Rainbow

From March until June 2021, connected to important Human Rights Days, The Norwegian Helsinki Committee will be sharing stories from some of Europe’s brave and energetic human rights defenders.

  • Our aim is that young people in Norway will learn more about and get engaged in the situation for LGBTI persons in Europe.
  • The initiative, “Over the Rainbow”, is carried out in collaboration with the online news portal Framtida.
  • Stay tuned for interesting stories, events and even a competition or two!

– The name points to the inaction against the daily harassment of thousands of LGBTI persons. Actions which infringe upon the right to personal safety, dignity and health, says Mina Skouen, who is responsible for Equal Rights in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

– Homophobic and transphobic bullying might be loud and violent but is all too often surrounded by silence. The day is a reminder of the importance of speaking up.

One of the people that does, is Antonio Mihajlov, from the organization Sexual and Gender Minorities Association Subversive Front in North Macedonia.

We are happy that he wanted to share his experiences from this work with us.

Antonio was one of the organizers of the first ever pride in North Macedonia, in 2019. Photo: Private

A long way to go

Antonio is lives in the capital Skopje. He is 36 years, and uses the pronoun he, his, him. The organization he was part of founding in 2013, is not only a job for him.

– I aspire to make my country into a more inclusive, more empathic, and more solidaric society.

At the moment, there are many miles to go. A report by the Europaen Union’s Acency for Fundamental Rights Agency, shows that almost one out of five LGBTI persons have experienced physical or sexual attacks within the past 5 years.

The umbrella organization ILGA Europe, measures the human rights situation for LGBTI persons on an annual basis, and for 2020 North Macedonia comes in at 33rd place – of 49 countries examined. And young people are particularly vulnerable.

– Queer youth are more at risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, risky sex, substance abuse, and even suicide, than their non-LGBTI peers, says Antonio.

And homophobic bullying does not necessarily stop when you finish school and university and start your adult life.

– One recent example made an impression on me. A young gay teacher was outed at the school where he worked. Soon he had to walk with his back pressed against the wall, to get away from harassment from both his students and colleagues. He eventually had to quit his job and decided to leave the country.  We need to change this situation.

In August 2020 Subversive Front launched a National LGBTI Helpline, where LGBTI people, parents of LGBTI and teachers, can get support and advice in combating bullying and harassment in the school environment.

The phones at the helpline are buzzing steadily during their daily working hours.

– In my organization we work with the principle “Health in every policy”. We try to emphasize how laws and policies are connected to the mental health and quality of life of the people it impacts. Photo: private

Normalization of oppression

–  Bullying has an impact far beyond the schoolyard. We forget how easy it is to normalize oppression; to accept that the way the bully behave is ok, also when it is that state that bullies you, says Antonio.

– In my organization we work with the principle “Health in every policy”. We try to emphasize how laws and policies are connected to the mental health and quality of life of the people it impacts.

Even as an experienced activist, he can see how these processes affect him personally. Being openly gay, openly an activist, it is difficult to establish a relationship with someone who is not “out”. They fear they will be outed by spending time with him.

– But I love my job, I really enjoy what I do, and I am trying to be my best, my most authentic self in most of the time. I am always extremely happy when I see genuine, heartfelt passion for LGBTI rights and equality.

 

We forget how easy it is to normalize oppression; to accept that the way the bully behave is ok, also when it is that state that bullies you

On the right track

And, while there is a lot left to do for Antonio and his colleagues, the situation is improving year by year. North Macedonia may have come in as number 33 of 49 in 2020, but it is still eleven places up from 2019. No doubt is this due to the hard work of North Macedonia’s vibrant civil society.

– Our community knows what it feels like to be oppressed, discriminated against, excluded, and denied access to fundamental rights. We can easily empathize and connect with groups that experience similar issues, and we are also not immune to the poverty, unemployment, corruption, and inequality that pervade our societies, Antonio says.

This became very clear in 2015, when masses gathered in the streets to overthrow the power mongering prime minister Nikola Gruevski, in what has become known as “the colorful revolution”. The LGBTI community was the forefront of the revolution, as we have seen in revolutions and protests across Europe as well. And the movement grew stronger.

A test on what they could handle came in May last year, when the discrimination law that included protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation was repealed, leaving LGBTI persons in the country without this crucial protection. Activists were furious.

– The message the authorities sent with this action was that our lives were irrelevant, says Antonio.

– But we reacted with unity and force, together with other marginalized groups. We told the authorities that ‘we have no political power, we have no money, we cannot bring you votes in the election, but this should not be a precondition for you to provide us with a dignified life’.

And by the end of 2020, there was a new law in place – and this time it is there to stay. Because breaking the silence, speaking up – it can change everything.

Solidarity is an important principle for fighting opression. Not only on national level, but also in the region – even across political conflict, like the stalemate between Greece and North Macedonia over the name “Macedonia”. – I will always remember the moment when my Greek friend and fellow activist from Thessaloniki Pride made a warm and supportive speech in his nearly perfect Macedonian language at the stage of the first Skopje Pride in 2019, says Antonio. Photo: private

Do you want to know more?

The Day of Silence that is used to spread awareness about bullying and its effects on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. It was originally created in the US in te 1990s but participation quickly spread to over 100 colleges and universities in its first year. Today, almost 10,000 schools participate in The Day of Silence in the US – and the day is gradually gaining attention across the globe.

If you want to know more, you can visit the site of the main organizer GLSEN. If you want to know more about homophobic and transphobic bullying in Norway, you can contact the Mobbeombud in your county, find a Queer students Union in your university, check out iChatten, or some of the Norwegian LGBTI organizations Foreningen FRI, Queer Youth, PKI, Queer World, and Salam Norge.

For more information about Over the Rainbow, please contact:

Employee

Mina Wikshåland Skouen

SeniorrådgiverEmail: [email protected]Phone: +47 90 82 50 76
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