Founded in 2011, Optimist is a bi-monthly publication in Belgrade, Serbia that aims to provide positive visibility and awareness of the LGBTI community. I spoke with founder Predrag Azdejkovic to learn more about how the magazine came to be and what it means for the LGBTI community in Serbia.
How did you become involved in LGBTI activism?
I started my journey as an LGBTI activist in 2000 as a member of Social Democratic Youth [the youth section of the Social Democratic Union, which has since merged into the Party of the Radical Left] where we created a group called Queeria — this was the first LGBTI group inside a political organization.
As very young and inexperienced activists, we wanted to change the world overnight — we wanted it all, and we wanted it now. Slobodan Milosevic’s regime had fallen in 2000 and we thought that now was the time for change! We sent a public statement to the press in which we asked for the legalization of same-sex marriage. This was huge news because the statement was given by a queer working group of a political party that was a part of a new democratic government. That aspect was used as a weapon by the former regime to mark the new government as gay, and in a homophobic society, that wasn’t something you wanted. We caused a lot of noise, media attention, and a lot of problems. After several months, everything came to an end when a group of Nazi hooligans attacked our premises in Belgrade. After that, same-sex marriages were banned by the Constitution. We learned a lot about Serbian society and our political system, and that if you want to achieve change, you need political power.
We were faced with internal and external homophobia, violence, threats, and many obstacles, but I’ve never regretted my choice to be involved in LGBTI activism in Serbia. I think that we have done a lot over the last 20 years.
What led you to create Optimist?
In 2000, Serbia got its first gay magazine — Dečko, or Boyfriend. For that time, it was revolutionary, because you could buy a gay magazine on the newsstand. Unfortunately, after three years, Dečko was canceled. In June 2011, the first issue of Optimist was printed as a homage to Dečko. But, unlike Dečko, Optimist is free and can be found in gay clubs and cafes, cultural centers, and human rights organizations.
What sort of articles do you feature in Optimist?
Optimist is divided into two segments: serious and fun. In the serious segment, we feature analytical text about LGBTI rights, politics, and society and interviews with activists — and in the fun segment, text about films, books, TV shows, theater, fashion, etc.
The magazine’s editorial board consists of 15 locally hired writers. Every second month we prepare a new issue, and most of our content is about local issues, such as interviews with Serbian activists, artists, politicians, or reviews of queer —Serbian — books or books translated into Serbian, queer films that are available in Serbia, theater plays, festivals.
What is it like to be LGBTI in Serbia?
Currently, we are in the process of legalizing same-sex partnerships in Serbia, but that process is facing a lot of obstacles. We are still building political support for the law, and we have the situation where the LGBTI population is, let’s say, ambivalent. They want to have the law, but not to do anything to get it. Also, the EU and EU member state representatives are not supporting us enough in this process. Hopefully, we will get a same-sex partnership law soon. The situation regarding LGBTI rights is getting better, but it’s too slow, and LGBTI people have bigger problems than homophobia — poverty and unemployment. I hope with a better economic situation, LGBTI rights will progress.
What sort of changes have you seen since you first started publishing Optimist?
In 2010, we had our first Pride parade in Belgrade, but there was also a huge anti-LGBTI protest with a lot of violence. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Pride parades were banned. Now, we have a normal situation regarding the Pride parade in Belgrade — if we don’t take the COVID-19 pandemic into account. Also, the International Queer Film Festival Merlinka has been organized without any problems since 2009, and it’s getting bigger and bigger — some say it’s now a mainstream festival. I also see a huge difference in the young generations, which are much braver than my generation was. I see many out and proud young people, high school students, and young activists that have the enthusiasm we older activists have lost, and I hope a new leader of the LGBTI movement will emerge.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected Optimist?
The Covid-19 pandemic affected the magazine a lot. One issue wasn’t published because all the places where Optimist is distributed were closed, and our print circulation has been halved because many LGBT clubs and cafes still aren’t open. I hope this will change soon.
What is the media landscape like in Serbia regarding LGBTI content?
We can say that TV stations are ignoring LGBTI issues in their news programs, but the LGBTI population is visible in entertainment segments, like film, TV shows, and reality programs. Print media is covering LGBTI issues, but more on foreign issues than domestic. But online media is great, and they cover everything. However, there is a gap in the analytical text about the LGBTI community and Optimist is filling that gap.
Optimist was printed to illustrate how important it is to have a gay magazine in a homophobic society. Many say that print media is dead. Maybe that is true, but having a paper version of a gay magazine that is available in “straight” places, such as cultural centers, gives much-needed positive visibility. And having it in gay places where LGBTI people are coming only to have fun, a gay magazine with political and cultural content gives an opportunity to the community to widen their horizons, to learn and create a positive image about themselves. Internalized homophobia is a huge problem in Serbia, and we hope that Optimist is helping reduce that problem.
What has been the response to Optimist, both within the LGBTI community and in Serbia as a whole?
We have constant online readership and circulation, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but around 7,000 per issue. We are collaborating with B92.net, Serbia’s biggest news website, and they are publishing texts from Optimist in exchange for free promotion. However, it’s interesting that after ten years, Optimist magazine still can’t find advertisers in the time that every other international company is so-called LGBTI-friendly and celebrates Pride month.
How can readers support you?
Our readers can support us if they continue to read Optimist, send us ideas and proposals for new texts, and subscribe to our magazine.
Is there anything you wish to add?
In my wildest dreams I didn’t hope that we would celebrate our 10th anniversary, so I’m very happy about that.