Asocijacija Spektra is the only trans-led organisation in Montenegro, which was founded in March 2017 and registered in July 2017. We are working on the promotion and protection of human rights of transgender, gender diverse and intersex (TIGV) people. Community we are serving includes TIGV people of various genders (trans men, trans women, non-binary, gender diverse, agender people), as well as TIGV people of various experiences (sex workers, migrants, asylum seekers, people living with HIV, people using drugs, people from rural areas and from cities, people with different educational background and without education, young people). Vision of Spektra is a society where all persons enjoy equal rights and treatment, where all identities and bodies are respected and all of our differences celebrated. Mission of Spektra is to eradicate gender-based violence in Montenegro through the creation of a strong, visible movement, advocacy, education and active involvement of trans, gender-diverse and intersex persons in the creation and implementation of policies that ensure equality and respect for diversity. Our values include: pacifism, self-determination, intersectionality, respect of identities and experiences, transparency, teamwork and culture of dialogue, critical approach and integrity.
- Social services and community building: self-support group, peer to peer consultations, support to victims of violence, empowerment and capacity building workshops, community events. One of our biggest accomplishments is a constantly growing diverse TIGV community. During 2019 we have reached out to 57 people, which is an indicator of a growing trans community, in comparison to 2018, when we reached out to 40 TG people, and 2017 when we provided services for 28 trans people, in 2016, when we gathered 10 people as an informal group, and only 2 people in 2013, when self-support group was founded within Queer Montenegro.
- Access to healthcare: facilitating access to educated health care providers, HIV prevention and support to trans people living with HIV/AIDS, advocating for adequate trans and intersex specific healthcare. Through this program we are advocating for depatologising trans and intersex-specific health care, banning of intersex surgeries, and development of informed consent and individual-based model of healthcare. We supported the forming of a medical team in the Clinical Centre which is focused on trans health, educating them to provide care and services based on an informative consent model and cooperating by providing them tools for affirmative approach to TIGV people.
- Raising visibility: storytelling, interviews, public discussions, social media educative videos, street performances, exhibitions. Since our foundation, we have increased visibility of transgender and gender diverse persons in a significant degree. Once only pathologising portrayal of TIGV people, through visibility, campaigns and storytelling transformed to empowering narrative. In Montenegro, since foundation of Spektra, more than 10 TIGV persons of various identities and backgrounds shared their personal stories and raised issues of sterilisation, discrimination and violence, lack of protection in education, as well as sent many empowering messages. Some of the most important campaigns include: “Because I exist”, “The bell for violence has rang”, “Here, where I am”, “Meet trans persons”, “Who will know us”, “Only lives tell tales” and many others.
- Advocacy for legal gender recognition based on self-determination, depathologisation and body integrity: presented draft of the Law on gender identity. In cooperation with Queer Montenegro and NGO Juventas, we are leading a discussion about legal gender recognition with institutions and we are going to be a part of working group for the creation of the Law on gender identity, which according to new National LGBTI Strategy needs to be adopted by 2023 and needs to be in line with international standards.
- Education: for medical practitioners, psychologists, police officers, social workers, students, CSOs, teachers, local municipalities. We have conducted a first research on discrimination of trans and gender diverse students in high schools of Montenegro. With that, we managed to establish communication with Ministry of education and many high schools. We have started addressing access to education for trans people and building capacities of schools to create safe spaces for TIGV students. We have conducted workshops for students and teachers, and we are planning to work on anti-discrimination policies in high schools.
- Art: empowering TIGV artists, questioning and deconstructing gender, sex and sexuality trough art. We believe in the transformative power of art, so we use it in raising our visibility, but also, primarily to challenge and overcome norms. We have organised several exhibitions of photographs of trans and gender diverse people (“When it dawns”, “Transbalkan”, “Roles”, “Visible”). We have also organised first trans performance in Western Balkans region, called “Masks” to mark TDoR 2018 in Podgorica, and in 2019 in Kolašin (northern town – this was the first trans gathering outside of capital) and that event has been organised afterwards by trans groups in Croatia and Belgrade, and in that way we have started the usage of live performances by trans people in the whole region for their activism. We have organised a performance “331 reason”, to mark TDoR 2019 which was supported by many human rights defenders and people from the general community.
- Contributing to the broader social justice movement. In our work we are collaborating with many human rights movements. We are strongly connected with the feminist movement in our country, and in 2019, we were a part of 8th March program organised by feminist organisations. We are also collaborating with the movement of people with disabilities and Roma people. Regionally we are cooperating with all trans organisations and many LGBTI organisations. We are also cooperating with some people from the academic community.
In what ways have young LGBTQI people in your community been affected by the COVID-19 emergency and the lockdowns?
The estimation given by the International Monetary Fund is that the Montenegrin economy will be in recession to up to 9% and severely hit by the economic crisis, the touristic season (the majority of our economy is tourism dependent) is already a failure as it has been expected that the crisis measures put in place will last until the end of summer or even in autumn. Obligatory safety regulations, all citizens have to comply with, severely affected LGBTI organisations and primarily communities we are working with. Challenges that our communities encountered soon became painfully vivid: loss of jobs, therefore the inability to maintain economic independence as one of the prerogatives for keeping away from homo/transphobic environments they fled in the first place, increased risk of homelessness, mental health endangered or worsening due to social isolation and no contact with the loved ones, increased risk of contracting corona virus due to other autoimmune related diseases and conditions such as HIV, as well as increased risk of domestic violence incidence rise. Although lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender social attitudes have changed in recent years (positive trends have been observed in 2019, clearly indicating a causal link to efforts to combat homophobia and transphobia thus suggesting a reduction of these negative phenomena), LGBTIQ people continue to live with discrimination and exclusion on both individual as well as institutional level. This is particularly fact for transgender, gender diverse, intersex people and LBQ women, who are still experiencing the most severe discrimination, violence and exclusion. Given the stress experienced and survived due to existing stigma, inequality and harassment, LGBTIQ people are at risk of deteriorating mental health.
A survey launched by NGO Juventas in September 2019 among LBTQ women in Montenegro reported that only this part of the community is ten times more at risk of anxiety and depression than the general population of women in our country. Such results of this and similar research are interpreted in the context of minority stress experienced by LGBTI persons, that is, unique chronic stress position that is a characteristic of those who do not fit into generally accepted societal standards such as heteronormativity. A large number of participants in this study clearly recognised violence, homophobia / transphobia, discrimination and stigmatisation of the LGBTIQ persons, in a patriarchal and conservative social settings like ours. They also identify consequent internalised homophobia / transphobia as important factors in forming bad self-images. Exactly these experiences of chronic stress, lack of social supports, as well as the perception and internalisation of negative social attitudes are key risk factors in the significantly risen prevalence of psychological issues, which further lead to socio-economic exclusion, which is predicted to become more severe due to COVID-19 crisis. Impact of COVID-19 crisis on the TIGV community in Montenegro includes amplification of challenges and difficulties this community is facing on an everyday basis. Many trans people who are working on a black market, have lost their jobs, leaving them without any sources of income, therefore facing the risk from homelessness, famine and extreme poverty.
Trans sex workers are either not being able to work or they are risking their health and safety while working in order to provide income necessary for survival. All trans people who are using our services are living in rented apartments which are not registered, making them more vulnerable to expelling and harassment by their landlords. Many of transgender people are now isolated with their families, facing potential increased family violence. Access to hormone treatment for trans women is impossible, since it is not available in Montenegro, and cannot be imported due to closed borders, which is also impacting the health of trans women. Some of transgender people have been forced to delay their surgeries, which is negatively impacting their gender dysphoria, and access to their doctors is also impossible for regular check ups and addressing potential health problems during transition.
Access to mental health professionals is very limited, therefore many trans people are receiving mental support through online social services of Asocijacija Spektra – online peer support and online self-support group. At the moment, all available resources are focusing on fighting the pandemic. Second wave which is at this moment hitting in Montenegro is faster and stronger than the first one. Unfortunately, in that particular process the government of Montenegro does not take into account the difficulties that certain groups of citizens face, which even in better times have a disadvantaged position in comparison to the general community. Therefore, we strive to fill the gaps we have in the system that are visible now more than ever.
Are there specific ways in which you have supported the community that you would like to highlight and/or share with other European organisations?
Since the beginning of COVID-19 crisis, Spektra has provided support in covering rent and utility bills for 6 transgender and gender diverse people. Access to mental health professionals was very limited, therefore many trans people are receiving mental support through online social services of Asocijacija Spektra – online peer support and online self-support group. Through online consultations, peer support was provided for 25 transgender, gender diverse and intersex (TIGV) people (on 258 occasions) and has organised 12 self-support groups every week for 18 transgender, gender diverse and intersex people. Access to mental health professionals was provided for 4 TIGV people.
What can governments, (national and international) authorities and institutions do more to support the communities you serve throughout this crisis?
We believe that they all should invest in strengthening their capacities to provide efficient and effective support to the community through creating and upgrading services that will serve to adequately address the specific needs of our communities. Also, we believe that in order to better support the work of NGOs working directly with the communities they need to make sure that they provide more flexible, core funding that is less oriented toward their needs and more toward the needs of the community. This funding should be easily accessed and managed, with less paperwork and more space for NGO workers to focus their efforts toward their goals.
There are reasons to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be a part of our lives for 1-3 years. In what way do you think that prolonged lockdowns and/or other preventive measures will impact your work and LGBTQI+ youth in your country?
For us right now the biggest obstacle is securing funding for the continuation of our work. There are a few things that are generally obstructing this process for us. One of the things is that we are a national NGO operating in a small country with what is perceived to be a small target group. This presents us with the issue of often being seen as not equally important as bigger NGOs, working with a broader target group and/or on the international level. Another issue we face in this field is the fact that Montenegro is an EU accessing country, which often leads non-EU funders to believe that we have easy access to EU funding, which is not only hard to get, but also very challenging to maintain and manage. Adding to this is the highly uncertain political landscape that we are living in. This summer Montenegro faced a change in respect to the parliament majority that is now held by a right-winged political coalition, who has already started making major changes in the list of government’s priorities. One of these changes being the abolition of the Ministry of Human and Minority rights, which indicates that human rights may not be prioritised in the following four years. All of this combined with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic will most definitely be one of the biggest challenges we face in the near future. There is a long list of challenges for our communities that will be a result of the pandemic. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the more specific the needs of a community the less lightly are they to be addressed on an institutional level, as the government tries to rectify the damage done by the pandemic and preventive measures it focuses mostly, almost exclusively, on majority issues. This will yet again leave the community vulnerable and exposed to hardship, as we have already mentioned in previous answers, in respect to mental health, economic survival and/or independence, job security, access to healthcare and security form violence. All of these issues will be some of the biggest challenges that will be amplified and multiplied by the pandemic and it’s varies consequences.