There Is Freedom
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
| This is the 370th story of Our Life Logs |
Growing up, I always felt that I was a bit different. I was fascinated by other girls—their outfits, their beauty, their spirit all intrigued me. But at first, I thought that was common. It was not until a few years later that I realized what I felt was more than just fascination.
I was born in 1995, in rainy but beautiful Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Even though I looked and sounded like a Dutch girl, I was the child of Serbian immigrants. I had an amazing and diverse childhood in the Netherlands, an open and accepting country. But all of that changed in 2006.
That year, my parents decided it would be better for us as a family to move back to Serbia. All of a sudden, there I was, in a small town in Serbia, fully experiencing cultural shock at the age of 11. I’d always had a hard time fitting in and finding friends, but back in the Netherlands, it seemed a lot easier. Here in the new country, I was picked on a lot, simply because I was different from the other kids. They didn’t like it when someone was different.
As I was trying to grasp the Serbian language, I noticed that a word was being thrown around and all I knew was that it meant something really, really bad. When I asked what that word exactly meant, they told me, “Oh, that means gay.” I was confused. Why was that a bad thing? How was that an insult? “Because that’s an illness and gay people shouldn’t exist.”
Oh. My heart sunk. I felt like I’d swallowed a bunch of needles, because I knew for sure I was kind of crushing on a girl at the time. What was I to do? I pushed every feeling for girls down for a long time. I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to fit in. I pushed it down, until it couldn’t go down any further.
When I was 13, I had my first experience with a girl. At that point, I knew I couldn’t run from the fact that I wasn’t straight anymore. She kissed me, and it was the first time that I let myself go. I never felt butterflies in my stomach that strong. I was happy about it, but then I got extremely scared. “This is not good,” I thought to myself.
At that time, LGBT+ people were rarely mentioned. The only time they did get mentioned, in public or in media, was to talk about how it was an illness and wrong. I internalized these feelings and was scared of the consequences. But, I had to tell someone. Someone who I knew I could say anything to, and that was my brother. His reaction was great. He became my little beacon of hope that I might not be sick and wrong after all.
In 2010, there was a Pride Parade in Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia. When I first heard about it, I was ecstatic and thought that maybe it meant the nation’s mentality about LGBT+ was changing. However, this wasn’t the case. People who joined the Pride Parade were brutally beaten, blood was shed. Once again, I was crushed. My hatred towards myself was only growing stronger, and I had a hard time accepting that I would have to live in fear if I wanted to truly be myself.
The fall after the Pride Parade, I enrolled in high school, and things seemed to change for better. There were a lot of kids from the city, who had a more open understanding about everything, including LGBT+. I also met other LGBT+ teenagers. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t a freak.
That same year, when I was 15, I had my first official girlfriend. She gave me the courage to come out to more people and I was over the moon. My friends liked me for who I was and didn’t care what gender the person I loved was. We formed a little group of queer kids where I felt very accepted. I had long hair and was a girly girl, considered a “femme lesbian.”
Unfortunately, just when I thought that I finally belonged somewhere, I received some weird comments online. They said I “don’t look like a lesbian.” I wasn’t 100 percent sure about my identity yet at the time, so when I heard that, I took it to heart. I tried to fit in the lesbian stereotype—I cut my hair short and started wearing baggy clothing.
My parents soon realized that something was off. They found out through my blog that I liked girls. So, instead of me coming out to them, I was dragged out of the closet. Both of them had a bad reaction, especially my dad. They punished me for being gay. For a couple of months, I was not allowed to go anywhere and had to lie a lot in order to see my girlfriend, who was in a different city.
We lived in a small, homophobic town in Serbia. Although people in my high school accepted me pretty well, word spreads fast and people started talking. Soon, the real problem came.
One day, I went to a store, and there were a few guys in there. I knew them from primary school—they were older than me and had bullied me before. They started yelling things such as, “Filthy lesbian!” I ignored them. As I finished buying stuff and walked out, I saw that there were more of them in front of the store, also commenting on my sexuality. I kept my head down and walked as fast as I could.
All of a sudden, I heard running steps behind me. As I turned around, I saw they were coming towards me. A couple of them were carrying bricks. They yelled that they would do all kinds of horrid things to a dead lesbian and they would film it. Luckily, I was always very athletic and I ran as fast as I could and got away.
But the fear lingered in my heart.
I deeply, deeply hated myself for liking girls. I felt like I had to hide anything that might give away the fact that I wasn’t straight. I started to exclude my parents from my personal life as much as I could. Even though I did come out to them, they took it as a “phase I would grow out of.” I was worried what my dad might do to me when he would find out that I wasn’t going to “become straight.” So, I hid all my feelings.
I struggled with my own identity, I struggled with lying all the time, and I struggled with depression. All the thoughts that I had about myself and about my life broke me. Day in, day out. I became suicidal, lost in a cycle of self-hatred. In a way, I couldn’t forgive myself for “not being normal.” I lost some dear friends because of my sexuality and that really hurt. I had to tell myself over and over again that those people who didn’t react well were never my true friends to begin with. Yet, it was still a hard pill to swallow. I started to believe that I would live a very lonely and secretive life for being a lesbian.
Over time, my mom became a bit more accepting. She would help me lie to my dad when I’d go to see my girlfriend. She would figure out ways to “cover” for me, because she was scared that my relationship with my dad would totally break. Still, I felt suffocated. I wanted to get away. I would lash out and do crazy things in the hope that my parents would kick me out of the house and possibly even disown me, so I didn’t have to worry about their feelings anymore.
I was only 16 at the time, so living alone wasn’t possible. My only way out was to join a student exchange program. I applied to them all. I did the English tests, I went on the interviews, I did everything in my power to get a scholarship—all because I wanted to leave for a more accepting environment.
During all of this, my depression was getting worse and I had this crazy urge to punish myself for being “abnormal.” I would hurt myself regularly and even tried to kill myself a couple of times. My mental health was down in the gutter and I didn’t know what to do anymore.
Then, I got a phone call from one of the organizations I had applied to. I was one of the 60 students out of thousands to receive a full scholarship to study for one year in the US. I was beyond happy.
The program placed me in a small city in Iowa in 2011. Thankfully, I had the most amazing host parents I could ever ask for. My host mom took me to a lesbian wedding—I’d never attended one before. I think it was her way of saying that it was okay for me to come out to her. When I did come out to her, she had the reaction I wished my parents had. She told me that she cared about me no matter what. At one point, we both started crying, and we hugged. I will never forget that moment.
In the new country, I also met a lot of people who didn’t care about my sexual orientation at all, which was a super refreshing experience. Not having to hide and worry all the time was truly amazing. That was a wonderful year.
The program was soon over, and I had to return home. But I was changed. I was more confident in myself and I didn’t want to live in fear anymore. I had great friends who loved and supported me, but I’d been always so afraid to tell them how much I was struggling. And now, I was no longer afraid. The moment I started talking to them about my feelings, my fears started disappearing. It was liberating.
Meanwhile, the situation in Serbia was slowly changing. There were more gay clubs and LGBT+ friendly places. LGBT+ became less of a taboo to talk about (even though for many, it still is). Being a “freak” didn’t feel so lonely anymore. I started growing my hair out, and slowly started accepting my identity as a whole. As the years went by, my parents also grew more accepting. What a blessing!
“It gets better” is something you hear a lot in the LGBT+ community. I never truly believed it. But, after eight years of struggling and fighting for my identity, I’ve found it to be true. I have finally made a huge step forward—I’ve accepted myself, my friends love me for who I am, and now my parents do too. I wish that I could tell my 15-year-old self that everything truly would be okay and that there was nothing wrong with me. There is freedom in loving and accepting yourself.
This is the story of Vanja Zivkovic
Vanja currently resides in Serbia where she lives confidently and openly as a lesbian. Born in the Netherlands, Vanja grew up in an accepting environment until she was 11 when her family moved back to Serbia, where her parents originally came from. In a homophobic environment, she struggled with accepting her own identity for years. Thanks to a scholarship she won, Vanja got a chance to study in the US for a year where she found the courage to accept herself, completely come out and live happier despite the prejudices. Vanja is currently a writer and astrologer, studying sociology. She loves animals, doing creative things and watching good movies. She hopes that sharing her story will help others who are going through the same struggles. Vanja is also planning to do things in the future to help out the LGBT+ and other discriminated youth.
This story first touched our hearts on March 18, 2019.
| Writer: Vanja Zivkovic | Editor: Adam Savage |
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