Antonij's story

Stop being afraid. Life is much better on the other side

Gay from a small town in Macedonia - about how to use "artivism" to talk about the difficulties LGBT people face in the Balkan countries

My name is Antonij Karadzoski, I come from Prilep, Macedonia, and I am gay. When I was 21, I was walking down the street in my hometown, and a group of young people started screaming "Queer!", "Faggot!". They threw a glass bottle at me, trying to run me over with a car.

I started running and hid inside a building. Then I started laughing. I couldn't believe how messed up society is… And it was at that precise moment that something clicked in my head. I knew that I was done, I couldn't stay here anymore. I would rather struggle somewhere else, where at least I could be safer than here. Couple of months later I left and my journey started. I made a bold decision, I packed myself and I left. It was the saddest, most difficult and scariest decision that I made, but looking back now, it was the right one.
Gay (homosexual)
a homosexual man who is experiencing sexual, erotic, romantic or/and emotional attraction to the members of his sex or/and gender
Gay (homosexual)
a homosexual man who is experiencing sexual, erotic, romantic or/and emotional attraction to the members of his sex or/and gender
Faggot
a derogatory name for a gay man, used mostly in the United States and often abbreviated to fag
TRUSTING MY INSTINCTS
I had my first crush when I was 13, it was the first time I felt attracted to the same sex
At same time, it felt right… and it felt wrong, because of society. Especially when growing up in a conservative society, where these feelings weren't accepted, and I thought that something was wrong with me. I felt I had an illness – that is how many people in the Balkans still describe homosexuality. But I didn't want to ignore this feeling and I knew that the boy that I liked felt the same about me. And that led to my first kiss with a boy.

However, not ignoring this feeling also led to me being attacked and sexually harassed, when I lived in Prilep. Threats came from my peers - people with whom I went to school, with whom I lived in the same district.
Coming out
a process of open and voluntary disclosure by a person of own sexual orientation or gender identity and/or the result of it. The expression comes from the well-established English-language expression "coming out", which in its turn comes from "coming out of the closet" (literally "to come out of the closet", the meaning is "get out of the dark, to open"). Possible spellings: coming-out, coming out.
It made me constantly had to hide. I was dating girls and I was trying to fit into the heteronormative society. But deep down I was dying
Heteronormativity
the belief that heterosexuality, predicated on the gender binary, is the norm or default sexual orientation. It assumes that sexual and marital relations are most fitting between people of opposite sex
I was extremely unhappy, depressed, hurting myself… even attempted suicide. I was hiding it extremely well though, so nobody knew was happening with me. But regardless of what society said, I never gave up on this feeling. Trusting my instincts made me much stronger and pushed me to become what I am today.

The coming out was a long and extremely difficult journey.

I came out for the first time when I was 18, when I moved to Skopje to study architecture. I met a girl, which now is my best friend. One night we were having drinks, and she just bluntly asked me if I was gay. I was sweating like crazy, started muttering…. And just blurted out YES, and started crying. That was the first time that I accepted myself for who I am. After that, slowly I started telling my friends, and they accepted me without a problem. Taking down the mask was the best feeling ever, not having to pretend anymore. Life in Skopje was looking good, I started meeting other people from the LGBTIQ community. I had my first love, and started opening up more and more, and to accept myself.

My brother was the first person from my family who got to know who I really am. He was and still is a big support in my life, along with my mother. We talked about my life for the first time when she came to visit me in Amsterdam in 2017. She told me that she knew, and that she understood why I had to leave, that if I had stayed in Macedonia, I would never had a good life. She saw how happy I was in Amsterdam, and that I can be who I really am without anyone judging me. My mom is extremely proud and my biggest support ever. Years back, I never thought I would have this kind of relationship with her, that one day I could openly talk to her about my relationships and hear her advice. Before all of this, I always felt that coming out to my family would be terrifying… I thought that I will be rejected, that they would try to "cure" me, or that I would be an embarrassment for the family. In the end, it turned out to be completely opposite, and I couldn't be more grateful for it.

I do miss my previous life sometimes, especially my family and friends. It's hard not to be surrounded by the people that know you the most, and the people that saw you grow up. But I know that they support me a lot and they are always there for me no matter what. I want to live my life to the fullest and help people the best way I know how, and in order to do that, I have to be in a place where I can be my true self and be the best version of myself.
LGBT (LGBT+, LGBTIQ, LGBTIQ, LGBTQIA)
The abbreviation "LGBT" stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender". The term "LGBT +" is now considered more correct, because it includes by default all possible orientations and identities that cannot be covered by one abbreviation. Also there are abbreviations LGBTI, LGBTIQ, LGBTQIA, where I is intersex people, Q is queer, A is asexuals.
THE LONG JOURNEY TO SELF-DISCOVERY
My first destination outside Macedonia was Slovenia, where I moved in 2015
My integration there went quite smooth and good. I got involved with the LGBT organization Drushtvo Parada Ponosa, which helped me to exhibit my first activism campaign. Thanks to them I got to know a lot of people in Ljubljana. But after a couple of months living there, I started to feel that maybe this isn't the right place for me. At the beginning it was thrilling, living in a new city, experiencing a new culture... but something was off.
Društvo Parada Ponosa (Ljubljana, Slovenia)
The Purpose of the Pride Parade Association is to contribute to the establishment of a society that will be non-discriminatory, inclusive and open to all individuals, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity or any other personal circumstance. It was established with the aim of safeguard the human rights and interests of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) population. The association acts as a youth, voluntary, independent and non-profit civil society organization.
In my mind, however, I was thinking that this is my new home and that I need to make the most of it. Shortly after, I went to a training course in Athens, organized by Stichting art.1 - the organization where I am working now. In Athens I met people form the organization, I presented my work (it is about the project "Culture of humiliation", which will be discussed below - Ed.), and they were amazed by it! Then, they asked me to exhibit it during the International Queer& Migrant Film Festival in Amsterdam. I got invited to stay there only for a month, but the moment I set foot in Amsterdam I had the feeling that I am home. I had never intended to live in Amsterdam, but seeing the culture and the people, it just felt right! The city has this feeling of freedom, people just mind their own business and there is no judgment or prejudice.
Stichting art.1 (Foundation art.1) (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
is inspired by the first article of the Dutch Constitution, stating that no one shall be discriminated on grounds of religions, race, political or sexual preference or any other standards and this foundation lays the base for our current projects and films. Therefore, the name art.1 refers to Article 1 of the Constitution as well as to art: the organization initiates projects about taboo subjects by using art as a form of expression. The foundation consists of three people and several young people who work for the organization on a freelance basis as well as several volunteers.
I got addicted to this feeling, which was quite new for me. Coming from a conservative country like Macedonia, you feel that every step you make is being watched and that you are constantly judged by people you don't even know
In Macedonia, we live for the opinions of others and not for ourselves. People tell you what they want you to be, and in Amsterdam, there simply isn't such a thing. But, it's still a bit tough to integrate in the Netherlands. It has its challenges, especially with work. Western Europe differs from the Balkans not only in its mentality, but also in its work ethic and work methods. And it takes some time to get used to how Western society functions.

The biggest challenge that I face at work is that I always go into it with my emotions and heart, and not with my head, I relied more on improvisation. And people in the Netherlands tend to think rationally and go with logic, which sometimes is unacceptable for me. But on the other hand, it also helped me achieve the greatest results and made me who I am.
ART AS A HEALER
I studied architecture in Skopje and I still love it very much. But life took a different turn
I never expected to become a human rights activist and artivist, but going through a lot of difficult experiences, that is precisely what happened. And now, meeting people who went through the same and even worse experiences in life, I cannot see myself not being of help to others. Doing what I do now, I see myself growing more in this field. It keeps me going in my life. And I am happy when I make someone else happy, especially people who are going through a terrible time. Just being there for them and listening sometimes is more than enough. I never had that growing up. It is a difficult job, and an extremely emotional one... Looking into the future, I see myself being a Good Will Ambassador. At the moment, I am working with LGBT refugees in the Netherlands, the LGBT community in Azerbaijan and the Balkan region. But I want to grow more and more, and to expand my knowledge.
Almost all of my projects are connected to "artivism". Back in 2015, it was a relatively new term that I learned by one of the most famous artivists in the world right now - a dear friend and my inspiration Daniel Arzola. When I saw his artivism campaign I am not a Joke I immediately felt a strong connection to it.

He also experienced brutal homophobia in Venezuela. It happened in his hometown of Maracay. Daniel was only 15 years old. People tied him to an electric pole, took off his shoes and pants, burned him with cigarettes, destroyed his drawings, and threatened to set him on fire. The reason for the bullying was the sexual orientation of a teenager. The trauma that Arzola suffered from that attack made him stop creating art for six years. And the way he managed to heal from that horrible experience through artivism, was extremely inspiring.

The main difference between an activist and an artivist is that art is used as a non-violent method for breaking down stereotypes and discrimination, usually in repressed societies. Anyone can relate to it, and it is one of the few things that can really bring people together.
Homophobia
irrational fear of homosexual thoughts, feelings, behavior and people, hostility towards homosexual people. Lesbian-, trans-, and biphobia are defined in the same way
Daniel Arzola
a 29-year-old Venezuelan artist and activist, utilizing art to debunk stereotypes about and raise awareness of important issues in the LGBTQ community through his art project, No Soy Tu Chiste (or in English, I'm Not A Joke). He created the first viral campaign against homophobia in Venezuela and the 50 posters he created for the initiative were translated into 20 different languages. The series features striking and evocative illustrations combined with powerful and resonant messages that address complex issues like gender identity, abuse, civil rights and discrimination.
I am not a Joke
one of the project posters
Art is a universal force. It is a tool that can take limited resources and create something evocative and powerful. It can influence and inspire change
It is something that can cut through political and cultural divides and it is one of the greatest ways to express the human parts of ourselves.

My new project is called "Youth Artivists for Change", and it focuses on the participation of youth in art related projects on the topics of Human Rights/LGBT rights and gender equality in four countries in the region: Macedonia, Serbia, Albania and Kosovo. Seventeen organizations from the region are working on the project, together with young artists and activists from the region, providing training to them for using stortelling, radio-podcast, film-making in the new safe art spaces that we created as part of the project. We are teaching them to express themselves in a non violent method, to share their stories out there and to make a difference in the societies they live in. I cannot express how happy and grateful I am to be back here and bring something that I have learned in these past years. I am happy that I can do something from all of these experiences, and that I am finally in the position to give something back to a region that is still dealing with huge struggles in its societies.
CULTURE OF HUMILIATION
When I created the "Culture of humiliation" campaign, I never imagined what an impact it would make
Creating this campaign was a way to express myself and heal from the past, and the traumas. As I working on it, I felt more and more relieved, it was so beautiful to say the things I was longing to say, but through art. It wasn't just about being heard, it was about helping others. Sharing my story, I wanted to show to others that were going through the same thing or even worse, that they are not alone. That there is a silver lining and that there are better days ahead. I believe that I am a living proof of that.

The impact of this campaign not only saved and changed my life, but it achieved a lot more. Its continuation was a series of seminars aimed at preventing bullying and cyberbullying among high school kids and young people in youth settings. They are held in schools and youth centers in Slovenia by the LGBT organization "Drustvo Parada ponosa". Сhildren are thought about the effect of bullying and cyber-bullying. The campaign is also a testament of what artivism can achieve.
Culture of Humiliation campaign
the project consists of two parts: online campaigns and exhibitions, accompanied by interactive workshops. The main goal of the project is to raise awareness about the causes and consequences of peer violence online and offline, experienced by young people because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. The offline part of the project consists of poster art exhibitions and interactive workshops in high schools and youth centers. The art works that are exhibited are works of young artists who use art to share their own experiences of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Culture of Humiliation
one of the project works
To the LGBT community, I wish to say: accept who you truly are, and believe in yourself, regardless of what society says. Stop being afraid... I know it sounds impossible, but I went through the same myself, and promise you that life is so much better on the other side. I know it sounds a bit cliche, but everything starts with you. It took me years to understand that, but when you are your true self, no one can do anything to you. You will be stronger than ever before.

To the straight community, I wish to say that it is of extreme importance to start educating yourselves on this topic. Stop being afraid and open up more. Start coming to events organized by the community, and understand more about the lives of LGBT people.
Text and translation into English: Bojan Stojkovski. Photo: Philip Nedelkovski. Editing: Anastasiia Sechina. Illustration: Natalia Makarikhina. Translation into Russian: Irina Galina.
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