Family Honor in the Balkans | A Tale of Self-Love and Emancipation

Growing up in Balkan society means putting family honor first. Many of us are taught from an early age to live according to the will of our parents. No consideration is given to us as independent people with needs, desires and longings of our own. No. 

Mostly your longing has to look like this: Having a partner (of the opposite sex!), at least two children (if not more) and a house with a white fence. And preferably, you should have already accomplished that in your early twenties. Otherwise, Aunt Branka will be deeply saddened that you are not living the life that was laid out for you. And you don’t want to hurt anyone, right? 

Thus, many grow up thinking that what others think about you is the most important thing. Not playing by the rules could tarnish the family honor. Which after all, is more important than one’s own well-being. 

One could argue that almost all people in the Balkans experience something like a collective trauma, passed on from generation to generation, that leads to unhappy relationships because we have not learned to disclose our feelings. Conservative ways of thinking just stubbornly persist, and they send out waves far beyond that, bringing consequences for society as a whole. 

And now imagine, in such conservative circles, where some of us are required not to be ourselves, to feel attracted to the same sex, in complete contrast to what family honor demands. To be gay like Roland P. (27), who has his roots in Croatia and now lives in Vienna. His life motto was: Blood is thicker than water. That’s a nice thought, per se: You’re there for each other, no matter what. But what happens when it’s your own family that crushes you and leaves deep scars in your soul? 

Coming out of the closet

Having had a happy childhood, the big shock came during Roland’s adolescent years, when he realized he was a homosexual! Knowing very well that he would not fulfill the expectations of his parents of what it means to be a man, he initially kept this to himself. But like a volcano about to erupt, Roland soon could no longer live with the lie. There seemed to be only one way out: suicide. “In my adolescent despair, I wanted to take my own life, because I was so unhappy in my situation,” Roland recalls. 

After a failed attempt, his parents approached him. He finally decided to come out when he was 15. A big step, because after all, one thing remained uncertain: How would his family take it? This was basically, the wrong way to think. But we are, after all, children from the Balkans and have to please others before we please ourselves. 

In any case, many of Roland’s relatives took it quite well, except for his parents. Deeply offended, his father and mother sent him son to see several doctors and therapists. All of them approached the parents with the same diagnosis: homosexuality. Their son simply didn’t need help. 

“I was finally able to breathe!” says Roland. He finally had it in cold print that everything was fine. 

But what was a relief for him was shocking for his mother and father, who were still deeply convinced that their son needed therapy. Knowing very well what the consequences of publicly expressing his sexuality would be for him, he put his needs behind. For the sake of the family, of course. 

It didn’t help that the nine siblings on his father’s side and six siblings on his mother’s had their antennae out everywhere, also a threat to Roland’s well-being – the classic image of village grannies eagerly awaiting the latest gossip to avoid confronting their own problems. That’s how it felt to him. To avoid becoming the talk of the town, he did not live out his sexuality publicly.

Fake it till you make it

In order to restore the family honor, Roland decided at the age of 16 to take a drastic step or as he would call it the “classic Croatian way.” He asked a good friend to play his girlfriend, and for two and a half years, they pretended to be in a happy relationship. They even lived under the same roof as his parents. It’s hard to imagine this kind of pressure on a person growing up, not being able to be yourself just to please your family. Often, if you are a person from the Balkans, you pay a great price for the sake of the family. Even if in the end you have to reckon with the loss of your own identity. 

Breaking free

When the supposed relationship came to an end, and at the age of 19, with his apprenticeship in hand, Roland left for Germany, and contact with his parents was cut off. This gave him the opportunity to fully live out his homosexuality: 

“I cuddled and partied like never before,” he remembered. “Being away from my parents was a release for me,” from patterns of thought instilled over decades. A love of life spread throughout his entire body like a big bang. 

All that was abruptly put to an end when his cell phone rang at 6:30 A.M. on Sept. 18, 2017. 

A ray of hope

The death of a close family member led his parents to set aside all their pride for a brief moment and check in with their son after a four-year hiatus. “Hope arose in me that they had come to their senses,” Roland recalls. When he returned to Vienna from Germany, contact with his mother and father also became more regular. Eventually, his parents took him in and the family was reunited under one roof. As if nothing had ever happened. All the issues surrounding his homosexuality, all his struggles for existence were swept under the rug. And once again Roland put his needs behind. 

Until he came out for the second time, because he had fallen in love with a man.

Offended, his mother resorted to drastic measures, in a phone call to Roland that will remain deeply engraved in his memory. “May all the roses of life bloom for you, but never contact us again,” she told him. It felt like a Bible thrown at his forehead. He did not fit the model of a man from the Balkans. And he felt that with full force.

The full vigor was by no means like a simple slap in the face that many Balkan children grow up with. It was quite the contrary. Having had to go through this, he asked himself what the meaning of life really was. Eventually, Roland came to the conclusion that everything that happened to him taught him to cut toxic people out of his life and to respect himself even more. 

Did he pay a high price? It may seem so at first, but the lessons he gained were far more than he was even aware of. When he reflected on his story, he now saw his mental health as a top priority. 

It’s true what people say, he told me. After every rain comes a rainbow.