Let’s start with the brief history of LGBT life in Bosnia. Bosnia decriminalised homosexuality in 1998, with Republika Srpska doing so two years later in 2000. In 2017, same-sex marriage still isn’t recognised, and according to Pew Research Center (p. 28), 84% of Bosnians are against it. The government bans discrimination on sexual orientation, but unfortunately, discrimination still exists.
Bosnia is a religious country with Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. And despite being secular, religion plays a role in people’s lives. Many people are conservative. Centuries of conservatism in traditional communities breeds distrust for things that have only recently become acceptable in modern society.
The short answer is yes, it’s safe to visit Bosnia. But, it’s not quite as simple as it seems. If you’re discrete, you won’t face any problems. But, when you’re not, you may encounter difficulties, or worse.
Be aware that two LGBT events, the 2000 Queer Sarajevo Festival and the 2014 LGBT-friendly Merlinka Film Festival ended in violence. Islamic fundamentalists and local hooligans attacked the crowd. Homophobic attacks occasionally happen.
But, let me stress that unfortunately, this animosity tends to happen when people are, let’s say, not so low-key. Bosnia has a large gay community; they’re just not very open about it.
Walking around the streets of the Ottoman old towns or visiting religious buildings isn’t the time to let your hair down. Public displays of affection aren’t acceptable between straight couples. Instead, be more reserved until you’re in the gay-friendly bars.
At the time of writing, there aren’t any specific LGBT bars or clubs in Bosnia, but you will find gay-friendly places. The capital, Sarajevo, is larger and has better choices for tourists such as The Bar, Cotton Club and Kriterion. Mostar and Banja Luka have fewer spots.
Things change all the time, and what may be a good bar now might not be when you visit. Search for groups on social media, and connect with others who have recently experienced travelling to Bosnia. Connecting with locals may be challenging, and it probably isn’t a good idea to ask the hotel receptionist for LGBT tips.
Another way to get information when you have your feet on the ground is by joining Sarajevo’s Free Walking Tour. Guides are young and professional with open minds. They’ll happily give tips and advice on the most up-to-date places to go. You can even email the guides before you visit Sarajevo and ask for suggestions. More likely than not, you’ll get a response.
Discrimination does exist, and while Bosnia is better than it was, homosexuality still isn’t socially acceptable.
If you’re travelling with a partner, it may be better to book one of the internationally-recognised hotels. Smaller, locally-owned places may raise their eyebrows when a same-sex couple checks into a room with a double bed. It’s doubtful it will cause any problems, but you may get a few questions that come across as direct, rude and insensitive.
Or, book a whole apartment on Airbnb. Airbnb regulations prevent hosts from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and you shouldn’t face any problems.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to visit Bosnia and, despite the stories of homophobic attacks, it’s extremely unlikely to happen to you. Remember to be discrete. Balkan countries are very different from the West and tend to be traditional in their ways and customs. They are not accepting of public affection or of letting your hair down too much in public. However, as long as you understand this mindset, Bosnia will turn out to be the trip of a lifetime.