Meet the People: Suzana Tratnik, LGBT Activist, Writer & Among Those Who Occupied Metelkova in 1993

By , 07 Sep 2018, 15:49 PM Meet the People
Suzana Tratnik Suzana Tratnik © Nada Žgank

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First, a note on terminology. I recently went on Alternative Ljubljana’s first English-language LGBT tour, and when going back into the early years of the more open scene, back in the 1980s, the term used was LG, which later became LGBT. More recently this was extended to LGBTQ, LGBTQI, LGBTQI+ and so on, with more missing letters to be added, just like the rainbow flag has evolved to show different parts of the spectrum. However, as a personal preference I’m averse to long acronyms that have to be spelled out, and four letters, like BYOB or MDMA, seem about right, with a nice, percussive rhythm. So for the purposes of this article we’ll be using LGBT, and I’ll also be using the terms gay and lesbian rather freely, with the former being a catch-all term for all the colours of the rainbow. 

Back to that first English-language LGBT tour, led by Mojca Šoštarko. Someone else on that tour was Suzana Tratnik, who, along with Brane Mozetič, wrote the Slovenian version. She wasn’t there to improve her English, which is flawless, or learn anything new, but more to hang out and see how things went – which was well, as Mojca has been giving regular tours of the city for years. But something soon became apparent as we walked around town, and that was Suzana’s own place in the story of LGBT Ljubljana.

She’s been part of it since 1985, for the Lilit women-only night at Klub K4 and the second Magnus festival of gay culture (as it was then termed). She one of the women who went to London to pick up mystery videocassettes for the first Lesbian Film Festival, and thus one of those who sat through a grab bag of high and low art, often taped from TV and including what, in the 1980s, was still a rather perverse phenomenon in Yugoslavia – commercial breaks. She was on the scene when AIDS hit Slovenia, and when Roza Klub was formed, and this incomplete list only takes up to 1990 (and a brief history of modern gay Slovenia can be found here).

Suzana was also one of the people who helped occupy Metelkova when the abandoned army barracks was going to be pulled down in 1993, then helped safeguard this space for the city’s subcultures, by staking claim, along with others, to the building that still houses Klubs Monokel and Tiffany.

In addition to all this Suzana’s an author of fiction and non-fiction, a translator and playwright, and in 2007 won a Prešeren Foundation Prize. I thus jumped at the chance to interview her, especially in the week when Metelkova is celebrating 25 years, and we met at Pritličje, currently Ljubljana’s only openly LGBT-friendly café / bar / venue outside of the autonomous quarter.

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Some of Tratnik's books

How did you come to occupy Metelkova?

Back in the late 1980s the gay scene was Magnus and the first women’s group, Lilit, and from 1987 on lesbian group LL, all at Škuc, and there were nights at Klub K4, but sometimes that would be closed for a while. We had some offices at Škuc, but they were for work and there wasn’t really space for people to meet and socialise. So we were always looking for somewhere in Ljubljana to meet, have a party, and it was very difficult at the time.

It’s not that all the cafés and bars were against us, but they had business concerns. People would gossip, and then for having one gay night a month they would become known as gay places and lose customers. And with regard to lesbians there’d be maybe just 20 of us, so we didn’t drink spend as much, as gay guys, where they’d be even 100 people or so. That also made us less attractive, even to cafe or bar owners who had no problem otherwise.

This was around 1988, but then the next year K4 was renovated and reopened. We got a gay night on Sunday, because that’s the worst night. It became popular anyway, but still it was a nightclub, and so we were missing a venue for other events. That’s how we became part of the network of NGOs that was operating in Mreža za Metelkovo. These NGOs were in culture, youth, the handicapped, underprivileged. It’s hard to say how they all got financed, but some were from the government or the city. Škuc itself was an umbrella organisation, and for a while all the groups working under that were bringing in their own money.

The idea was to negotiate with the city and get the space at Metelkova, but things were very slow, even though the barracks were empty. Then in 1993, September 10, they started to demolish it. There was immediate action, people from all the groups and NGOs came, and we just divided up the space. In our building there was a feminist group, lesbian group, gay group, YHD - handicapped youth group. There was even a group called the Association for the Protection of Madness, although later they moved out and changed their name. Now they’re called Altra and are an organisation for new approaches to mental health. And this was all in the building Lovci that now has the Klubs Monokel and Tiffany.

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“This one is really old, from 1993. I am sitting with Nataša Sukič. Mirč is preparing for the performance. These are old places of Tiffany and Monokel, and the photographer is Frenk Fidler.”

How difficult was the occupation?

Well, the city then took away the water and electricity, with the idea of pushing us out, but we didn’t give up. We started working, preparing events, and never stopped. We still haven’t. I can’t remember exactly, but it must have been about two years without power or water. Finally the city began negotiations, as they realised they’d have to start working with us.

Who owns and runs Metelkova?

The city still owns it. The groups pay all the bills and take care of the place, and although Škuc has a contract with the city for the basement and ground floor of one of the buildings I don’t think anyone else does. Part of Metelkova is still a squot.

There’s a council of Metelkova that helps run it. I used to be a part of it, and of course it was difficult, because some groups or people just didn’t get along, and so, say, they’d want this artist to move out and someone else to move in. Overall, though, it’s really hard to say how Metelkova operates. It has a structure, but at the same time there’s quite a lot of anarchy.

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“Me and the activist Nataša Sukič guiding a lesbian tour in January 2018 at the Lezbična četrt (Lesbian Quarter) festival. Photo by Tanja Završki.”

What’s the story of Klub Monokel?

Originally there was a women’s centre and Škuc, with the latter including the lesbian and gay groups. At first we just wanted to keep the space in Metelkova by organising events. The first gay club, Tiffany, and then Monokel in mid 90s were established there. Because we knew there should be a lesbian space with a lesbian name, but little did we know how hard would it be to keep it safe and alive.

Friday and Saturday we have parties, then during the week there are lectures, workshops and so on. I ran Monokel for a while, and the idea was to make it an important place for the lesbian community, not just the party scene. But it’s changed a lot over the years. At the moment it’s Tiffany that has more of the events, also during the week. There’s never been a strict border between the two clubs but lesbian community is a fragile minority and when you don’t nurture the venue, the community disappears quickly and that is not a dispersity. Still, there are things that are especially important for lesbians, just as there are things that are of special concern for the trans community, and so it’s important that we all have our own groups, own spaces, even though we come together for a lot of things, like Pride.

How involved are you in the activism now?

I did it for a long time, but it can be very time consuming, so after a while you just can’t do it anymore. Now I prefer to work on projects with a start and finish. Activism has also changed. When we started it was all volunteer work, and at the same time I was a student, and then I had to make a living. Now many of the activist groups are more organised, and have funding, so activism is also a job.

But I’m still part of that world, of course, and I’m particularly drawn to lesbian culture, so I work on the film festival, for example, choose the programme, work on the catalogue, moderate panels, and so on. This year I also started working on the gay archive. We had a lot of stuff at Kerniskova [the building that houses K4], with offices upstairs, and a lot of things were just in wardrobes. So I said to Brane (Mozetič)* we have to do something about this, because who knows what could happen. Someone may take over the building, or we could die and other people might think it’s junk. So I work on this archive now, in cooperation with the Inštitut za novejšo zgodovino - Institute of New History, to digitalise all these things, the photographs and so on, and find metadata, before we forget what is what and who is who. Then we’ll move the physical photographs into the Museum of Ljubljana, so everyone can use this material.

What’s the city’s official attitude towards the community?

What can I say? Mayor Janković opens Pride each year, they fly a rainbow flag over the Castle. There are many reasons why someone might be against Janković, but with regard to LGBT issues there’s nothing to complain about. And there is also a support from the City for different LGBT initiatives.

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Tratnik and the activist Nataša Sukič, 2018. Photo by Tanja Završki.

What’s it like, for example, if two women hold hands or kiss in Ljubljana?

Women holding hands, kissing, that seems to be quite safe, but with two men it’s different. Maybe in the very centre it’s OK, but there’s still a lot of hatred, and the Church is stronger than it used to be. There is also a lot of hidden homophobia we hardly even hear about. Like now and then some people who were a part of LGBT culture asking organizations to remove their names and photos from the LGBT sites. Even after coming out people may get suddenly scared and just go quiet. At the same time we hear a lot of nonsense about so called “gay lobby” taking over. It’s easy to spread such lies in a culture where most of victims still don’t dare to speak for themselves.

You can see we’re still fighting for basic things in some areas, total equality in others. Gender issues are also becoming more important in the community, with trans and non-binary people, so not just talking about male and female, and enabling people to decide on their gender.

It’s easier for me to be out, it’s part of my identity, and I’m self-employed, a writer, I work from home. And I trained myself in long years of activism. I learnt not to be quiet But even then I know writers, poets, actors, who don’t want to be known as gay, because they think it would hurt their career. There’s always work to do.

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*[JL Flanner] An interesting story – one of many – about Brane Mozetič. A notable incident in the recent history of LGBT Ljubljana took place in 2001, at what was then the kavarna Mestna galerija, now the site of the City Gallery (Mestna galerija), just a few doors down from Pritličje. Brane and another man, Jean-Paul Doust, were note allowed to enter the café. Activists then started occupying tables at the café and ordering mineral water, the cheapest drink, as a way to hurt the business. A few years later Café Open was established. This was located in Prule, and opened in 2008 as the first openly LGBT café in town. It was then later attacked by members of extreme groups, closing its doors in 2013, before being partially reborn as Pritličje, which this month has an event on September 14, remembering the ground-breaking work of Café Open. The Facebook page for that event is here.

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Klub Monokel in 2013. The klub's Facebook page

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