When embarking on his trip around the Balkans, Haakon Stratte, a young gay American, was unsure what to expect as he had read about the homophobia present throughout the region. However, his trip proved to be a rather exciting and enriching adventure.

Taking the First Steps

The only knowledge I had of the Balkans in the past came from a brief discussion of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in a high school geography class. I’ve since learned that this is more than most Americans are exposed to, with many of my fellow compatriots confiding in me that they had never heard of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) until a few days before they were in the country. That being said, while I knew the names of most of the Balkan countries, I acknowledged I still knew very little about the history of the region. I admittedly had no idea there had been a war in Kosovo or that they had to resist until its independence. A fact I shared with many locals during my travels and was told by a young Serbian man that it should be my responsibility as an American to know all of the countries that my government has bombed. So I decided to embark on a solo escapade through the Balkan Peninsula, as an ignorant American wanting to immerse myself in the brutalist aesthetic of the ex-socialist region, eager to learn more. Something that I’ve always relied on to meet people while traveling around America and Western Europe is dating apps. Just open Tinder or Grindr and within a few minutes, you have a cute date that includes a free tour of the city and if you’re lucky, a taste of the local culture. In doing research before my trip, I quickly learned this would not be the gay culture that I had come accustomed to in my previous travels. This would not be like going out to cute gay bars in Soho, relaxing in a gay sauna in Barcelona, cruising darkrooms in Berlin, or any other queer-friendly spaces that Western Europe is known for. While homosexuality is not illegal in any of the Balkan countries, most do not recognize same-sex unions and are quite homophobic. I had fully accepted that I couldn’t rely on dating apps to make my way around the Balkans and thought I’d most likely be celibate for the next few months. However, my experiences were as diverse as the region itself, which I’d like to share with all of you.

Many Cities, Different Experiences

If you just want to dip your toe into the Balkans but still feel like you’re in Western Europe, go to Slovenia. Everyone that’s ever been to Ljubljana will tell you just how much they love Ljubljana. Lake Bled, the Postojna Cave and Prejama castle are an easy day trip away from the city. They were a part of Yugoslavia so you still find many restaurants that sell Cevapi/qebapa, utilitarian housing developments outside the city center, and contemporary art discussing the fall of Yugoslavia. Same-sex marriage is legalised, there’s a gay sauna on the outskirts of town, there’s multiple gay clubs including Klub Tiffany that’s hosted at the squatting artist community of Metelkova, and it is relatively easy to find a date on an app.

Croatia feels very Balkan, immediately being welcomed to my hostel in Zagreb with a free shot of rakija/raki. Due to its popularity amongst western tourists and Game of Thrones fans, the Dalmatian coast has become much more expensive in recent years. Locals are not too welcoming to travelers, with men on dating apps saying they strictly will not go out with visitors or that they simply “no likey Americans”. This is also the first country where I felt a stronger sense of homophobia. When talking to a nice local man on grindr one night, I was instructed to remove my face pictures from my profile. He told me it wasn’t safe to be openly gay in the Balkans and even had a friend who was recently assaulted in a club here in Split because he was recognised from an app. I told him I was not ashamed of my sexuality and did not feel it necessary to remove my face, especially since I had seen profiles in the area that still had pictures like that. He explained that those were all tourists. Even though I was a tourist, he strongly suggested changing my profile picture as I journeyed deeper into the Balkans, to which I complied.

The absence of face pictures persisted for the rest of my travels as I ventured on to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The towns I visited, Sarajevo and Mostar, are both beautiful with extremely rich histories. Bosnia as a whole is very religious, with the tense cohabitation of Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholics, and Bosnian Muslims all in one country, after a bloody war that culminated in the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims in 1995. I personally felt there was too much to experience and learn about in these areas that I had no interest in trying to meet men.

Montenegro is a very interesting country. I was welcomed by tall skyscrapers and large resorts under construction, with massive yachts docked in the harbor, a quick departure from the small historic towns in Bosnia. I learned that this exorbitant amount of wealth for the area is due to an influx of rich Russian immigrants. Recently, many Russians who disagree with the current regime or are aiming to avoid the draft have been able to find refuge in Montenegro due to their ability to visit without a Visa and easily obtain residency. Because of this, dating gay apps are full of cute Russian boys with their faces on their profile. They are happy to show you around and tell you that they’ve been taught their whole life to hate Americans, which can lead to a taboo hookup later in the night.

Albania is like another world. It feels much different than the former Yugoslavian states due to the fact that the country was not part of Yugoslavia, and Albanians are not Slavic; with a completely different history, language and ethnic identity. Tirana is a fairly large city, with a good airport that can connect you easily to any part of Europe and a downtown area full of skyscrapers that are all architectural marvels. There seems to be a higher proportion of Americans living in Albania since we are granted a tourist Visa for an entire year, making it a popular destination for digital nomads. Due to the large size of the city and American population, Tirana was a relatively easy place to find a date on an app. However, most of the faces you would see on the grid belonged to Americans. Many locals will request to only show their face over video chat to protect their identity in addition to confirming that you are who you say you are.

Macedonia surprised me. To me, it was like stepping back into Western Europe with its recently-constructed Neoclassical architecture but with a Brutalist flair. I don’t know if it’s due to the seemingly thousands of statues of confirmed gay icon, Alexander the Great, around town or if they are putting something in the Coca Cola, which they claim is the best-tasting in the world, but Skopje seemed to have a high proportion of gay men. My dating apps were on fire there. I went on a date with a nice Macedonian man who took me out to try some local cuisine and showed me to a cool hipster bar in the city center. He was a gentleman the whole night, he was shy and seemed a little bit sheltered.

Sofia, Bulgaria was one of my favorite cities that I visited. It is very well developed with amazing cafes and restaurants, bold communist architecture and stunning orthodox churches at every turn, and full of hipster locals who are all involved in the arts in some manner. Bulgarian men are all kind and will take you out for drinks at cool bars to tell you about their day and remind you how little you actually know about brutalist architecture. It was like any other date I had been on in Los Angeles.

You could never spend enough time in Romania. Each town in Transylvania is cuter than the last with magnificent churches, small winding cobblestone streets, and epic castles including the castle of Vlad Tepes aka Count Dracula. Many tourists are disappointed with Bucharest, saying it’s just another dirty city in Europe, but I found the Paris of the East to be incredible. Just like in Bulgaria, the men seemed very open to showing their face and going out on dates.

Belgrade is a gem. If I could live anywhere in the Balkans, it would be Belgrade, Serbia. With graffiti-covered walls around every corner and insane underground techno parties every weekend, the city is reminiscent of a baby Berlin. After traveling around the other Balkan countries, I understood that Serbia was the instigator of a lot of the conflicts in the region for the past thirty + years. Because of this, most Serbians have developed quite the victim complex, telling me they felt unsafe visiting neighboring countries for fear of what locals may do if they find out they are Serbian, especially if they are gay and Serbian. There is a prominent gay scene in Belgrade with multiple gay-friendly bars, drag shows, a gay pride parade, and even a gay club called Musk Machine. I still wouldn’t feel comfortable exercising PDA on the streets, however, I did see a nice young guy from Connecticut that was staying in the same hostel making out with another man at a techno party with seemingly no repercussions. If you want to party all weekend long with handsome men in a place that feels vastly different from the US, Belgrade could be the place for you, but continue to be cautious when going out. 

Immediately crossing over the border from Serbia into Kosovo, I felt like I was back in the US. I was greeted by a large Bill Clinton statue and Albanians who spoke perfect English with a convincing American accent. I went on a date with a nice man in Prishtina who only recently began exploring his sexuality in his mid-twenties who shared with me his appreciation for participating in hyper-sexual hookup culture. In Prizren, I was welcomed by the cutest people and instantly had a crush on one. Like any small town, all the gays knew each other. Within a few hours of my arrival, I was “adopted” into a beautiful chosen gay family, whose ‘mother’, a young woman with a disability, explained that she did not have a strong disabled community in Prizren but found solace with the gays. With her as my ally, I quickly got to know a lot of locals and gay men there. I learned about fake Snapchat accounts that men would use to find other gay men and organize orgies in the area. I learned about villas on the edge of town that couples could discreetly rent by the hour without interacting with a single attendant face-to-face. I was caught in the act with the Balkan version of James Franco at a local movie theater that sometimes showed porn during Yugoslav times. And, I spent my final night cuddling my crush before slipping away in the early morning to leave Prizren and the Balkans covered in a blanket of snow, like a scene out of a movie.

Reflections at the End of the Journey

Most Westerners and Europeans see the Balkans as a place that is far less developed, filled with uncivilized people, ready to go to war at a moment’s notice. It’d be so easy for me as an American to diminish the gay experience here. To say that this culture of heteronormativity and homophobia has left local gay men unable to create meaningful romantic relationships out of fear of persecution and to consequently engage only in meaningless, rough sexual intercourse. I think to some degree this is true, but it’s not fair to have this blanket statement for the entire region. While a large proportion of men in the Balkans, like anywhere in the world, may behave this way, you still find many men that are looking for love and tenderness. I grew up in a small conservative town in Northern California, whose population has been overtaken by an evangelical, cult-like, mega church which advocates for conversion therapy. Growing up here as a gay man was difficult. I did not feel comfortable being out in high school. I didn’t date, knowing I could finally be my true self once I moved to Los Angeles for university at 18. Whenever I return home, I am greeted by a Grindr grid that resembles one similar to those that I saw in the Balkans: full of blank and faceless profiles, men insisting on hooking up in their cars or out in nature, afraid for the world to know who they truly are. I think because I’ve had this experience growing up, being on Grindr in the Balkans didn’t come as much of a surprise. I’ve always said that the beauty of Grindr is you can find whatever you want on the app: hookups, dates, friends, or maybe even love. I truly believe this is possible wherever you are in the world, but the proportion of men looking for each thing and their level of comfort with being out will vary depending on the region you’re in.

I’ve learned that the word Balkans translates to sweet blood in Turkish*. This region has experienced many wars over its history, with many different empires fighting for control of the land. The people in the Balkans are resilient. They have been through a lot and are still experiencing tensions today. Despite this, they are some of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever met. I wrote this article traveling through Western Europe and back in the US, the whole while missing the Balkans. I had gotten a taste of the sweet blood and now nothing tastes as good. This place will always have a special place in my heart and I am dreaming of the day I can go back.

 * In Turkish bal means honey while kan means blood

Photos by author

  • My name is Haakon Stratte. I am a 24 year old gay man living in Southern California, born and raised in Northern California. I work in development for an ethical apparel brand, with my main passion in life being sustainable fashion practices. I am an avid traveler, having visited many places in North America, Western Europe, and now Eastern Europe/Balkan peninsula. I hope my experience can serve as a guide to queer people planning to travel around the Balkans; showing that it is possible to visit this region and meet men, acknowledging that these are not the most queer-friendly countries. With that being said, I am not a journalist, queer studies expert, or Balkan anthropologist. This is an opinion piece. I apologize if anything in this article seems inaccurate or offends anyone. This is purely based on my personal experience.

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