The hardest part of my job is confronting people’s attitudes and prejudices, particularly around a subject as sensitive as sex work—and particularly in a society that is increasingly intolerant, repressive, and ignorant of everyone who is not part of the mainstream.
As a project assistant for a Macedonian HIV and AIDS organization, Health Options Project Skopje, I work with media, police officials, and social workers to broaden their understanding of sex work and the challenges sex workers face, including violence, police harassment, and victimization.
Earlier this year, along with LGBT and Roma activists, I attended a workshop by the Center for Artistic Activism, an organization that teaches advocates how creativity can raise awareness, build organizations, and change policy. We learned that tapping into popular culture can create messages and experiences that move beyond the confines of small groups of activists to engage the wider community. We learned that sometimes imagining the impossible and keeping in mind the greater vision we share for a more perfect society can overcome the everyday resistance we confront.
After three days of theory, the Center for Creative Activism tasked us with organizing a public event in Skopje within 24 hours. We wanted to confront the hate that too often fills the capital of our small republic. Our idea was to create a space where we could invite the public to join our new self-proclaimed “Republic of Love.” Rather than directly promote the needs of marginalized communities in Macedonia, we would use the space to foster a spirit of inclusiveness and begin to erode public resistance.
We staked out our territory on a small hill in the City Park of Skopje. The entrance was a wooden arch we built to function as a border post. People could pass through using a Macedonian identity document we designed that allowed the owner to choose from a range of gender options. Since Skopje is filled with statues honoring historical figures, we constructed a plinth inside our new republic that our brave new citizens could stand on to be honored as heroes in their own right. Street musicians softened the atmosphere.
In two hours, our “Future Republic of Macedonia of the Former Republic of Macedonia” hosted more than 500 people. The faces of passers-by lit up as they approached, and many eagerly wanted to become citizens of our friendly republic. Kids drew cute pictures while their parents talked to the organizers about our work. One mother whose daughter has disabilities wrote a note thanking us for making her daughter feel included for the first time in years of coming to the park.
It was a heartwarming experience, but the most important lesson that I will take away from this is that the truth needs our help getting out there. Society does not always respond to our activist appeals because we don’t know how to sell our vision of a hate-less, tolerant, and open society.
It is easier to talk about difficult issues with understanding, open-minded people who share our worldviews. We give each other a pat on the shoulder and complain about the ignorance of others and their reluctance to accept the truth.
But our truth may have a much longer journey into the minds and hearts of others. And sometimes that journey winds its way through the borders of an imaginary republic.