As I am approaching Anita* at the agreed location of our meeting, she seems relaxed. We smile, say hello and then sit at a table at a Zagreb café. First she explains to me why she wishes to tell her story anonymously – there’s been several years since the event and she doesn’t think she can get the justice she deserves by filing a lawsuit, saying “I may not gain anything, but at least people will know what had happened.”
Moving from the street to the cafe tranforms Anita’s initial relaxation into anxiety, which continues to grow from one sentence to the next as she describes the abuse or, in legal terms, discrimination in the workplace to which she had been subjected for being a lesbian. After graduating from high school, Anita was first a trainee and then employed as a nurse at a public clinic in Zagreb.
AUTHOR: Ana Brakus
“This woman at one point asked me to make her a list of all fags working at the clinic,” says Anita. Even though I assume the sentence she just spoke is probably the most painful part of her story, I ask her to start from the beginning.
“When I arrived, it was okay. Some pople may have found me a bit strange since one half of my hair was long and the other short. They must have found that really unusual, just like the fact that I wasn’t Catholic. That was pretty much my first discrimination,” she confides.
Over time, in the department of the clinic where she worked, younger colleagues found out her sexual orientation. But, she says, she did not encounter significant problems with them, probably because some other female colleagues had also had negative experiences.
“Our first nursing supervisor believed women should not have short hair. She even arranged a meeting with one of my colleagues to tell her that. She was also bothered by the fact that another colleague was living with her partner outside of marriage. They were actually the first to be mistreated,” says Anita.
I ask Anita what happened next, and for the sake of clarity we name the supervising nurse Petra. Hierarchically above Petra was the nurse who runs the institute where Anita works, and we named her Ivana.
“I’m not sure how it began. Probably someone mentioned something to someone and it reached our supervisor. She was so inclined to – as she called it – bestow punishment upon us. You work five night shifts in a row, she yells at you and so on, but you cannot prove it,” Anita describes the early days of her employment.
At some point, she’s not sure why, something changed. She suspects that the department’s head nurse Petra reported her undesirable sexual orientation to Ivana, the head nurse of the institute.
“One day they just came for me and told me to come and sit in her office,” recounts Anita as she becomes more and more agitated. She is trying to illustrate that situation to me, to describe exactly what happened in the head nurse’s office.
“I sat down and asked why I was there. She responded that I very well knew what the problem was and that I did not fit in in my department. I tried to explain that many colleagues had difficulties with nurse Petra, I even recounted the situation with the colleague who had been reprimanded for having a short haircut. But she was not interested. She simply said that she would take action and that I should mind my own business,” says Anita.
Sitting in the head nurse’s office, Anita was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. It all escalated when she was asked to compose the aforementioned “list of fags working at the clinic”.
“She handed me a piece of paper and told me to compose that list. I guess for her fags represented a whole group of people,” explains Anita, adding that this moment was particularly difficult for her.
I ask whether she made the list.
“I started crying and asked her why. She said that it would make it easier for myself, and when I refused, she told me I wasn’t married to that department and that I could go somewhere else the next day. Had I made that list, I’m sure she would have picked on those people as well,” says Anita.
“You have this problem… whether you can be yourself. All your colleagues are talking about their girlfriends and boyfriends, and you’re scared. Being excluded from that, it may not seem like a big deal, but you’re scared to talk about your life openly because you could literally get fired. You’ll end up on the margins, a person no one talks to, and then it becomes something you have to be silent about,” confides Anita, and “it” in her case refers to her life. Everyday situations that others discuss without hesitation or fear that just because they care about someone they will lose their job.
“You start choosing jobs that allow you to be open about who you are. In the end I did find them, but there were some where I couldn’t do that. I mean, I don’t tell people “Hi, I’m Anita and I’m gay,” but I act normally, naturally. I had one bad job, with this problem, but I’m always myself,” explains Anita.
Finally, I ask whether she has any regrets – would she, if possible, do anything differently?
“In the end, my colleagues found out about that whole conversation because I returned to the department from which I had been relegated. A colleague stood up and smashed the wall with his fist. The cleaning women cried, some other colleagues as well, but there’s nothing you can do because there is this one woman who has all the power. That’s that, as funny as that may sound, that’s that,” says Anita, adding that at least some of her colleagues had been changed by this situation. They know about this woman Anita and what happened to her, so they can never be the same again.
*The interlocutor’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. The information is known to the editors
Foto: Wellcome Images, license