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The raw, unfiltered life story of Serbia’s new queer icon

We talk to Sonja Sajzor about overcoming violence, wanting everything in the world and the power of fearless female goths from the 80s

It’s one of the most seductive rumours about our physical form – that every seven years, the human body replaces itself completely. Utter absolution of your crimes against the liver, your sins of the artery forgiven and forgotten just like that. New blood, fresh meat, extra virgin everything. You literally become somebody else. It is, unfortunately, a myth. But it captivated Sonja Sajzor all the same.

“I Googled it later and realised it’s not entirely true, but it’s very optimistic for me to think that, every seven years, I’m a completely different person,” Sajzor tells me from Serbia. The 23-year-old trans feminist and septuple threat – artist, writer, aspiring singer, DJ, nightlife high-priestess, LGBTQ+ trailblazer, former drag royalty – was so inspired by the seven-years myth that she turned it into her logo: an inverted septagram.

It represents rebirth: her seven years of “gender searching” before starting hormone replacement therapy around three months ago. Captured in photographs by herself and others, this “visual and psychological transformation” is the subject of her new virtual exhibition, SEVEN, which exists only online due to Serbian galleries’ refusal to recognise queer art and a lack of funding.

She calls it a testament to “the power of networking on the internet”, as well as a call for artists to not make excuses about a lack of resources. It is a homage to all of Sajzor’s accomplishments made since she was 16, including paving the way for other queer performers in Belgrade.

“I believe that it’s empowering to the trans community, because trans stories are always edited,” she says. “People aren’t really interested in what I have to say, because I’m going to ask for healthcare reform, for law reform, for punishing violence against trans women, and they don’t want to deal with that. It’s just easier to write about trans women when we’re killed. Even in movies, our stories are often re-edited into these pathetic narratives (about) these powerless weaklings who are begging for pity or for people to leave them alone. And that’s not our narrative. They do that because you can use that story to create an empowering story for the trans community and you can create an entertaining story for everyone else.”

Although many young queer Serbians consider her a role model and send her messages constantly, Sajzor says she is not an activist. “When you’re an activist, you know how to talk to people and your goal is to make the world a better place. When you’re an artist, you have your own selfish perception of the world and your only goal, like in my case, is to tell your story truthfully. It’s not necessarily about being inspirational or making the world a better place. It’s just about being honest with myself, and sometimes my reality is really fucked up, you know?”

Part of that is not buying into the “humble” narrative demanded of trans women, POC and other marginalised identities. “You’re not allowed to talk about your success, you’re not allowed to present yourself as powerful,” she says. “This is a story about a trans woman who is unapologetically successful and pushing it forward and having a good life.”

The latter half of SEVEN is a cascade of cutthroat, power-femme photoshoots she directed herself – Sajzor wearing a flower crown like she just won Game of Thrones, using some aqua-blue alien’s exoskeleton as a bodycon dress, doing a kind of Princess Mononoke-as-a-dominatrix-at-Versailles thing with a wolf as a prop. She lists Siouxsie Sioux, Nina Hagen, Lydia Lunch and Lene Lovich – ‘‘70s and 80s goth punk women” – among her inspirations: “They did things because they truly wanted to do them, not because they wanted to leave a certain impression. They weren’t posing as anything, they weren’t trying to pass as any style, they just were. That’s my style, I just am.”

Even on Skype, calling from her mum’s house or before Pride, in no makeup and a t-shirt, laughing often and gesticulating wildly, she’s just as uncompromising about her art and image. When I enquire about her past career as “one of Serbia’s most famous drag queens,” she laughs and says, “I’m trying to say that I’m the most popular without being shady,” but then corrects me firmly. “Well, I am the most famous in Serbia, and basically the Balkans.”

Yet Sajzor is still getting used to fame, to the feeling of people recognising her when she has no idea who they are, to getting comped coffee or tickets or club covers because “they’re grateful I exist and that I’m doing something different for our scene. Sometimes,” she says, “I swear, I feel like a sacred cow.” People, especially those who are neither gay nor trans, constantly marvel at her lack of fear and ask her whether she’s scared of getting attacked. No, she tells them, because she isn’t going to let a fear of violence stop her from doing what she wants. She doesn’t even think about it. “When you’re trans,” she says, “when you’re expecting (violence) all the time, you just overcome it much more easily. Which is why I find trans women to be very, very strong. Because we’re able to process an extreme, excruciating pain that a person shouldn’t be strong (enough) to deal with. But we did reach that point where we’re numb to violence.”

“I find trans women to be very, very strong. Because we’re able to process an extreme, excruciating pain that a person shouldn’t be strong (enough) to deal with” – Sonja Sajzor

Growing up, though, she was very scared. “It’s Serbia, you know?” 2010 marked the first Pride parade in Belgrade since 2001. Around 1,000 people participated in the parade, and around 5,000 police had to protect them. Tear gas and rubber bullets answered Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs. Pride was cancelled for safety reasons until 2014, when a new government was elected. And that was the capital; Šabac, the small western town that Sajzor grew up in, was “way more conservative”. Children threw stones at her, her window was being smashed every single day. “I wasn’t safe in the street, I wasn’t safe in my home, I was in this constant hell,” she says.

At the age of 13, she saw the Scissor Sisters, who were playing at Exit festival, on TV. “This was the first time I saw something that was queer being cool,” says Sajzor, who grew up watching Serbian media mock, demonise or incite violence against queer people. Ana Matronic became her inspiration. “She became not only an ideal of female beauty, she became this presentation of a woman surrounded by gays. We didn’t have that back then.” The next year, she recorded the last snippet of a new Scissor Sisters music video on VHS and played it religiously. When her mother threw away a bag of expired make-up, she fished it out of the rubbish and locked herself in the bathroom to see how Ana Matronic would look with her bone structure. “Which is,” she says, “how I started doing drag.”

So what changed at the age of 16? “I got an internet connection,” laughs Sajzor. “All the information was a click away. Day and night I was watching trans vlogs, watching drag queens perform at places.” As a child, Sajzor had fantasised daily about someone offering to magically transform her into a woman, so finding out about gender affirmation surgery was “a revelation, like I woke up. This was a solution to my problem. I can actually fix this and be happy.” But when she found out about the cost, she became extremely depressed and resigned herself to trying to find satisfaction living as a man.

“Sajzor’s boyfriend blamed her for dressing and acting too flamboyantly. ‘You’re such a faggot, we got attacked because of you!’ she remembers him screaming at her”

After coming out as a gay man, Sajzor networked online to join the LGBTQ+ scene in Belgrade. When her mother (who has since become her best friend) kicked her out, she dropped out of school and moved in with a guy in Belgrade. She continued to network aggressively with fellow queer creatives in person, taking whatever gigs she could and doing a poetry-satire-burlesque-stand-up act in genderfuck drag at poetry nights.

Four months later, she was attacked. A man choked Sajzor and her boyfriend from behind, asking, “Are you faggots?” Later, her boyfriend blamed her for dressing and acting too flamboyantly: “You’re such a faggot, we got attacked because of you!” she remembers him screaming at her.

Devastated, she returned home and re-enrolled in high school to try and live as a masculine, straight man. “Why not butch it up to avoid being bullied, avoid being molested all the time?” But her classmates discovered a photo of her kissing a man and when word got out, her teachers punished her with failing grades. Besides, none of it was sustainable. “Imagine that you hadn’t showered for a week. If you entered a room full of potential great future friends, or potential boyfriends and girlfriends, and you smell awful and these people hate you and judge you, that’s how being in a male body felt for me,” she says. “I felt all these people hated me. I hated myself.”

It led to a life-threatening mental breakdown. She knew she had to transition or else, but didn’t have the resources, so she reached a compromise: Sajzor became a drag queen, one of the first two in Serbia, in fact. Her drag career debuted on social media and then took off. She landed a role in a Croatian diva’s music video, an Exit festival performance with said diva, a Vice interview and photoshoot, and a gig with Alaska Thunderfuck. After moving back to Belgrade, where she worked as a bartender, she founded The Tronic Lab, an artist collective that throws experimental Susanne Bartsch-Studio 54-Warhol Factory-inspired pop-up parties, booking young drag performers and queer artists.

“Mistress of all things evil,” she describes her drag persona. “When I got myself in drag in the beginning, I loved transforming myself and not recognising myself in the mirror. I would look at myself and go, ‘WOAH’. I automatically became more fierce and more fearless and I felt more on top of the world, like I could do anything. Especially because I’m, like, six feet tall and I wear these ten-inch heels, and so I’m super-tall and no one’s going to dominate me. I looked like Jesus.”

Which was not conducive for her budding career as a DJ. “I wasn’t lip-syncing for five minutes any more, I was doing five-hour DJ sets,” says Sajzor. “In ten-inch heels, cinched waist, it was very painful. My lace-front wig would glue off, my make-up would melt off, my nails would pop off.” And she began to feel more and more uncomfortable with how fake it felt, until it became unbearable. When she finally came out as a trans woman, she got rid of it all. She showed up to work dressed as “just a normal girl” and requiring the right pronouns. “This is not an alter-ego,” she says. “This is who I really am.”

Next, Sajzor wants to evolve Tronic Lab, begin a trans resource vlog, and start her career as a “serious indie-rock musician”. Most of her Baudelaire-meets-The Cranberries lyrics are about unrequited love and heartbreak and, like her DJ sets, the sound will be a “very strange fusion of dark witch-house, electronic indie music and cyber pop culture”. Eventually, she wants to make a documentary about her life directed by Ivana Rajić, a photographer friend who has been following and documenting Sajzor’s work since they met two years ago.

“I definitely want to capture my life as it is right now,” she says. “When you’re forced to go through such extreme transformations of your character, your physical identity, it’s very important in order to stay sane and to push forward to document what you used to be. Because you look back and say, ‘Oh, I’ve gone so far and I’ve progressed so much. This is enough to make me go forward even though I may be scared right now.’”

And how far will she have progressed in the next seven years?

“I have no idea,” she says, laughing. “My life is very unpredictable. I would like to have everything and I would like to be a mogul. I just know I want to constantly reinvent myself, and I want to constantly transform, and I want to be very, very happy.”