BELGRADE, Serbia -- In macho Serbia, he came across as macho as they come: an army major in a military culture that glorifies masculine strength. He was a perfect husband and father in a society that preaches family values. But for nearly his entire life, the major felt he was living a lie: Deep down, he was a woman.
Last year, he came out, telling his family and superiors that he was Helena -- and starting therapy to become a woman. She did not remain Serbia's first transgender major for long: The army asked for her resignation, saying she "posed a threat to the reputation of the army." This month, Helena scored an important victory: A Serbian human rights body ruled that the army had discriminated against her by saying she was a potential stain on its honor.
Today, Helena appears in public in women's clothes and sporting bleached blond hair. The 43-year-old declined to provide her first or last name during her life as a man in order to protect a divorced wife and four children -- but is not shy about being photographed or filmed in her new identity.
By speaking out, Helena has become a rare voice representing Serbia's transgender community, which lives under constant fear of hate crimes on the margins of the society. Tolerance for the LGBT community across the Balkans is low, and several gay pride events in Serbia have been canceled because of extremist violence.
"I am fighting for the rights of all humiliated people," Helena told The Associated Press in an interview. "This is a struggle for all those who can't enjoy their basic human right to be equal with everybody else."
Helena spoke to the AP in a friend's flat in downtown Belgrade, meticulously made up and dressed in tight black jeans and a sweater. Smiling gently as she sipped coffee, she spoke calmly about her decision to undergo a sex change program that will culminate in an operation. The decision came at a high cost -- causing a split from her family and ending her career -- but Helena said it felt "amazing."
"It's like stepping out of a cage," she said.
Helena's inner struggle began in early childhood, growing up in a military household in a small Serbian town. As a young boy, Helena made her hair grow out so she could curl it. When nobody was around, she would put on her mother's clothes and sneak onto the terrace to let out that girl inside -- if only for a moment.
But this was impossible in a town where any hint of femininity in a man was seen as a weakness. She was confused. She thought there was something wrong with her. So she sought to quash the woman inside.
"And what better place to kill that woman than the army?" Helena said.
She finished military school and married young, another form of "self-healing." For the next 22 years, Helena served in the military and led the life of a family man. At the same time, she gradually built a parallel life, getting in touch with fellow members of the transgender community.
In 2001, Helena was detained by police wearing a skirt and suspended by a military disciplinary court. She appealed and was reinstated after seven months. But life in the army was not the same again. She recalled "everybody going silent every time I entered the room."
Finally last year, Helena came out. Though she did not resist army pressure to drive her into early retirement, she was horrified when this was cast as a way to protect its reputation. With the help of a human rights group, Helena took her case to Serbia's anti-discrimination office.
In a landmark for Serbia, the Commissioner for Protection of Equality agreed. Nevena Petrusic -- whose office was created to help Serbia qualify for EU membership -- told the AP that she recommended that the army give Helena a written apology.
The army has yet to issue one, and did not respond to AP requests for an interview. Petrusic's recommendations are not binding, but they are closely watched by international officials monitoring Serbia's pro-EU reforms.
Petrusic lamented the fact that Serbia has no rules on the status of people undergoing sex change -- such as defining gender on official documents. She cited a case in which a Serbian university refused to grant a diploma to a person who underwent a sex-change operation after finishing university. The state, Petrusic said, "ignores the fact that these people live among us, and that is inadmissible."
Defense Minister Bratislav Gasic apologized to Helena publicly in January, but not in writing. He has denied any form of discrimination within the armed forces, where women serve alongside men.
Helena said the ruling was important because now "I won't be labeled as a sick person." And also because it will serve as encouragement to other LGBT Serbs. The rights group Egal, which helped Helena build her case, said the ruling would resonate across the socially conservative Balkans.
Helena said the decision to fully embrace her womanhood has brought her inner peace and freedom, although her ID still lists her as a man. As time goes by, she has been gaining confidence, and is no longer afraid to walk the streets or use public transport.
"That's because I am so good with make-up!" she said.