By Ljilja Cvekic
BELGRADE, July 06, (Serbia Today) – To be gay in the Balkans is not exactly something one would wish for –one’s options are mainly to be quiet and invisible or be stigmatized by society and sometimes even beaten up by nationalist extremists and soccer thugs.
This summer, however, Serbia’s gay men and women hope to take to the streets of their capital in the Pride Parade for the first time officially supported by the authorities and well-protected by the police. The first and last attempt to organise a gay parade, in 2001, ended up in participants getting beaten up by nationalist gangs led by an Orthodox priest while police looked on.
“We have the legal right to organize the Pride March and the state has the legal obligation to secure it,” said Boban Stojanovic of the Queeria gay rights group.
“The risk always exists, not only here. We cannot postpone it from one year to another, living in fear of a handful of extremists,” he told Serbia Today in an interview on Thursday. “There are just 80 to 100 of those in Belgrade, who come to each public event to make a trouble.”
Serbia’s authorities, which in previous years were not eager to get involved in the issue, are now making encouraging noises suggesting a shift in the political and social climate.
“Belgrade and Serbia are ready for the Pride Parade,” Serbia’s Human and Minority Rights Minister Svetozar Ciplic said last month. “In essence, that is one of the moments that will identify Serbia as a country ready to respect and tolerate differences.”
The government will not take part in organisation or promotion of the gay parade, but will offer a political and moral support, he said.
Unofficial studies suggest an estimated 600,000 homosexuals live in Serbia, making them one of the country’s largest minorities, albeit the most silent. In comparison, some 300,000 ethnic Hungarians and 135,000 Bosniaks have their own parties and MPs representing them in parliament.
Thomas Hammarberg, the human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe, said in a report last year that gay men and women are one of three most discriminated groups in Serbia’s society, along with Roma and people with disabilities.
“The notion of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons is in its infancy in Serbia, and safe, open discussion on the issues remains taboo,” Hammarberg wrote. "They remain victims of discrimination, prejudice and intolerance.”
Seventy percent of Serbs consider homosexuality as a disease and only 38 percent see gay individuals as “the same human beings as we are”, showed a survey conducted in 2008 by the key gay advocacy group Gay-Straight Alliance and the independent monitoring and polling organization Center for Free Elections and Democracy.
Lagging 18 years behind the World Health Organization, the Serbian Medical Society declared homosexuality was not an illness only last year.
“Serbia is a homophobic society with systematic violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals”, reads a report on the survey, according to which 67 percent of Serbs has a negative stand towards gay people. One in two Serbs believes that homosexuality is very dangerous for society and feels the state should work on its suppression.
Psychologist Zarko Trebjesanin says there are many factors influencing homophobia, including the closed society of the 1990s, as well as family, school, media and books and movies that offer stereotypes. Aggression against homosexuals, he said, might even increase as the economic crisis takes hold, since dissatisfaction in people will rise and they will look for “a victim” they can direct their anger to.
With some polls showing that still one fourth of the population is in favour of violence against gay people, and following threats by nationalist gangs, organizers of the Belgrade Pride decided to get first a liability study with detailed security recommendations that will be worked out together with police to avoid any incidents.
Although justified by the facts on the ground, this level of care seems odd to those who remember the freer gay scene in Belgrade in the 1990s. As the capital of the former Yugoslavia, Belgrade was more liberal and tolerant, a center of free thought and an oasis for those who were different and felt stifled in their towns and villages. Many gay people from Skopje, Sarajevo and Podgorica moved to Belgrade, seeking less restricted lives in the relative anonymity of the capital.
“I felt free at that time. Although meeting places were not official, everybody knew about them, and there was no fear that someone would kill you. Belgrade was Mecca for gays from all over the ex-Yugoslavia,” Cedomir, 47, told Serbia Today. “Today, the aggressiveness of those kids is such that you have almost no wish to leave home.”
But as Yugoslavia broke up, wars stoked a new obsession with national identity. Combined with the revival of religion and patriarchy after 50 years of socialism, the influx of ethnic Serb refugees from less developed parts of ex-Yugoslavia shifted Serbian society towards a rigid nationalism and conservatism.
“Today, to be a Serb means to be Orthodox and heterosexual,” Stojanovic says. “The macho warrior culture of 1990’s is the root of Serbia’s homophobia today.”
The country’s first legal document explicitly banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was passed this year, part of a set of anti-discrimination laws needed to move forward on the path towards the much-coveted European Union membership.
“Harming those who do not harm anyone else has no excuse either in law or in ethics,” said human rights ombudsman Sasa Jankovic. “The protection of the right to express differences, including sexual ones, is the business of all of us.”