Contemporary Homophobia in Serbia

The one and only Gaypride parade in Serbia

Those who are interested in Eastern Europe, will probably remember pictures and reports about the one and only Gaypride parade in Serbia in June 2001: one thousand Hooligans were beating up one hundred participants of the Gaypride in the Center of Belgrade while the police were watching and refusing to help people escaping from the battle. Only when the police themselves became the target of the nationalists, clerofascists and right-wing youth, they started to act in order to defend themselves. Although they knew that right-wing, Christian-Orthodox groups like “Obraz” and others would hold a counter-demonstration, they did not care for better security and refused contact with the organisers.

Politicians made no comment

After the incident, politicians made no comment on it or claimed, like the former president of Serbia, Kostunica, that they were not informed about it or, like the former prime minister Djindjic, that Serbia is not ready for this kind of demonstration. The event took place one year after the Serbian government had changed in 2000 and everybody taking part in organising the parade hoped that Serbia had in only one year transformed into a liberal society where everything was possible that was possible also elsewhere in Europe.

We have to take into account that in the judicative system Serbia has undertaken big steps towards the equality of homosexuals. Homosexuality was illegal until 1994, whereas in the other former Yugoslav republic Slovenia equality already exists since the 1970ies. Since the year of 2006, the “Age of Consent”, homosexuals and heterosexuals are treated equally in Serbian criminal law. From legalisation to the changes in criminal law only 12 years passed – a relatively short time period considering that the country was involved in several wars during the 90ies and was therefore isolated from the international community.

Labris claims an anti-discrimination law

Nowadays, discrimination in regard to sexual orientation is forbidden in labour law, media law and high education law. But for some homosexuals living in Serbia, these steps are not big enough. “Labris”, an NGO for lesbian human rights, claims that Serbia also needs to pass an anti-discrimination law where discrimination concerning sexual orientation is strictly forbidden. This law, it is claimed, would also be the precondition for becoming a member of the European Union.

In Serbia the thinking of quite a lot of people is shaped by religious beliefs and nationalism. To them, all bad things come from Europe. They think that becoming part of the European Union will endanger their traditions. Obviously, they are seeing their opinion confirmed by the Serbian NGOs’ assertion that the equality of homosexuals would be a precondition for entering the European Union.

90 % of gays and lesbians experience violence

But even if there was equality of homosexuality in all sections of law, it would not necessarily mean that the population internalise these ideas. Violence against gays and lesbians is very widespread, with 90% of gays and lesbians either experiencing verbal or physical violence themselves or knowing people who got attacked because of their sexual orientation. 70% of homosexuals in Serbia have experienced violence in one or the other way themselves. Most often gay men become the target of physical attack, e.g. by right-wing activists.

An attack on a woman who “looked like a lesbian” in Novi Sad

However, in 2005 there was an attack on a young woman who “looked like a lesbian” in Novi Sad, the capital of the automonous province Vojvodina, which is known for its multiethnic and tolerant atmosphere. This is the reason why most gays and lesbians have not come out to their parents and friends and homosexual relationships are practised in private locations.

Many parents have thrown out their children after they got to know about their sexual orientation. And in Serbia it is vital to be in good relations with your parents in order to be supported in all situations of life, not only during the student years. Without the help of one’s parents, one would hardly be able to study, to raise children and to start up one’s own life. Most young people live with their parents until they are 30 or even longer. It is also not unusual that three generations live under the same roof.

The turn to religion, the church and nationalist identity

During the wars of the 90ies and the following isolation of Serbia, nationalism increased and people’s relation to the church became stronger. In the formerly secular country of Yugoslavia, in all republics, people now more and more identify with the religion that is associated to their ethnicity. Thus, the Serbian-orthodox church became very popular among the young and the old. Problematically, the Serbian-orthodox church does historically not make a difference between clergy and rulers, between church and state. Another problem is the non-existing tradition of law within the Orthodox church. So, in every transformation period, it is difficult to make the orthodox population understand that laws are important for everyday’s life. In times of war and nationalism, people in Serbia have identified even more with the Serbian-orthodox church. It was the only Serbian institution during the Ottoman Empire and so it is strongly connected with particularly the Serbian people. Considering this, it becomes obvious how easily right-wing and conservative groups link themselves to the church.

Internal ennemies: Roma, Jews and Homosexuals

Nowadays, nationalists regard Croats, Slovenians and Muslims as external enemies while Roma and Jews are internal enemies. Both groups are thought to endanger the Serbian people. The third, non-ethnic group thought to endanger Serbian existence is comprised of the homosexuals. It is argued that gay and lesbian persons do not give birth and raise children. This argument is also continuously used against homosexual marriage by politicians of all parties. (As if homosexuals would give birth more often, if homosexual marriage continues to be illegal.) But after all, Serbia, still recovering from a turbulent period of war and dealing with its strongest side-effect nationalism, needs more time to develop and accept new ideas and alternative ways of life. We have to take into account that every country in Western Europe had four decades from the first public homosexual demonstration until today. Four decades of struggle to legalise homosexuality, to pass laws against discrimination and to introduce homosexual marriage.

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