BELGRADE, Serbia — Although the Serbian parliament guaranteed the country’s LGBT citizens protection in 2009 by passing the hard-won Anti-Discrimination Law, gay Serbs say their day-to-day reality is a nightmarish diversion from that egalitarian legislation.
This disconnect between law and practice leaves gays and lesbians vulnerable to vicious verbal and physical attacks in the streets, churches and homes of their country and also provides a challenge to the US and EU in how best to apply more aggressive diplomatic tactics to enforce the principle that gay rights are human rights. Just weeks after the Obama administration unveiled a groundbreaking new foreign policy directing American agencies working abroad to step up their efforts to protect LGBT rights, the culture of fear that exists for gay Serbs underscores both the need for this initiative and what some critics feel is its weakness.
Historically, the Serbian government has demonstrated a stiff resistance to just about any form of international pressure. For example, the current government's stubborn position on the autonomy of Kosovo is reportedly delaying the country's bid to join the European Union. So Serbian LGBTs say they are not optimistic about the delicate process of diplomacy, and particularly the US State Department's 'positive' approach to encouraging an embrace of gay rights without any clear consequence when a country fails to improve its record.
Some members of Serbia's gay community, like a 23-year-old man from Vojvodina who spoke with GlobalPost, are desperate for relief.
The man, who asked that we identify him only by his initials, I.J., to protect his identity out of fear for his life, has often experienced the brutality of a hyper-macho, homophobic mentality that LGBT advocates say is pervasive in Serbia. Activists say it is a fiercely homophobic culture that begins with the anti-gay teachings of the Serbian Orthodox Church, further legitimized by major political figures and enforced by a violent street culture of nationalist thugs and soccer hooligans.
After enduring repeated discrimination and abuse from an early age and fleeing to the city of Novi Sad for a better life, I.J. was approached on October 31 by two large men in tracksuits and beaten in the head near his home. He was left unconscious in the street for two hours. No one stopped to help and when he finally awoke, the city’s emergency services refused to send an ambulance to pick him up.
“I do not provoke anyone," says I.J., an activist with Izadji [“Going Out”], a local NGO. “I am an effeminate man and since recently I am an activist. Maybe that is what irritates all of these ‘macho men.’”
Though more than half of Serbians say they oppose violence against homosexuals, more than two thirds believe homosexuality is a disease. LGBT Serbians and their allies report that the country’s society is rabidly intolerant of sexual minorities, often equating gays and lesbians with the inhabitants of the doomed Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, painting homosexuality as a Western import bent on destroying the Serbian nation and its Christian religion.
Serbian authorities cancelled this year’s gay pride march in Belgrade, scheduled for October 2, citing concerns about violence. Nationalist extremists and soccer hooligans rioted during last year’s bitterly contended event, the first since 2001, injuring dozens. Orthodox priests and nuns surrounded the participants, clutching crosses and burning incense as hundreds booed and jeered. Ultimately, thousands of rioters used the march as a jumping-off point for a spree of looting and violence.
Although the Orthodox Church officially condemns any violence committed against gays, it also awarded Interior Minister Ivica Dacic an honorary “White Angel” medal five days after he announced the ban on this year’s pride parade. Serbian religious and political leaders regularly support each other’s homophobic statements and actions, fueling an aggressive brand religious nationalism in a country still dealing with the bloody legacy of war and genocide — and still looking for a scapegoat.
“These days you uphold the honor of Serbia when some ‘democrats‘ — I don’t know what to call them — try to put Serbia on the wall of shame and cause the spilling of Serbian blood on Belgrade streets,” said Orthodox Bishop Filaret in presenting the award. “You had the manliness and courage to say, ‘Enough!’”
One month before his severe October beating, a group of young people stoned I.J. on the street, shouting, "Faggot! Faggot!" That time he escaped without injury.
“Harassment is nothing new for me,” he said. “I’m already accustomed to various forms of abuse since my childhood.”
I.J. said his painful memories date back to primary school, when as a 11-year-old boy he was sexually abused by a teenage male from his village. He kept the abuse secret for six years, considering it as a shame to his family. It did not end until the age of 17 when I.J. left his village for Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city and the capital of the province of Vojvodina. Out on his own, he realized definitively that he was gay.
"I would not say that sexual abuse caused my sexual orientation,” I.J. said. “I would rather say it helped me to understand me who I am."
A few days after he was beaten on the street, I.J., lost his job at a textile company .
"I was sent home to relax after all I survived, but then I was informed that there is no need to come to the job anymore," said I.J., seeing his firing as an act of obvious sexual discrimination. He has tried to put himself into a bubble of anonymity.
"I have to hide my full name, the name of company where I am now working, but it is not just because of myself,” he said, a look of fatigue and sadness in his eyes. “I do not want my friends and my family to feel uncomfortable or to be attacked due to me, although all of them know about my sexual orientation. Nothing
will change me. I am gay, I like what I am and I will not have a skeleton in the closet."
A.Z., 24, also wanted to avoid secrecy about her identity, proudly showing that she belongs to Serbia’s LGBT population. It could have cost her life.
She said was attacked 15 days before I.J. was, in the center of Belgrade. A young perpetrator set out to kill her because she wore a shirt with an LGBT logo on it.
The attack happened at 4:15 a.m. as A.Z. headed home with two of her friends. Noticing the shirt, an attacker shouted at her repeatedly, asking whether she was a lesbian. Then he pulled out a knife and attacked, cutting the tendons on two fingers of her right hand. Doctors diagnosed a contusion on her head and multiple bruises throughout her body inflicted by the attacker's punches and kicks. Although the man was arrested soon afterward, the judge released him because he is a minor.
"I am bitter and angry that they released the one who wanted to take my life,” she wrote in a letter read at the protest Dosta je ("It is enough") held in front of the Serbian government headquarters in October.
Mary Warlick, the US Ambassador to Serbia, warned the country is a highly dangerous place for its LGBT population.
"The risk of violence against LGBT persons in Serbia is still high,” she wrote. “In last year's [Gay Straight Alliance] survey, 14 percent of respondents said that violence and beatings are legitimate ways to respond to homosexuality. Many members of the LGBT community who have been victims of crime are afraid to go to
the police, fearing it would draw attention to themselves and only make things worse.”
The Obama administration’s LGBT policy, which treats gay rights as human rights in matters of US diplomacy and foreign assistance, will be implemented by the US Embassy in Belgrade in the coming months, said press attaché Brian Stimmler.
But the policy will not threaten any of the approximately $50 million in aid that Serbia receives annually, much of it already directed toward political and economic reforms.
“The US approach to LGBT rights is affirmative, not punitive,” he said. “The United States is concerned with how to use all of its tools, including assistance, to most effectively advance human rights for all, including LGBT individuals.”
Nevena Petrusic, Serbia's first Commissioner for Equality, expressed a sense of urgency about the state of Serbia’s gay community, which she said "is exposed to threats, hate speech, discrimination and violence almost daily.”
Gay activists consider the banning of the 2011 pride parade yet another signal that encourages local gangs to attack homosexuals and those they associate with. Serbian gay organizations point the finger at politicians and clerics of the Serbian Orthodox Church as the top of the Serbian homophobic pyramid.
The Gay and Lesbian Info Center (GLIC) blames Minister Dacic along with Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas and Jagodina Mayor Dragan Markovic Palma for open animosity toward Serbia’s domestic LGBT population.
By canceling the parade rather than protecting it, the group believes, Dacic sent a message that the gay community could not trust the police to shield it from violence. Mayor Djilas reinforced that notion when he seconded Dacic’s announcement, saying he would “never support any event that can endanger the safety of Belgraders" and that Serbia has “bigger problems” that whether to hold a pride event in Belgrade.
It is not first time that authorities have conceded the battle against anti-gay violence. In 2009 he said Serbian police could not guarantee protection for the gay pride event because anti-gay opponents had allegedly planned to fire projectiles from the windows of the nearby buildings.
The Jagodina mayor honored Dacic also, offering him the “Plaque of the City” in October.
"Minister Dacic was strong and resolute to postpone the ‘Shame Parade’ for better times — for instance, for 2075 or 2085, when different conditions will have been met," said local assembly president Ratko Stevanovic.
Amfilohije Radovic, a metropolitan in the Serbian Orthodox Church, declared homosexuals "the stench that poisoned and polluted Belgrade,” and charged that the Church "pushes under carpet" gays who are highly positioned in the Church hierarchy.
The mutual reinforcement the Church and state provide one another in their anti-gay policies is formidable, but devoted LGBT rights activists have leveraged the 2009 Anti-Discrimination Law to bring charges against several leaders and anti-LGBT actors. It states: “Everyone shall have the right to declare his/her sexual orientation, and discriminatory treatment on account of such a declaration shall be forbidden.”
In November the First Basic Court in Belgrade proclaimed Jagodina Mayor Markovic guilty of “severe discrimination” against the Serbian LGBT population in a case brought against him by the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). The court forbade Markovic to reoffend and ordered him to reimburse legal costs to GSA.
GSA has also filed against the creator of a Facebook page advocating anti-LGBT violence and against the Serbian Daily Press, which published readers’ comments that supported imprisoning or slaughtering LGBTs.
In August 2010 a lesbian organization called LABRIS took aim at the Orthodox leader Radovic for his public comments against homosexuals, causing the Serbian Commissioner for Equality to order Radovic to apologize publicly.
The legacy of former President Slobodan Milosevic still hangs over Serbia, 10 years after his arrest for war crimes. The last decade has not been kind to a country promised more transparency, less corruption and a stronger economy. The country is still putting up political resistance over Kosovo, a dispute that is reportedly keeping Serbia out of the European Union. Little progress has materialized but many of the leaders are the same.
The Interior Minister Dacic is still a member of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and in the 1990s was one of Milosevic's most loyal acolytes. The Serbian public still remembers an inconsolable Dacic weeping in the mass of people who followed the dictator's coffin after his 2006 death while imprisoned in The Hague. And Bishop Filaret scandalized the public in 1991, during the war with Croatia, when he was proudly photographed in front of a Serbian tank with a machine gun in his hands.
Mayor Palma is still a member of the Party of Serbian Unity, headed by Serbian warlord Zeljko Razantovic Arkan — accused of war crimes against Muslims and Albanians in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Meanwhile ordinary homophobic citizens are well organized in very influential Facebook groups. Kristijan Zivanovic, 18, a member of the group "A million Orthodox Christians against queer parade" stabbed gay German tourist Dominic Miller, 18, while he was walking with his partner along the Sava River in Belgrade in August 2010.
"I was annoyed because they were kissing and hugging,” Zivanovic said later. “They behaved like ‘faggots’ and that [drove] me into madness. I thought, ‘Let them go where they came from.’" Under the influence of alcohol, he decided to "give them a lesson," seriously wounding Miller. On his Facebook profile Zivanovic was proudly photographed holding a gun, yet another indication of the Milosevic’s bloody legacy, a form of militarized Serbian macho-culture built over various historical periods. A sentence has yet to be handed down in the case.
In addition to the pro-rights court rulings supported by the 2009 Anti-Discrimination Law, Serbian society is opening up — very slowly — in a few key ways.
In 2008 the Serbian Medical Society confirmed that homosexuality is not a disease, citing its membership in the World Health Organization and deferring to its opinions.
In December 2010 an openly gay leader, Boris Milicevic, joined the board of a Serbian political party for the first time at the Assembly of the Socialist Party of Serbia.
And in October 2011 the Belgrade Book Fair presented a special award to the Serbian edition of "Gay Life and Culture : A World History" by Robert Aldrich.
International advocates like Council for Global Equality senior advisor Julie Dorf said she is hopeful for progress on LGBT rights in Serbia on other Eastern European countries.
“I think that entire region holds a lot of promise for our movement,” she said. “Even though it gets less attention, some of the most extraordinary LGBT organizations have developed in that region over the past decade.”
Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch concurred, saying even a piece of the $3 million fund Clinton announced in early December as part of the administration’s new policy could bring progress.
“In countries like Serbia where legislation is in place but the implementation is not there, small amounts can make a difference,” Dittrich said.
But Serbia’s deeply entrenched leadership is largely resistant to progressive change. Markovic, for example, said he’d rather "keep sheep" in Serbia than be a part of EU whose members support homosexuals.
"There is no hope for better life of Serbian gays lately," says I.J., adding that Serbia remains a “European gay ghetto” as LGBTs run the risk of injury or death because of their sexual identities.
“A country where love is punished by beatings and death doesn't have any [European] perspective,” I.J. said, “Or instill in you a sense that Serbia is a country that is worthwhile to stay in."
GlobalPost strives to publish the full real names of its sources whenever possible. In cases where publishing actual names could put these sources in danger, we opt to publish their initials, first names, or in rare cases, pseudonyms.