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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.
Leadership would rather “keep sheep” than adopt progressive policy.
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.
“I am bitter and angry that they released the one who wanted to take my life.”~A.Z., 24
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