Serbia’s gays still fighting for acceptance

Serbia’s gays still fighting for acceptance

19th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

Though parliament pushed through a bill in March banning discrimination against homosexuals amid strong opposition by nationalists and religious leaders, homophobia is still rampant in Serbia.

They look like invitations to a flash-mob event: text or Facebook messages and emails with coded hints where to gather and when.

But the recipients generally know each other and the venues are secluded nightclubs, private apartments or bars -- safe meeting places for the gay community in Serbia.

"Serbia is still far from accepting gays," said a successful 38-year old financial consultant questioned at one of Belgrade's most popular clubs, Toxic.

Like many dancing there to the latest techno hits, he did not want to give his name.

Private security guards at the entrance check newcomers to head off trouble, which is not rare. Last month, a group of hooded youngsters tried to throw a tear gas bomb through the open doors but the guards managed to push them away.

"I am not ashamed of who I am but the environment I live in is ... and they are also reluctant to accept my sexual identity," said the businessman.

When he came out to his parents, they refused to talk to him for more than two years. Only when his father fell seriously ill did he welcome his son back into his life.

Denied human dignity

Homosexuals in Serbia are "denied our human dignity," said gay activist Predrag Azdejkovic. "They bombard us with messages that we are sick, less valuable, freaks, monsters. If every day you have to hide who you are, to lie to everyone fearing rejection or violence, to censor emotions towards your partner because you are outside your flat, than your life loses meaning."

A woman walks past a graffiti reading "We are expecting you" referring to the upcoming gay pride parade in Belgrade on 15 September 2009

Yet leading a double life seems to be a common strategy for gay men and lesbians in highly conservative Serbia.

Though parliament pushed through a bill in March banning discrimination against homosexuals amid strong opposition by nationalists and religious leaders, gays are still blocked from marrying, adopting children and other legal rights enjoyed by heterosexuals.

Fighting against violence

A gay pride parade to be held in Belgrade on Sunday is seen as a chance to shed light on the difficulties the community faces, but Interior Minister Ivica Dacic warned Thursday that "no recent gathering in Serbia has had such a high risk."

The parade, supported by the Ministry for Human Rights and Minorities, will be the first gay rights march since a rally in 2001 ended in violence when police failed to protect paraders from attacks by football hooligans.

Dacic said thousands of police would be deployed to protect marchers on Sunday amid "clear indications that someone is threatening" the rally.

One blunt message has already come from the right-wing ultra-nationalist group Obraz, which has a history of violent actions. "We will not allow this parade of shame to be held at any price," vowed member Mladen Obradovic.

The threats have prompted some who would like to be there to stay at home, like 19-year-old student Kokan. "I don't want to be a guinea pig, to go out on the street and be hassled, insulted or even beaten," he said.

Yet gay activists like Boris Milicevic insist that "this is a decisive moment for the gay and lesbian community ... to cross over from a role of victim, given to them by the whole society, to an active role of fighters for equal rights for everyone."

Compromised rights

Not all are willing to join the struggle. Lara, a 27-year-old teaching assistant at a private Belgrade high school, said she has hidden her sexuality so well she expects never to tell anyone but her closest friends.

"I wouldn’t have been able to get this job if I had told them the truth,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to rent a flat with my partner if we hadn't lied and said we were sisters.”
A banner referring to the upcoming gay pride parade is displayed amongst supporters of Partizan Belgrade FC, during the UEFA Europa league football match against Toulouse in Belgrade on 17 September 2009

Borko, a lawyer in his mid-50s, meanwhile, sees the new law banning discrimination based on sexual identity as "just a first step, but what about gay marriage, adoption and all issues that are not available to us?"

He recalled his own legal nightmare when his partner died two years ago after they had lived 15 years together "out of the public eye" in his partner's house.

Since he wasn't a true "family" member, he had to forge his partner's signature on a form allowing him to visit his partner in hospital. And when the man died, Borko had no spousal rights so was forced to leave their home after a court confirmed a relative's claim to inheritance.

"I felt as a part of my life was torn from me," he said. “The guy did not even allow me to collect our photos and books, memories of the past. I cannot fight back, I cannot demand my rights. I can only mourn."

Aleksandra Niksic/AFP/Expatica

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