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Serbia's President Targets LGBTQI Community as a Distraction


For years, the LGBTQI community has been gaining in visibility in Serbia, despite hostilities from the Orthodox community and nationalists. Now, the government is questioning the country's liberalization - out of political calculation.

Pavle Menalo is sitting on a white leather sofa in Bar XL and talking about how he fell asleep right next to the dance floor the first time he was here, in one of the most famous gay clubs in the city.

"I wasn't drunk, I just didn't want to go home," he says.

At the neighboring table, a group of men order Cokes.

It's early evening in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

Black and silver tinsel glitters on the walls, and a golden Jesus spins around in a video installation above the DJ booth.

"Jesus would have a problem with that outfit in Belgrade," says one of Menola's friends.

The 23-year-old, who is bisexual, is working on his anthropology degree in Belgrade.

In recounting his youth in the northern Serbian town of Subotica, he recalls being under an almost constant state of attack.

Luckily for him, he was big and sturdily built even then.

"I don't mean that to sound stupid, but at least that way the bullies didn't dare do everything."

Even though Menalo is used to confrontation, the situation, he says, has never been as fraught as in recent weeks.

He suspects that it is no longer about his sexual identity, but about something much bigger.

"Like I fundamentally have to choose a side," he says.

Later, as Menalo steps back out into the night, there are 20 police officers standing outside the club's entrance.

The next day, a parade is scheduled through the streets as part of Europride, the major annual event of the European LGBTQI community being held in the Serbian capital this year.

International supporters have already arrived, and it wouldn't be good for Serbia's reputation if someone like Menalo were to have his nose broken on a night like this.

"This is humiliating," Menalo says as he looks at the men with their shields and body armor, a police presence that is apparently necessary so that he can dance with his friends without getting beat up afterwards.

The Accusation: Homosexuals Are a Threat to Peace

Serbia is not an easy place for anyone who isn't clearly heterosexual, to say the least.

The LGBTQI community has been gathering in Belgrade for pride parades since 2001, though there have been several interruptions.

And in 2017, Ana Brnabić became the first openly lesbian woman to hold the office of prime minister in the country.

But there is also a counter-movement, especially from Orthodox Christians and nationalists who dislike this kind of openness.

The authorities have often been accused of doing too little to combat widespread homophobia in the country.

And since last week, people like Menalo and those who advocate for LGBTQI rights in Serbia have faced a new level of vilification.

They have been accused of waging a "hybrid war."

The accusation comes from Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić himself, the man who wants to lead his country toward the European Union.

Vučić left open what exactly this supposed hybrid war is supposed to be about, but the message he sent is unmistakable: Homosexuals are a threat to societal peace.

At the end of August, Vučić even announced that the planned parade couldn't take place in Belgrade.

He said the police had too much to do and that they couldn't provide the necessary protection to the participants.

The subsequent three weeks of wrangling over whether or not to allow the parade to take place helped Vučić keep another issue out of the media.

The same day that he canceled Europride, he made a significant concession to Albin Kurti, Kosovo's prime minister.

Kosovars may now enter Serbia without needing any special documents.

For the conservatives among Vučić's voters, it was nothing less than a scandal.

But discussion of the concession was muted.

After all, Vučić had given right-wingers the opportunity to get upset about something else: the gays in the city.

East vs. West

If it didn't reveal something deeper about Serbian society, the attempt to ban the parade could simply be dismissed as a diversionary tactic.

But even before Vučić's announcement, Orthodox Christians and nationalists had demonstrated in Belgrade, holding up placards bearing messages like: "We don't want a gay parade and no occupation by the West!"

And because this year's event in Belgrade wasn't just a normal pride parade, but one with participants from all across Europe, it also took on an additional geopolitical dimension: East vs. West.

Opponents of the pride event carried a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin through the streets, while 145 members of the European Parliament signed an open letter to Serbia's leadership demanding that the Europride parade be allowed to take place.

For a number of years, Jelena Vasiljević thought the situation had grown less challenging for people like her in Serbia.

Vasiljević is 44 years old and came out at the age of 14 – at a time when the only other openly lesbian she knew of was tennis superstar Martina Navratilova.

That was in 1994 and homosexuality was still considered an illness in Serbia.

On this particular evening, as she walks into the cultural center where she co-hosts the "Women Love Women" festival, a woman is making a crude joke about breasts.

Vasiljević says that she has the feeling that the young people she meets at LGBTQI meetings are more confident and courageous than she used to be.

Vasiljević says there is far less hostility and fewer strange looks.

Plus, there's a regular pride parade, with increasing numbers of participants and less of a police presence.

Then Ana Brnabić, who is raising a child with her partner, also became prime minister.

But now all those gains appear to be on the verge of being lost.

"Everything we fought for for so long can just be taken away from us," says Vasiljević.

"Our rights are talked about as if they are no longer valid in times of crisis."

Jelena Vasiljević, activist

What the nationalists are waging as a struggle of the East against West feels to Vasiljević like an internecine fight against their own freedom, security and dignity.

"Our rights are talked about as if they are no longer valid in times of crisis," she says.

When Vučić announced that he would ban the pride event, he said: "It will take place, in another, happier time."

Couples Afraid of Being Recognized

Together with a friend, Vasiljević has started a photo project for which she takes pictures of couples who do not fit the binary norm of the heterosexual family.

They are tender, everyday images of people leaning against each other brushing their teeth, holding hands or hanging laundry together.

The photos are harmless, but you can't clearly see the faces of the subjects.

The couples are afraid of being recognized and losing their jobs.

Ultimately, though, Europride does take place, with the government agreeing to provide protection for the parade, but seeking to keep it as small as possible.

"Better stay home today," read a headline in the pro-government paper



Long before the participants arrive, their opponents gather in a street behind the parliament, right by Saint Mark's Church.

A group of women is singing a Serbian national song praising Kosovo as a holy land.

Next to them are men raising huge crosses into the air.

A Jesus on a red flag waves across the gray sky.

Some of the men are wearing camouflage, others jack boots.

One man says he believes homosexuals shouldn't be demonstrating and should go to the doctor instead.

"Maybe they can still be cured," he says.

Moreover, he adds "foreign governments are exploiting homosexuals for their own purposes" to humiliate Serbia.

The conversation veers toward the alleged dangers associated with COVID vaccines and the harm caused by surgical masks.

Then one of his buddies throws a couple of bottles at a camera crew, and the interview comes to a rapid end.

Boban Stojanović says it was this kind of hatred that led him to "flee" his country.

From 2001 to 2016, he served as one of the organizers of the Belgrade Pride parade and became one of the central figures for the LGBTQI scene.

Stojanović stayed in the country after someone smeared a swastika on his door.

And he also stayed after neo-Nazis broke into his apartment.

But when he was beaten up in Belgrade in broad daylight for all to see in 2016, and a government minister subsequently told him not to make such a fuss about what had happened, he grew frightened.

Now, he lives in Canada.

To him, the constant attacks in Serbia aren't simply homophobia.

He sees them as the defensive reflexes of an insecure country.

"After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the idea of ​​a pure Serbian identity was invented. And it is defined by identifying all those who do not belong."

"After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the idea of ​​a pure Serbian identity was invented. And it is defined by identifying all those who do not belong."

Boban Stojanović, former pride parade organizer

"A good Serb in the eyes of nationalists," Stojanović says, "is Serbian Orthodox, has never heard of Serbian war crimes and is certainly not gay."

Those who deviate from this corset of beliefs are not only ostracized, he says, but also represent an attack on the nation.

He left Serbia six years ago, and is only now fully realizing just how much fear he always had when he was there.

He says he has been able to recover in Canada.

And a period of recovery is what his country needs as well, says Stojanović: a respite from the nationalist bluster and open discussion about its culpability in the Balkan wars.

He just doesn't know how such a discussion might work.

Vučić Gives Nationalists More Space

Political scientist Vujo Ilić of the University of Belgrade sounds more confident.

"In Serbia, tolerance for minorities is growing, as is understanding for their struggles," he says.

"The only problem is that this change in society hasn't translated into politics."

Ilić has watched in recent months as Vučić, the president, has provided radical nationalists more of a platform in the state-controlled media.

"That allows Vučić to position himself in the center."

It is a center that seems like an illusion.

Since 2014, Vučić has been sending contradictory signals in foreign policy as well.

At times, he affirms his loyalty to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, only to then speak out in favor of a clear path to the EU.

But his maneuvering room for maintaining close ties to Moscow has shrunk since Russia's attack on Ukraine.

The real cause of the pride dispute, says Ilić, is actually the political impasse Vučić has reached as a result of the Ukraine war.

"To distract from this, he is now accusing the LGBTQI community of handing Serbia over to foreign actors."

The Most Important Safety Tip?

Be Invisible

It's a week ago Saturday, and a few hundred meters from the Serbian parliament, a number of people are tying rainbow flags around their shoulders.

On the way here, they tried to follow the safety tips that were included in the brochure from the Europride organizers: Try to pass unseen in the city before or after the parade.

The route designated for the parade is so short that, afterwards, the interior minister will say that pride didn't even take place, that the police only escorted people "to a concert."

An Austrian activist says: "This isn't a party."

Still, Milana dances next to him to "Alejandro" by Lady Gaga.

"I can't believe I'm really here," she says.

She apologizes in advance in case she suddenly starts crying.

But then she just beams.

Milana, 18, is from Banja Luka in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is taking to the streets for the first time to openly show that she's a lesbian.

She speaks English with an American accent, which she owes not to an exchange year but to Netflix.

On her way to the parade, she had to squeeze past police officers while being yelled at by hooligans.

But now the fear is gone.

Milana says she's optimistic.

"I have no other choice."

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2022-09-27

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