Thursday, September 24, 2015

Belgrade Pride Parade - five years hence

To put it lightly, Belgrade has a rocky history with LGBT Pride parades. During the first ever Belgrade Pride Parade in 2001, a large group of far-right nationalists attacked and beat up the participants. In 2010, last time I was here, several thousand hooligans threw stones at the parade, injured participants and policemen, and set fire to buildings and cars in the city center.

Many people in the Balkans hold an unenlightened view of homosexuality, forcing the gay community to be very discrete. One of my friends who remains closeted to his family explained that he left Serbia to study in Germany so that he could feel better about himself, but his family thinks he left so that he could improve his German and English. He told me he does not plan to return to Serbia when his studies conclude because no public figures in Serbia openly gay, and he's hoping to be an actor or journalist. This is the awful reality for the gay community here. Open displays of same-sex affection have produced hostile responses in the past, so they are kept to a minimum. This homophobic mentality triggered one of the most frightening moments of my life. While we were in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, during Bridge Year, we attended a concert that concluded a weekend of Pride events. Homophobic hooligans released tear gas at the rooftop venue and we had to evacuate while relentless tears clogged our sight and panicked voices echoed in the stairwell. Terrifying. Fortunately, everyone in our group came out unscathed and only a handful of people experienced minor injuries (a sprained wrist was the worst, if I recall).

During this year’s Pride parade, no one demonstrated outward violence. As it was the first time I marched in a Pride parade, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was most surprised by the international turnout; people had come from all around Europe and I even met some from the states, so there was almost as much English spoken (and written on banners) as there was Serbian. According to reports, roughly 300 people marched last Sunday in the city center with dozens (possibly upwards of 100) of heavily-armed policemen at the ready. The number of participants was underwhelming to me, especially given the overwhelming police presence.

The Pride parades in 2014 and 2015 have been peaceful, which suggests that something has changed in the past five years in this city. People have asserted their right to assemble to support LGBT people’s rights. This is fantastic, but it’s not enough. Though no violent acts ensued last Sunday, violent thoughts surely did. As I walked home with a small rainbow flag in my hand, I received more looks of disapproval than of any other kind.

The only reason there were so many armed policemen was because senior officials in the Serbian government demanded it be so and called any violence “intolerable.” In a country that desperately wants to see its EU candidate status raised to member status, you have to wonder whether these “senior officials” aren’t protecting the parade just to save face for the more liberally-inclined Western European counterparts watching as Serbia strengthens its code of human rights. The ’01 Pride parade received a great deal of attention and therefore backlash. As far as I’m aware there were no “senior officials” at the parade showing their support. Before the parade, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic reminded his countrymen that he did not attend last year, he would not attend this year, and he will not attend next year neither as PM nor as a citizen. Comforting words. He did add that it is a “European standard” that every citizen feels safe. Seems to me like he’s playing to his audiences at home and in the EU.

Photos from Balkan Insight.

Here are four related posts from the Bridge Year archives:
Reflecting on how I felt wearing a Pride tshirt around Novi Sad:
Takeaways from meeting with the Gay-Straight Alliance in Belgrade:

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