It is not easy being LGBT in Serbia

Prajd Info Centre. Belgrade, August 2017. [Milan Obradovic/Betaphoto]

Belgrade’s annual Pride Week began on Monday (11 September) and will end with a march on Sunday (17 September). Pride parades were held over the past few years with strong security measures and, in the meantime, Serbia elected a gay prime minister. EURACTIV.rs reports.

Despite this, the position of the LGBT community in the country remains unenviable.

The UN Development Program (UNDP) report, Being LGBT in Eastern Europe, the results of which were presented on Wednesday (13 September), showed that gays and lesbians, and persons living with HIV, rank amongst the most discriminated against communities in Serbia.

The coordinator of the project, Nenad Petković, stated that LGBT persons were exposed to discrimination in various segments of life – in health, employment, education, and access to welfare.

Petković said that LGBT persons were often victims of hate crimes or hate rhetoric, but that such crimes are not sufficiently investigated, and that there were no court verdicts which would sanction such crimes on the basis of their real or presumed orientation or gender identity.

Some of the recommendations from the report are the adoption of the law on same-sex marriages, on gender identity, more efficient court proceedings in cases of hate crimes and discrimination of LGBT persons, adoption of a new strategy for the HIV infection, ensuring access to physicians, protection of transgender persons with HIV.

Deputy Ombudsman Gordana Stevanović stated that another problem was the fact that LGBT persons shun addressing the institutions, primarily because they are not prepared to come out, or because of their earlier experiences with the institutions not reacting at all or inadequately reacting when they did address them.

This year, Pride Week will encompass more than 50 events, including the International Conference on hate crimes and hate rhetoric, the Pride Forum, exhibitions, theater plays, film screenings, public debates, lectures, and parties.

A novelty in this year’s Pride Week is the Pride Info Center, which opened in central Belgrade at the end of August as the first public space intended for informing the public about events concerning Pride Week and the Pride Parade. The centre will be opened on 25 September.

The commissioner for equality protection, Brankica Janković, welcomed the opening of the center and announced that the employees of her office would be providing information at the Pride Info Center, once a week, about the procedure for lodging complaints about discrimination and other activities of the commissioner directed towards ensuring equality.

Dragoslava Barzut, the director of LGBT NGO Let it Be Known, stated that in a year and a half in existence, his organisation had registered more than 70 instances of disturbances and hate crimes against LGBT persons and that none of these cases were solved.

At a 12 September presentation, Barzut said that, of all the registered cases, there was only one positive verdict, on the basis of the law on the prevention of discrimination, which the Appellate Court nullified.

Commenting on the appointment of the first publicly declared gay person to the Serbian prime minister’s office, Barzut said the indicator of success of human rights status in a country was not the fact that the prime minister is a lesbian, but whether bullies are being punished.

“We cannot speak of other rights until the level of rights is satisfactory for anyone living in Serbia. As an activist, it is important to me that every LGBT person in Serbia is safe, and if someone is afraid to say they are lesbian, transgender or gay, then we have a problem in Serbia, which cannot be changed by appointing a lesbian as prime minister,” Barzut said.

The organisation’s public relations coordinator, Stefan Šparavalo, said the appointment of Ana Brnabić as prime minister could help the LGBT community in terms of visibility, adding that “a good portion of the motive for her appointment was for Serbia to be presented as a progressive country”.

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Meanwhile, President Aleksandar Vučić stated that he would not attend the Pride Parade because he would have “important work to do” on that day and that he would not go even if he did not have it.

“I am not interested and I have no intention of going,” Vučić said at a 12 September news conference.

Vučić said Prime Minister Ana Brnabić would go, together with several ministers and Belgrade Mayor Siniša Mali.

Previous experiences

In 2009, the Pride Parade was cancelled by the organisers after the police told them that there were no conditions for it to be held without incidents at the plateau in front of the Faculty of Philosophy, where it had been scheduled to take place. After that, the Serbian government stated that it had allowed the holding of the Pride Parade “despite all the security risks”, but in a different location, which the organisers rejected.

One year later, in 2010, the Pride Parade was held with the participation of an estimated 1,000 people, domestic and foreign officials, with strong police security. However, there was a clash between the hooligans and the police in central Belgrade, with more than 100 injured and several dozen arrested.

After criticisms of the security services, the Pride Parade was not held in Serbia in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Then, in 2014, 2015 and 2016, it was held with a strong security presence.

The first Pride Parade in Belgrade, on 30 June 2001, was interrupted after the participants were attacked by extremist groups, in the presence of police. Several marchers were injured.

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More participants, fewer police

On 5 September, while announcing the Belgrade Pride Week in Niš, a city in southern Serbia from where many participants and volunteers are expected at this year’s Pride Parade, the organisers said this year’s event would have more than 2,000 participants and that they hoped it would be held with fewer members of the police than in 2016.

Marko Mihailović of the organisation committee of Belgrade Pride 2017 said on that occasion that, according to initial information, there would be fewer police at the Pride Parade than in the previous years. “We hope that is a trend that would continue,” Mihailović stated.

Biljana Popović Ivković, the state secretary of the interior ministry, said she hoped the Pride Parade in Belgrade would be held “in an orderly manner”.

“Serbia is a tolerant society. There were no problems in the previous years, so it is pointless to speak about that at this moment. I wish we had no need to discuss the problems and security risks, and for everything to pass in an orderly manner, and for scenes from 2010 to never be repeated, when a number of citizens and police officers were injured,” she told BETA on 6 September.

Speaking at the Together Against Discrimination rally in Belgrade, the state secretary said that the police would not tolerate violence against members of the LGBT population and other minority groups.

Participants of the gathering said the forming of a local network for supporting the communited represented a great step forward in the protection of LGBT persons in Serbia.

“There has been progress regarding the institutions’ responding. The police characterises all attacks on members of the LGBT community as hate crimes, but it should be seen where the blockade comes into the picture after their action,” said Jelena Vasiljević of the lesbian human rights organisation Labris.

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