Two decades of a fight for LGBT rights in Serbia

Goran Miletić

This year marks a 20-years anniversary since homosexuality became decriminalised in Serbia. As a law student, I remember drawing the question of unnatural fornicationin my Criminal Law exam. Then, in 1993, I thoroughly explained to my professor what constituted that crime. There are no words to describe the feeling of saying, out loud, that a crime against sexual freedom is consisted of the penetration of male genitalia into the rectum of another male.Two decades later, things are different in Serbia and everyone is talking about the human rights of the LGBT community. All government representatives will verbally support the amelioration of these rights. Most of them will also admit this is one of the most discriminated against minorities in Serbia. Unfortunately, that is all they will do.

A big step towards respect of the human rights of the LGBT community happened between 2000 and 2010 when several important laws were put into force (media laws, education laws, labour law, anti-discrimination law) which clearly forbade discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, the public acts of the LGBT community were still confined within closed spaces, below the radar, especially after the interrupted Pride parade in 2001 when a big group of hooligans started beating those who had gathered in an attempt to organise the Pride parade at the Republic Square in Belgrade. Along with the paraders, everyone who looked suspiciousi.e. looked like they might be homosexual (both men and women) were attacked as well. After that, all activities were confined within 4 walls, operating quietly. That is, until the Government of Serbia had adopted an Anti-discrimination Law that was pending entryinto force for 8 years. The Law had become a condition for getting the no-visa regime for the Schengen area, and it was adopted without much discussion. Still, some conservative parties along with the Serbian Orthodox Church tried to obstruct the adoption of the Law. After the scandalous withdrawal of the draft Law, a large public debate on the rights of the LGBT community had sparked and the Law was adopted a month after its initial withdrawal.

The adoption of this anti-discrimination law was a great victory for us. We thought that was the exact moment to attempt to organise the Pride Parade again. We had named it the Pride procession(hereinafter: Pride) because a majority of the population was horrified by the term parade, as well as by the idea that someone can be proud of their different sexual orientation. That year, 2009, the Organising Committee faced intimidating remarks by the police itself on a daily basis – the police allegedly had intel that large groups of hooligans would attack Pride, attempting to run it over by cars etc. We did not give in. We had a great media campaign with celebrities, the newly adopted anti-discrimination law, a debate on sexual orientation in media and the Parliament, big preparations with the police force which was choosing when, where and by which route will Pride take place. Despite all the preparatory work, days before Pride was to take place, the Organising Committee was invited to meet the Prime Minister himself only to be informed by him that the police will not protect Pride participants. This was given out in written form only after the Committee requested so, since there was an intention of conveying this message only orally. The reasons behind prohibiting Pride were formally for the sake of maintaining security, however, no one was arrested for the preparations of the alleged violence. Some extremists were called to court for graffiti such as death to gaysor we are waiting for you, but the adjudications were often annulled All the while a majority of these extremists were mocking the judicial system with their defences. The only bright spot in the judicial system is the Constitutional Court that declared the prohibition of Pride unconstitutional.

Experiences from the first formal Pride in Serbia (2010) were as follows: we had to meet with every political party and every one of them had to be at least neutral about Pride. It was similar with institutions that turned those benevolent consultations into inappropriate requests such as: where the Pride route should not go, which words/slogans cannot be used, etc. In the preparatory phase, and especially during the attacks, it was clearly visible that those who are supposed to make sure that law is respected are exactly the ones that highly appreciate and respect extremists that attack citizens that have assembled peacefully and the police protecting them.

Even though the police was well aware of who the extremists are, no one was arrested before Pride 2010, and after violence induced by circa 6.000 hooligans only 250 were arrested afterwards. Out of these, only 100 were indicted, while less than 40 were convicted for smaller prison sentences. Despite a vast number of well-prepared hooligans, none of the participants sustained any injuries. Another piece of good news is that this means the police can protect the participants of Pride, if there is a political willto do so, as they call it in Serbia. The bad news is that almost all politicians have blamed the LGBT community for the city being demolished, instead of blaming the ones who have actually done the demolishing. What is also bad news is that none of the politicians said that members of the LGBT community were the target of these extremists so in the end it looked as if the LGBT community were attacked by an imaginary enemy. This behavioral pattern of politicians has yet to change, even four years after the first Pride.

The aforementioned political willor the lack of it meant that the next three Prides (2011, 2012, 2013) were prohibited. Because of how things went in 2011, the highest security body – National Security Council, made of the President, Prime Minister and four most relevant persons in the area of security – this body meets 2 times per year – met because of Pride. The result was a prohibition of Pride and 16 other gatherings scheduled by the extremists on that same day. This means that a group of citizens that had scheduled a peaceful assembly months ahead were treated as equals to extremists who planned violent assemblies.

In those three years, we met on a daily basis with the police, preparing every detail regarding security. There was not a single signal that it would be prohibited and we have let the police decide every detail in order for security to be at top level – we only wanted to take a walk of 920 steps around a single block. The last meeting with the police ended with them saying see you on Sunday morning.When, on the next day, Pride was prohibited, I was called to the cabinet of the Minister of Interior Affairs. They showed me a folder that, according to them, contained evidence that massive violence was planned on the streets of Belgrade. I only had two questions – if anyone was arrested because of that and if anyone will be arrested? The police representatives remained silent. Of course, no one was ever arrested and the same happened last year, when no one was arrested either.

And what did we do when all these Prides were prohibited? Despite our disappointment, in 2011, we held a Pride in 4 wallscalled so because the Mayor of Belgrade told us we should stick to activities confined within four walls, and not expose ourselves by walking since that will provoke the extremists. We were forced to stay within a single conference room with all the public figures and representatives of the international community. After the debate, we took to the streets, spilled some paint in the colours of the rainbow and unveiled a banner that said Love. Normally.

Next year, we had to stay in front of that same conference room, because any movement towards the streets would be stopped by cordons of police. In 2013, despite the prohibition, we went out in the streets and held a Midnight Pride, going by the same route that wechose for this year, 2014.

Finally, in 2014, Pride happened and there was not a single incident. To a majority of regular citizens, there has been enough talk about Pride, but to the authorities, organising a successful Pride was in their interest. Pride was held in September 2014. Even though this is considered a major success, we cannot be satisfied with the fact that several thousands of well-equipped policemen had to protect us in order for Pride to be safe. The point of Pride is for the participants to be visible to regular citizens that can watch the procession. In Belgrade, that is not possible yet. You are either in the procession with the participants, or you are far from it and cannot see anything due to police cordons.

All of this is Serbias reality today. The LGBT community is still the only minority that faces physical elimination ifpublicly wishes to show its identity. I truly hope this will change in the next two decades.

About the Author

Goran Miletić has a Master of Laws from Belgrade University (Serbia) and a European Regional MA in Democracy and Human Rights (joint programme of the University of Sarajevo and the University of Bologna). He has previously worked for the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC) in Belgrade (Serbia). During his work in HLC, Mr. Miletić dealt mainly with minority rights, including Roma, Albanians and Bosniaks. His work included monitoring of freedom from torture and prohibition of discrimination. That included advocacy and lobbying activities as well as representing the victims before courts in Montenegro and Serbia. Goran worked on the preparation of different shadow reports on implementation of UN and Council of Europe conventions, as well as the reports “Roma in Serbia” and “Albanians in Serbia”. He has also worked on preparation of applications to UN bodies for Montenegro and Serbia.

Goran Miletić started working for the Civil Rights Defenders (former Swedish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights) in 2004 as Programme Officer and later Human Rights Lawyer for the Western Balkans. His work includes co-operation and support of different human rights and minority NGOs from Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Macedonia. During his work he was particularly engaged in drafting and lobbying for adoption of inclusive anti-discrimination legislation in Western Balkan countries. He prepared and conducted numerous training sessions related to human rights, prohibition of torture, prison monitoring, advocacy, lobbying and monitoring of human and minority rights. His lectures included various aspects of respect of human and minority rights as well as legislation and practice in countries in the region. He was involved in capacity building of human rights activists not only in the Balkans, but also in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and globally.

During his work he prepared numerous reports, articles and lectures, and was published in the region. His public appearance include human rights related lectures and promotion and advocacy for human and minority rights as well as publishing of different analyses, articles and columns in major media in Serbia and the region. In 2010, Mr. Miletić became a candidate for the Equality Commissioner in Serbia, proposed by more than 250 organisations. He is a member of the European Commission of Sexual Orientation Law (ECSOL) and a member of the Board of Heartefact Fund.

At the moment, he is finalising PhD thesis at Law school University Union, Belgrade, with subject of discrimination in civil proceedings. Since 2011, he is the Programme Director for the Western Balkans within Civil Rights Defenders.

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