Anti-discrimination groups urge national governments to lead the way in promoting tolerance.
By Harriet Salem for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 26/08/13
A protester holds a cross as riot police attempt to maintain order during Serbia's last gay pride parade in 2010. [AFP]
What do you get if you put three hardened war criminals from the former Yugoslavia into a flaming pink mini and send them on a road trip with a gay rights activist from Belgrade?
When Serbian film director Srdan Dragojevic did it he got a surprising Balkan box office hit.
Released in 2011, "Parada" follows the story of Limon, a homophobic ex-military commander, and Radmilo, a gay rights activist, on their tour through the former Yugoslavia. The unlikely duo, forced to co-operate by a bizarre set of circumstances, set off on a mission to persuade Limon's old war buddies to provide private security at Belgrade's upcoming Pride event.
Ruthlessly invoking the Balkans simmering ethnic tensions, macho culture and sexual conservatism, the film's cynical black humour attracted praise from international film critics. However, its success with regional audiences was more surprising.
Following the collapse of socialism and brutal ethnic wars of the 1990s and early 2000s that resulted in the splintering of Yugoslavia, many in the region turned to traditional values and religion to affirm reawakened national identities.
"[This] conservatism includes the ideal of the family based around heterosexual marriage. This provokes hostility toward the LGBT movement and has a complex relationship with politics, with many governments being reluctant to support LGBT rights," said Ulrike Lunacek, co-president of the European Parliament Intergroup on LGBT rights.
In spite of the complex ethnic and religious Balkan demographics, staunch opposition to LGBT rights have transcended new borders and old conflicts -- a point Dragojevic cleverly made in "Parada."
"Chetnik," "Balija," and "Shiptar," the opening titles of the film, introduce audiences to the derogatory terms used by peoples of the former Yugoslavia to refer to one another, finishing with "one used by everyone, Peder," an offensive slang term for homosexual, derived from a word for paedophile.
Last year, the Rainbow Europe Map, produced by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) showed those former Yugoslav countries still outside the EU to be among Europe’s poorest performers in the protection of LGBT rights, with scores ranging from minus 4 to 8 out of 30. Slovenia and new EU member Croatia fared a little better with scores of 9 and 10, respectively.
Day-to-day reality is even more dismal. Juris Lavrikovs, communications manager for ILGA, said societal and political attitudes in the region lag further behind legislative provisions.
Extremist protesters caused disturbances during Montenegro's first gay pride parade on July 24th. [AFP]
"Currently the LGBTI community often do not report discrimination or attacks because if you live in a homophobic society you are afraid to take a case to court. So there is also a problem of under-reporting and legislation not being upheld or enforced," Lavrikovs told SETimes.
Following the film's success in November 2011, Dragojevic said he hoped that "Belgrade Pride 2012 could happen for the first time in history without violence." But last year's event was, for the second consecutive year, subject to a last-minute ban by the government, which claimed participants' safety against attacks from religious and nationalist far-right groups could not be guaranteed.
Recent attempts to hold the first gay pride parades in Macedonia and Montenegro have also met with hostility from extreme religious groups.
In the coastal town of Budva, where Montenegro Pride was held in July, businesses stopped playing music to signify their opposition while angry crowds chanted anti-gay slurs. After the event, local Orthodox priest Boris Radovic performed a "cleansing ceremony," stating to the media that, "the church condemns this parade of shame and disease, we are praying to God to repel this disease and devil’s attack on Montenegro."
In the weeks preceding Macedonia’s Pride events, June 22nd to 27th, the country's capital Skopje also saw a spate of anti-gay violence, including the issuance of death threats to event organisers, an arson attack on Skopje’s LGBTI Centre, and the mob attack of prominent "out" Macedonian TV star Petar Stojkovik
As in Serbia and Montenegro, religious groups -- in this case both Christian and Muslim -- were at the forefront of anti-gay campaigns.
In spite of deep-rooted opposition, LGBT rights are significantly further progressed in Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia than elsewhere in the Balkans.
"In these countries, LGBT rights are on the agenda, there is a history of activism and groups are organising cultural events such as Pride," Lunacek said.
By contrast, homophobic sentiment in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is so pervasive the LGBT community remains largely underground. Both activism and social spaces (such as gay cafes, clubs and bars) are virtually non-existent.
"This is a very conservative society, people are afraid to be 'out.' There are a couple of great activists, but most LGBTI people live their life underground," said Simon Maljevac, project manager of Challenging Homophobia, an EU funded project in Kosovo.
Anti-discrimination groups say governments should take the lead in promoting tolerance. [AFP]
Last winter, magazine Kosovo 2.0’s launch party for its special edition "Sex and Sexuality" -- which included articles on LGBT rights and discrimination -- was brought to an abrupt end after an angry mob attacked the event. The crowd threw stones and chanted slogans, "out pederasts," and "God is great" as police evacuated attendees. Threats against the publication’s staff such as, "we will take revenge in the name of Allah you filthy whore" and "death to homosexuals" then appeared on social networking sites. Kosovo is the only country in the region where the "Parada" movie was deemed too controversial for screening.
Maljevac, who has witnessed the rapid progression of LGBT rights in his native Slovenia, is optimistic there will be progress as other countries in the region edge toward the EU.
"The EU helps push this issue forward, not just LGBT rights, but civil rights more broadly. Progress in Slovenia has been huge in the past 10 years," Maljevac said.
The same is also true for new EU member Croatia. In 2011, scenes of bloody violence at a Pride event held in the coastal city Split made international news when anti-gay protesters, backed by the Catholic Church, attacked marchers. This year, despite continuing opposition from the church, Zagreb’s Pride passed peacefully. The presence of several marchers in wedding attire, a reference to on-going debates on gay marriage, signified just how far public opinion has come.
While EU membership provides impetus for change it should not be viewed as a fix-all solution.
"Legally speaking the EU only demands anti-discrimination legislation, it does not demand partnership regulations, let alone marriage or adoption, that’s not an EU area," Lunacek said. "National governments must lead the way… In Croatia the change of government has meant a lot. There were five ministers at the pride parade this year."
Across the region, winning hearts and minds undoubtedly remains the toughest challenge.
"For this we need to support governments and activists in increasing visibility of LGBT people," Lunacek said.
Funded by the Council of Europe and the national cultural ministries in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia, she praised "Parada" as a "great example" of the potential for government and internationally funded cultural initiatives to raise awareness and stimulate public debate.
"It is a simple love story," Lunacek said. "It shows LGBT people are just like everyone else."
What tactics can government use to promote tolerance toward the LGBT community? Share your thoughts in the comments section.