A thin, handsome man in his early 30s smiled shyly, took another sip of beer, and talked about how he loved the smell of men. Laughter erupted from the others at the table as another said, “God, yes!” His voice dropped to say, “I’ve never said these things aloud to another person. It feels — good.”
The setting could have been an American consciousness-raising meeting, the kind of social club activism popularized in the ’60s and ’70s by second-wave feminists. But it’s not. Instead we were thousands of miles from the U.S., in a smoky neighborhood café, Meduza, in Belgrade, Serbia. It was 2017 and I was facilitating the conversation at Meduza, a venue with a reputation for progressive politics, and whose Serbian internet password translated roughly to “Death to Fascism.”
I had traveled to Serbia last September as a guest of the Civil Rights Defenders, one of the leading proponents of human rights in Europe and a principal partner of Belgrade Pride. I had attended the previous year and was touched by the courage and commitment of the people I met, including LGBT rights activist Boban Stojanović, who would seek and receive political asylum with his partner, Adam Puškar, in Canada just a few months later. He told me he could no longer tolerate repeated episodes of gay bashing, as one of the country’s few out gay men.
I proposed facilitating a series of what we would come to call the Queer Café, to offer focused conversation and an opportunity to organize within different segments of the LGBT and allied community. There would be separate meetings for allies, gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals as well as for transgender, genderqueer, and fluid individuals, though they were also free to visit each other’s.
I led each group through different icebreakers and urged them to use our time intentionally.
“Let’s pretend that it is six months or a year from now,” I said. “We have already had coffees or dinners and maybe gone drinking together. Maybe we have had our hearts broken or comforted each other. What would it look like if we could skip over that initial shy space and really talk?”
We created an informal contract with each other, agreeing we would all take risks and go deep, in our conversations about desire, family, work, isolation, and connection — what the reality and the possibilities were for our LGBT lives.
The events were promoted by several partnering organizations, including a new advocacy group called Da Se Zna (translated as “To Be Known”). It was one of the first times many of the attendees had gathered with others like themselves.
“I surprised myself by coming,” said a young lesbian who recently graduated from college. “I didn’t know what to expect. But this feels safe.”
It was safe. Mostly. In a country where gay bashings are not uncommon, we had arranged both visible and undercover police protection. Even so, one café worker apologetically urged us to remove the rainbow flag we’d displayed so arriving participants could identify our table.
Belgrade Pride has had a shocking history of violence. The first Pride march, organized in 2001, ended when participants were attacked by far-right nationalist agitators. Efforts to plan another Pride were suspended for eight years; and then, in 2009, the government banned Pride, viewing it as a security risk.
Eventually organizers prevailed, with Pride 2010, but the event sparked more violence. Over 150 people were injured and more than 100 arrested. The violence perpetuated by the alt-right was exacerbated by an insufficient police force. Abuses against members of the LGBT community went unpunished by an unsympathetic Serbian government, whose response was simply to ban Pride again in 2011, 2012, and 2013. This time activists sued, and the bans were ultimately declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Serbia.
The progress since has been slow but steady. In 2014, 7,000 police were deployed to keep the peace at Pride. Pride 2016 went off without a hitch. Last year’s Pride Week program had over 50 events, the parade attracted an estimated 2,000 attendees, and the police presence was scaled back dramatically without the return of violence.
Last year’s Pride also marked the crossing of frontiers and many firsts, including the opening of the first pop-up Pride Info Center. Goran Miletić, director for Europe at Civil Rights Defenders, rented a vacant storefront on a central Belgrade avenue, and over six days, volunteers transformed it into a vibrant community space with a rainbow mural across the walls charting the often bloody but important history of Prides and LGBT rights in Belgrade. Attracting an estimated 3,000 visitors, the center had 24-hour security, and strong outreach to area policemen, who regularly stopped by to grab coffee.
It was also the first year a Serbian Pride-related event was held in a government building. The Palace of Serbia hosted the International Conference on Hate Crime and Hate Speech, a crucial event that featured LGBT advocates from police forces and legislative interest groups across the European Union. A huge leap to officially legitimizing the LGBT community in the eyes of the government, this event was unimaginable just a few years ago. A potential turnaround has taken place with the 2017 election of Ana Brnabić as prime minister. She is Serbia’s first woman and first out LGBT person elected to the office.
Brnabić caused a sensation when she showed up at Pride to signal her support. In a Guardian interview last July, she emphasized that the causes of much of the intolerance derived from a “loud minority” in Serbia. She called for patience and understanding, from the LGBT community as well, saying that change does not happen overnight.
Indeed, last October, a 21-year-old man was beaten by several men after the gay club he was working at closed for the night. Local activists and human rights organizations requested a prompt and impartial investigation. When it did not materialize, they continued asking what actions elected officials would take, wondering if Brnabić’s election was window-dressing or signaled real change. In March 2018, a 17-year-old transgender man was attacked in the city by a large group of men who reportedly taunted him about his gender expression and (presumed) sexual orientation, before beating the teen and knocking out one of his teeth.
While homosexuality is not criminalized in Serbia, as it is in over 70 countries throughout the world, there is little prosecution for hate crimes. An assault may be reported to the police but it rarely makes it to the courts and many people are afraid to be open about attacks for fear of retaliation in their personal lives or toward their families.
Nevertheless, Miletić and other committed activists continue in the pursuit of justice and equality. Belgrade Pride Week 2018 is scheduled for September 10-16 with its march on the books for Sunday, September 16. Civil Rights Defenders again will rent space in a highly visible area for its second Pride Info Center. And happily, I have been invited back to continue developing the Queer Café, with plans to partner with area activists to share facilitation and promote outreach.
As the sun rises on Pride celebrations in the U.S. (some facing disputes over growing corporatization), we’d do well to remember the significance of Pride, and to ask how we might support our LGBT sisters and brothers in Serbia — and elsewhere around the world.