20th Sep 2019


Belgrade Pride 2010 is a historic day

  • Molotov cocktail, rock and bottle-throwing anti-Pride protesters battled with Serb police on Sunday (Photo: antitezo)

Belgrade has just survived its first proper Pride march after the violent events in 2001, when several tens of LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) activists were beaten in the streets by hooligans belonging to different radical groups and the police did little to stop them.

"Don't worry, this is Serbia, everyone is very friendly," the smiling woman at the hotel reception tells me on the evening after the march on 10 October 2010 when I try to order a taxi. She explains the place I am going to is within walking distance. Her reply comes to my question whether it is safe to go out - just hours ago large groups of men were smashing windows, turning over garbage containers and attacking police officers with Molotov cocktails, rocks and bottles in the vicinity of my hotel.

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While walking down one of the main streets I look at the people I pass and experience the same sensation as I have felt every year since 2006 in Riga, when I first started to participate in the organising of Latvian Pride parades, the sensation which arrives just hours after the march, when the city goes back to normal and we all continue our lives as if nothing had happened - I am amazed how LGBT people rapidly return to their invisible closets and everyone shares the same public space once again.

Serbia is one of many countries in Southern and Eastern Europe which has set its mind on joining the European Union. Some of the activists whom I spoke to today tell me that the Serbian government's attitude has changed tremendously compared to just one year ago, when the Pride event was prohibited due to - according to official claims - security reasons.

One year later it is suddenly possible to isolate a large part of the city centre and bring in thousands of fully equipped police officers to protect the peaceful marchers from attacks. It is a welcome change of attitude. But the country still has a very long way to go before its most vulnerable minorities feel safe and respected by the vast majority.

Despite the rioting, this day can be marked in our calendars as a historic day for the LGBT movement in Serbia - it has become the third country (after Slovenia and Croatia) in former Yugoslavia to organise an undisrupted Pride march, which in this case had up to 1,000 participants. One day Pride participants will perhaps be able to march in streets which are not entirely deserted for security reasons and without fearing for their lives.

The next challenge for the Serbian authorities will be to ensure the proportionality of security measures with the true spirit of free assembly and free speech, so that the messages the marchers carry can be seen and heard. But the large-scale attacks against police officers is reason for serious concern and dampens hopes that change will come rapidly.

Social transformation rarely happens quickly. One should keep in mind that the phenomenon of LGBT people taking to the streets has at one time or another been seen as a very provocative act in most parts of Europe. Nowhere did Pride parades start out as the festive events we are now used to in cities such as London, Paris, Berlin or Brussels. Initially, it has always been the courageous few who decided to become visible and to demand equal rights and justice.

When remembering the history of LGBT activism in Europe, it is easy to justify why activists in hostile countries such as Latvia or Serbia stick out their necks: Change does not come by itself. That which is not visible does not exist in the minds of society and politicians. And that which does not exist has no rights.

Today we know which way the compass is pointing because others have decades before us challenged social concepts of homosexuality and gender identity. With several European countries erasing the last traces of discrimination in their legislation by accepting one marriage law for all couples and with a majority of EU member states recognising the rights of LGBT citizens to be the same as those of heterosexual citizens, it feels obvious that social change will also come to the newest and the aspiring future members of the club.

Let us hope that reason will win over blind aggression and hate and that economically difficult times will not nurture new radical groups who try to solve their frustrations by pointing fingers and throwing rocks at "the Other."

The writer is Co-Chair of the Executive board of ILGA-Europe


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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