“If I came out, I would lose my job.”
Ivan is a primary school teacher in a village outside Serbia’s capital Belgrade. His sexual identity would not be accepted by his colleagues or the parents of his pupils. This is a troubling sign of the everyday discrimination LGBTQ people face every day, especially considering that the country’s new leader is a lesbian woman.
Far from marking the dawn of a new era, the election of Ana Brnabič as Prime Minister has triggered a discussion about Serbia’s deep-seated homophobia and the role she plays in perpetuating this.
Ivan, which is not his real name (his identity has been kept anonymous for safety reasons) hasn’t even come out to his parents. No one in his family knows, except a cousin.
“I’m afraid of how my father would react and treat my mother if he ever knew about me,” he told me.
I got to know Ivan through another man I met on a Serbian gay chatroom, Miša.
Miša (who wanted to give his real name) was the first person I met on the chatroom. He told me that being gay today at least “isn’t taboo” compared to 10 years ago, but there’s been a deficit of any real, meaningful change.
Both Miša and Ivan say that any perceived changes in Serbia are just “cosmetic”. They’re also skeptical about what someone like Ana Brnabič can do because the lesbian community in Serbia faces a double stigma – based on gender and sexuality.
So Brnabič, politically speaking, finds herself in a unique position.
Ana Brnabič is Serbia’s first female and first openly gay politician to hold office. She’s been in the historic post for over a month. It makes her only the second woman in a short list of five LGBTQ heads of government. Ever.
“The thought of holding hands or kissing, even in Belgrade is pure science fiction. It’s just not safe.”
It’s a symbolic win for the LGBTQ community, but one that doesn’t necessarily equate to a difference for people IRL.
I spent the last few weeks speaking with a dozen people and activists to find out more about how these rights are suddenly and seemingly popular in a conservative country like Serbia.
Serbia has a violent history of homophobia. Not unlike its neighbouring and post-socialist countries. And, to be clear, Brnabič was a minister in the previous government, where LGBTQ issues were by no means on the agenda. Not to mention that she didn’t even come out on her own – she was outed by then-Prime Minister, and current President, Aleksandar Vučič. But, now that she’s the new prime minister, could it signal a new chapter in Serbia’s stance on LGBTQ rights?
The verdict: over a month into Brnabič’s historic appointment, there’s little sign of change.
“The thought of holding hands or kissing, even in Belgrade is pure science fiction” said Ivan. “It’s just not safe.” The situation in the rest of the country is worse still and attacks against LGBTQ people are frequent, but often going underreported.
Mashable contacted Brnabič’s office for comment and at time of publication had not yet received a response.
Never gonna give EU up
Brnabič was nominated by Vučič after his Progressive Party won a landslide election in April. She was Minister of the State Administration and Local Self Government in his previous cabinet.
While in pubic office, Brnabič has never been vocal about LGBTQ rights or issues and has disassociated with that aspect of her identity, saying it actually stands in the way of her doing “her job.” So while Brnabič is out, there’s no sign she is actively representing people from the LGBTQ community.
It is the view among many Serbia-watchers, as well as LGBTQ groups, that she was appointed because she’s a lesbian at a time when Serbia is aggressively pursuing its EU membership talks. Electing a lesbian prime minister in 2017 is good PR for a government that wants to look more liberal and European. And LGBTQ rights are like a barometer for many Eastern European and Balkan countries.
“The president has such a huge influence, his presence is everywhere. His decision to appoint her is for two reasons – one is to say to the EU, ‘Yes, we can have a gay prime minister and woman at the same time.’ It sounds perfect for headlines,” Miša said.
Miša, who is a scriptwriter in Belgrade, is also not openly gay. He, like Ivan, has to keep his sexual identity private. But he admits his profession and social circle make his life a lot easier. He said things have changed enormously, particularly in Belgrade, in the last decade. But Brnabič has nothing to do with these changes. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
Brnabič’s appointment indeed made international headlines – coinciding with the election of Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister Leo Varadkar and the celebration of Pride around the world. In Belgrade, their first Pride march, called Pride Weekend, was held between June 23-26, and was attended by around 200 people, a minuscule number compared to other countries in the region. 90% percent of gay people, Ivan tells me, are afraid to go. Miša says he does not like the groups behind the march. “Just because they say they are defending our rights, doesn’t actually mean they are good protectors.”
Pride is one of the biggest and most politicised events relating to the rights of that community. It was banned between 2011-2014 because of violence. This year, there are rival Prides – the one held in June, organized independently and a second, supported by the state, which is to be held next month, called Belgrade Pride. The LGBTQ groups organizing the two parades are actually in conflict with one another, each side trying to shut the other march down.
Each side tries to delegitimize the other and present the march as “regime” demonstrations – as events sponsored by and for the government’s own benefit. According to one of the organizers of the Pride march held in June, a fake letter bearing the logo of the leading Progressive Party (to which Brnabič belongs) spread across social media in Serbia urging members of the party to come and show the support the new prime minister. In the end, there were no politicians or diplomats allowed to participate. Pride Weekend was more or less just about the friends and family of the LGBTQ community that organized it.
For many, like Ivan and Miša, it’s all about pink-washing, not LGBTQ rights. It’s about a checklist of things to make Serbia look more ‘European’. LGBTQ rights have become a major benchmark in EU accession talks, where they are seen as a reflection of how a country has ‘progressed’. Pride is equally politicized and highlighted in other countries looking to the EU, most notably Ukraine, and to a smaller extent, Moldova.
According to Koen Slootmaeckers, an expert on LGBTQ rights in Serbia and newly appointed Lecturer in Politics at City University London, this reflects a long-standing strategy by President Vučič of “tactical Europeanisation.”
“When he was elected, I actually joked with some of my colleagues, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if he offers the prime ministership to Brnabič.” That would reward him with so many points.’ Just look at the media reactions, ‘Oh, my god! Serbia has a lesbian prime minister, look at how much has changed,” Slootmaeckers said.
A pawn in their game?
I asked Ivan and Miša if the election of a female, lesbian prime minister is progress for LGBTQ people in Serbia. They say nothing in their daily life has changed. Progress will be the legalisation of same-sex partnerships. Or, at least, the enforcement of the existing anti-discrimination legislation, passed in 2009, which seems to exist only on paper.
“Yes, we can have a gay prime minister and woman at the same time. It sounds perfect for headlines.”
Compared to seven years ago, when there were riots in the streets, a lesbian prime minister is a big deal for a country like Serbia. In a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Brnabič spoke about being “openly gay” all her life and how she had never faced problems in Serbia. But she is not an outspoken LGBTQ activist, stating that her role as prime minister is continuity with the previous government, where she held a ministerial role. She just wants people to get over it, so she can get on with the job of running the country.
According to Dragoslava Barzut, President of Da se zna, which is an association working “to end discrimination against LGBTI people in Serbia”, the relevant indicator for better life of LGBTI community in Serbia “is not the election of Ana Brnabić as Prime Minister, but number of processed cases of violence/discrimination based on homophobia and transphobia.”
While Serbia has adopted legal protections for LGBTQ people, those are seldom implemented in practice and few people actually have access to them, especially if they live outside of Belgrade. Research conducted in 2010 shows that 67 percent of Serbians considered homosexuality an illness. And a recent European Commission report stated that members of the LGBTQ population are the most heavily discriminated against after the Roma population.
Lesbian, not gay
During my time working on this story, I reached out in the “chat for women” side of the Serbian gay chatroom. I was also put through to two of Ivan’s friends, who are lesbian, via Skype. They didn’t respond to my request for comment about what it means to have a woman in public office who shares their identity.
Ivan says lesbian women have it hardest in Serbia, because they are invisible inside a patriarchal and conservative society. Women in general are less economically independent and have a harder time finding a well-paying job. Lesbian women therefore are faced with a double stigma when it comes to moving out of the family home, let alone coming out.
Take the media response following Brnabič’s nomination as prime minister. The local media focused entirely on the fact that she is female, while at the same time ignoring her lesbian identity by calling her “gay.” It’s a nuanced kind of homophobia that doubles down on women in a much more insidious way than men in Serbia.
“Maybe the ‘L word’ is a bad word.”
So, even the prime minster is publicly pink-washed, by being identified as gay. Predrag Azdejkovic, editor-in-chief of the only gay magazine, ‘Optimist’, in Serbia, gave a recent newspaper interview insisting on the use of the word lesbian when describing Brnabič’s sexuality. The final article once again just simply referred to Brnabič as gay. “Maybe the ‘L word’ is a bad word,” he said.
According Serbia’s long-established lesbian organization, Labris, this shows that Serbia cannot automatically become a place where “the human rights of LGBTI people are respected, were we are safe and secure.” And the lesbian community seems to be in a particularly vulnerable position, because they remain invisible.
Azdejkovic acknowledged that concerns about pink-washing are salient, but kind of in the short term. Now that the box of having a female and openly lesbian prime minister has been ticked, the expectations for delivering actual results in terms of securing rights and freedoms of members of the LGBTQ community will be higher.
Azdejkovic said he’s already seeing this unfold in social media where discussions and jokes are flaring up about how Serbian constitution doesn’t allow the prime minister to get married because of her sexuality. For him, this is a slow path to achieving civil partnership in the future, with Brnabič as the unwitting symbol of resistance. And attitudes are changing among younger people in Serbia. Take Grindr for example. The profiles of slightly older people feature selfies of bodies with the heads cropped off. The younger members don’t hide their faces. They are transparent about their sexual identity and seemingly unafraid to show themselves.
But, again, there is a very big difference in the lived experience of gay men and lesbian women. The political and social climate in Serbia also affects gender identity, including trans and gender-nonconforming people.
Boris Milićević. the only openly gay politician prior to Brnabič, said that in a society defined by machoism, where “National Geographic is promoted as a men’s magazine,” her election could change public discourse, even if it is very slow. He sees a big chance by the LGBTQ community to make Brnabič a rogue symbol for their own cause for equal rights. It is uncertain how successful this can be in Serbia, but a changing sentiment is already being felt.
The big problem is there’s no community. LGBTQ rights are heavily politicized and people are sceptical. Apart from a growing number of clubs and bars in Belgrade, there’s nowhere else you can be openly and publicly gay. Ivan and Miša both told me that no matter who was gets elected, they still have to count the seconds they give a friend a hug, for fear of anyone noticing it lingering. They remain positive that things will change, just as they did in Europe, but neither of them believes it’s going to happen overnight in Serbia.