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Opponents of gay rights in Croatia’s second city may be as noisy as ever - but this year’s Pride parade showed that more people are losing their fear of being open about their sexual identity.
|Photo by Queer.hr|
It is a bright, sunny morning in Split, Dalmatia. Tourists are dragging their luggage on the centuries-years old stone of the ancient Palace of Diocletian. Locals leaf through the morning papers in the slow rhythm of a Saturday morning coffee session. Everything gives the impression of another lazy summer weekend in the Mediterranean heat.
But only if you turn off the sounds of the city: a helicopter, police sirens, people talking.
“Let’s go watch the faggots,” one man’s voice could be heard saying. “Let’s go and beat up the gays,” said another.
My gay companion remained silent. Until a few years ago, most of these people did not even know the meaning of the word “gay” and faggot was the usual expression.
It was June 9 and Split’s second Gay Pride Parade was about to start in Croatia’s second-largest city. The first was last year. This time about 400 people were in the crowd. By contrast, on the Waterfront, the Riva, the heart of city life, around 4,000 people awaited the marchers. This was not a welcoming crowd, either. Many had their fists in the air, yelling “Kill the faggots!”, “Sickoes!”, and even, “Gypsies!”.
To show that they meant business, some threw stones in the direction of the marchers and pelted them with ashtrays and uprooted flowers. Eight marchers were injured and police detained about 140 on the other side.
The atmosphere had been heating up for months before the march, with right-wing groups demanding that the city ban the parade and the city authorities agreeing that the march was indeed unwelcome and that people had “expressed their stance” on the matter last year.
Rumours were rife that extremist groups were preparing to throw Molotov cocktails. On the other hand, Croatia’s Social Democratic-led government supported the Pride in Split and five ministers announced plans to attend. Croatia's Security and Intelligence Agency, SOA, assessed that the Gay Pride posed the biggest security threat to Split in ten years.
As the city filled up with police it became all the harder to get around, owing to the various restrictions on movement. Tourists complained that they didn’t understand why the city appeared to be in a state of emergency.
There was increased anxiety out on the streets. At this time of day, at around noon, the Waterfront is the main promenade in Split. But today it was ghostly white and empty. I came across a group of police officers who invited me to their table in a café. When I told them I would see them later at the Pride, their faces turned gloomy and dark.
A few hundred metres from there, volunteers were assembling in the offices of the Dominoes feminist organisation, a co-organiser of the Pride. Split does not have its own LGBT association, or a single openly gay venue. Not one local celebrity or public figure has declared that he or she is gay, and many would say the city has no LGBT community.
Until a few years ago the “who is what” information was mainly carried on on the basis of rumours, but today more and more people who are openly gay are prepared to fight for their rights.
Split’s first Gay Pride helped engineer this change. Instead of being scared off by the violence, some decided to stand up to it. “When someone attacks you, you get stubborn. You've had enough of fear,” Ante, 28, recalled.
He also told me that when he came out, some of his gay friends refused to be friends with him any longer because they were afraid that his openness would expose them.
|Photo by Queer.hr|
In a city of 178,000 people, thousands of gays and lesbians remain deep in the closet. It is not without reason that people are scared. Split is a conservative, patriarchal city in which the Catholic Church plays a major role, while some priests have publicly urged the faithful to fight “homosexual immorality”.
As I approached the park in which the marchers were gathering, I wondered whether the feeling of fear or stubbornness would prevail with Ante and his friends.
My friend was not joining me because last year his father saw him on TV among the marchers, and they have hardly spoken since. Passing the police control, I could hear voices of those on the others side: “Look at her - dyke!” I felt their disgust on my back.
But then I felt I’d entered a parallel Split. The park was crowded, colourful and cheerful. People smiled. The sound of beating drums overcame the whir of a helicopter flying over.
The Norwegian ambassador was there, sitting on the grass in the shade of a tree. A few more diplomats were there, too, and I’m sure many more would have been present had not President Ivo Josipovic organised a social event with the diplomatic corps on the same day on the Brioni Islands.
|Photo by Queer.hr|
Still, this was, above all, a day for Split’s gays and lesbians, the only one in the year when they could say loud and clear who they are and what they want. And many more were at this year’s Pride than at last year’s. The “closet” is being prised ajar in Split and will be impossible to close it entirely in future.
As the procession moved off to the sound of whistles, tightly encircled by police, I caught sight of Ante blowing a vuvuzela, a rainbow flag spread in front of him that is at least nine metres long. Two days earlier he had told me that he wouldn’t miss the Pride for anything.
From his early childhood kids in school had hurled insults at him, calling him “a faggot” and the same insult still follows him today in the streets of Split. He had a long relationship with a man that he tried to conceal, but two years ago he decided he’d had enough of this kind of life.
Since then he has been living openly as a gay man, attending the small guerrilla queer events in the city and involved in plans to set up an LGBT association. In the middle of the procession, he was smiling and happy.
Tea was also here, a student who last year came out to her mother who then forbade her to go to the first Split Pride. Tea says she felt awful that others were being left to fight for her rights, putting their lives at risk. She then promised to herself that no Pride would be held in her city again without her attending.
Not far from her I see a high school student, Hana, with her mother, walking side by side, while Hana is wrapped in a rainbow flag that her father bought on the Internet. You can’t even buy a rainbow flag in Croatia, but many make one for themselves for the Pride.
Hana is the only student in her school who has come out and occasionally she receives threats on Facebook. That morning she said she felt scared, but the feeling evidently gave way to joy as she joined her fellow marchers. Doris was standing a little further away, carrying a banner that read: “This is going to be a good Pride, I can feel it”, and blowing a pink whistle. A day earlier she took her last matriculation exam.
In her school everyone has known that she is gay since she turned 15 and she hasn’t had any problems, she says, except with having occasionally to correct her teachers when they tell inappropriate jokes about homosexuals.
Milena, 28, was also here. This was her first Pride. It took her a long time to decide whether to come. She knew that she belonged on the march and would have felt bad if she hadn’t attended, but she was also afraid of losing her job, because she works for a man who does not like foreigners, non-white people - or gays. Last year she did not have the courage to attend, but this year she obviously did.
The road to the Waterfront, on which well dressed elderly women last year gave marchers the finger while kids cried: “Kill the faggots!”, was empty.
As we approached, the view of the sea opened up, a shiny, calm surface. The police had erected barricades further away from the march, so this time no one could get close to the marchers. It was not as if Split had passed a tolerance test, it was merely that the police had done their job well.
People around me joked about the silence, saying that they would miss the bullies and the chance to exchange views with them: they would send them kisses and get insults in return.
Taking turns on the Waterfront were speakers and musicians. People danced, waved flags and hugged. A girl who was due on stage in ten minutes said that her parents had told her that they never wanted to see or hear from her again if she sang at Split Pride. “I couldn’t accept such blackmail. This here is the real me,” she said.
|Photo by Tomislav Vincent Ladisic|
As we listened to a version of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours, I saw Dutch actor Sipke Jan Bousema in tears. Clearly this was not a good moment for questions. He is touring the world, making a documentary on LGBT rights and although he has seen places that are worse for gays to live in than Split, I was not surprised to see him weep. The whole Pride is one big emotion.
In the evening I met up with about 20 or so lesbians in the only gay-friendly café in Split. One was once beaten up here, with a blow aimed straight at the head. A longtime lesbian activist from Serbia, Lepa Mladjenovic, said she couldn’t believe just how many people were here, and skipped with joy, because young girls live in a world that is now far freer than she remembers.
Some of those who were at the Pride now say they cannot get enough of that good feeling. They want a Pride every day and plan to join an association. Others who couldn’t go because of their parents later said they’d cried, watching the live streaming of the event.
They say they’ll go next year for sure.
We toasted and move on. While passing through the city centre, someone took out a Pride whistle. A cheerful and noisy procession walking through the quiet city. At the Peristil, the main square in the Palace of Diocletian, we ran into an Amnesty International monitoring team. They were satisfied that the Pride had gone off in a peaceful and safe atmosphere, they said.
How true Doris’s banner was, I thought, even though she’d made it before she knew how it would all end. It was a good Pride. Only, I’m not sure which one was better - the big one that took place under strong police protection, or our one, this evening, small and free.
This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence . Both are initiated and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the ERSTE Foundation.
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