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14 Sep 17

Serbia’s Homophobes Are Not Just ‘Loud Minority’

Alex Cooper

Serbia’s new prime minister has only made life harder for the LGBT community in the country by pretending that serious problems with homophobia and anti-gay violence do not exist.

Ana Brnabic. Photo:Tamino Petelinsek/DS/Beta

A little over a year ago, my friends and I joked about their crushes on the new Minister of State Administration and Local Self-Government, Ana Brnabic—appointed by the then Prime Minister [now President], Aleksandar Vucic.

I lived and worked in Belgrade at the time. In various ways, I had been involved in LGBT rights activism since 2012, so my network of friends were mostly LGBT rights activists who identified with that acronym in some way.

So, when news broke that she was also openly lesbian, my friends and I were more than a bit excited. Beyond the excitement and joking about the “new minister” as my friends called her, we also joked that no one had heard of her before.

When she was first announced as a member of Vucic’s cabinet, it was a sight. Standing beside Vucic, she stood there silently as he described how he didn’t care about her sexuality as long as she was capable of the job. How noble of him, right?

When last year’s Belgrade Pride came around in September, I was there with friends, eagerly waiting to see if she would show up. She did, briefly. After posing for a few selfies [I failed to get one], she left before the actual march started. The march was composed of a few hundred people. It needed a police cordon so that passersby wouldn’t do anything stupid – or violent.

Brnabic then seemed to have become just another government figure until June, when the newly elected President Vucic nominated her as Serbia’s Prime Minister.

Discussions of why Vucic nominated Brnabic have leaned toward Vucic wanting to maintain his power while looking less like an authoritarian leader to the world. This is obviously problematic in that she is complicit in this.

However, it has been her own comments to the international media about the situation for LGBT Serbians that I can’t get my head around.

The first interviews Brnabic did with the international press indicated that she planned to stand with Vucic and his government’s lackluster history on LGBT human rights. In an interview with CNN, Brnabic said: “I’d like to think Serbia isn’t conservative or homophobic.”

A lot of people wouldn’t like to think of it like that, either. But what can you do with the truth?

The UK Guardian quotes her in a different interview, saying: “The reason why I am not focused on [the promotion of LGBT rights] now is because I deeply, truly believe that Serbia will be a more tolerant society once people have jobs, better paid jobs, don’t have to care about their own livelihood, or the future of their own children, and do not have to worry about two or three generations living in the same flat,” she said.

“I don’t think Serbia is that homophobic,” she continued. “The citizens of Serbia have a right not to be portrayed by a loud minority. We can have a culture where we disagree, as long as there is tolerance and no violence. We all have different views and values, but I don’t want to change people’s thinking by law.”

I understand that Brnabic is in a very important political position and needs to make the citizens happy. Calling them a bunch of homophobes probably is not going to win her, or Vucic, much support.

However, the entire interview is ridiculous. There is no loud minority. It is a majority and it is fairly loud, according to a large regional study conducted in 2015.

Please tell a teenager in rural Serbia who is scared of being outed as gay that they just need to be patient while Brnabic fixes the economy. Then, they won’t have to worry about what happens if their friends or family find out that they aren’t straight.

Until then, everything is fine. Your friends stop talking to you? Well, after employment rises, they will again. Parents kicked you out? No worries, GDP will grow and then they’ll welcome you back with open arms.

Arguing that better economic situations inevitably cure homophobia is sloppy thinking. It ignores the plight of people in the here and now, and how economic discrimination, as in employment, is also a reality for LGBT citizens.

Over the years of my involvement in LGBT rights activism in Serbia, I would sometimes edit reports that detailed attacks on LGBT people who were then too scared of the police to report the assaults. I also conducted ethnographic research on LGBT activist strategies.

Informants from my research and among my friends shared stories of violence, threats, and discrimination with a common motif of, “Well, this is Serbia.”

In my years of involvement in LGBT rights in Serbia, I have never attended an LGBT-themed exhibition or party without police and/or private security present.

There will always be a need for such security if Brnabic and the Serbian government ignore the fact that there is a continuous threat of violence toward those who identify as LGBT in the country.

Those who face a lot of this violence are the activists who are on the front lines in these struggles for human rights. In Belgrade, I worked a lot with activists because of the work and research I did. To have the PM say Serbia is not homophobic discredits the work of these activists. It provides ammunition for people who are anti-LGBT.

They can now go to Serbia’s openly lesbian PM’s own words to argue that promotion of LGBT rights is a waste of time. Someone with immense political capital has said now: This problem doesn’t exist.

Further, when she says she “[doesn’t] want to change people’s thinking by law”, she places barriers against anti-discrimination laws, gender equality laws, and a slew of other laws that are needed when the citizenry still holds such prejudices.

The situation on the ground in Serbia necessitates at least an acknowledgement that the everyday lives of people who identify as LGBT are difficult.  If you have been educated abroad, worked for USAID, and are now Prime Minister, perhaps things are different. But that is not the reality for the majority of these people.

The Pride week kicked off in Serbia on Monday, with as march scheduled for September 17. There is still much to be done for Serbs identifying as LGBT.

Going to Pride Parades in Belgrade, you’ll most likely to see people giving the finger the marchers from their balconies than waving in support. Again, all of this does not indicate a “loud minority”; it indicates a loud majority that can be emotionally and physically violent.

Brnabic’s denial and happy wanderings into the realm of alternative facts have done nothing for LGBT people – except silence them even more.

Alex Cooper has spent the majority of the past 5 years researching and working in activism and NGOs in the former-Yugoslavia, concentrating on LGBTI human rights activist work.

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