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Why having an openly lesbian prime minister hasn’t solved Serbia’s LGBTQ crises

In June 2017, the whole world rushed to congratulate Serbia on the appointment of its first ever female and lesbian prime minister, Ana Brnabić — a political choice signifying the revival of democratic, progressive, “European” values that had seemed to die with the 2003 assassination of post-Milošević prime minister Zoran Đinđić. One obvious expectation arose: surely the first lesbian PM would work to improve the human rights of LGBTQ people in Serbia? If you ask LGBTQ people or human rights activists what having Brnabić as PM means for them, the most common answer is: nothing much. It would be pretty naive to think otherwise. Queer communities, activists and artists remain marginalised. Where does this disjuncture come from?

Only a month after she was handpicked by controversial President Aleksandar Vučić, she made it clear that she did not want to be branded as “Serbia’s gay PM”. Understandably, Ms Brnabić wants to be known for her professional accomplishments, especially in the spheres of digitalisation, growth and progress towards EU membership, and, recently, the development of creative industries. Indeed, when she first joined the government as Minister of Public Administration and Local Self-Government, she was outed as gay by Vučić rather than coming out herself; branded by the man who chose her as his successor, while he maintained control over everything that goes on in the country — as analysts and LGBTQ activists alike would agree.

This Potemkin appointment sent a message to the world: Serbia was experiencing a historical breakthrough in terms of human rights and equal opportunities. We are a progressive country, ready to join the EU. We even have a gay PM. “I don’t care if she is gay or straight, I only care if she is capable,” Vučić stated. What is deeply troubling in these words and other similar statements is that they mask increasing problems with violence and other rights violations towards LGBTQ people and other minority groups. Pinkwashing relies on superficiality, and Brnabić’s appointment also sends another message to conservative voters: we don’t really care about gays and their rights, we are only interested in this woman’s work. Ahead of local elections last month, the activist group Da Se Zna ran a survey among political parties regarding their attitudes towards various LGBTQ issues. Vučić’s ruling Progressive Party didn’t even bother to respond.

Many international organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported on the limited progress made on human rights in Serbia. According to the US Department of State Human Rights: “Although the law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, violence and discrimination against members of the LGBTI community [are] serious problems.” Surveys show public attitudes towards LGBTQ minorities are still highly negative and discriminatory. The situation is worrying.

Even within this compromised situation, LGBTQ visibility could potentially have positive long-term effects. But besides Brnabić (and a few LGBTQ activists), there is not a single gay or trans “civilian” celebrity in Serbia. Without real queer visibility or governmental action, there is no real change.

LGBTQ visibility could potentially have positive long-term effects. But there is not a single gay or trans “civilian” celebrity in Serbia

It is interesting to note that Serbia’s first non-violent, “successful” Pride Parade did not take place until after Vučić’s Progressive party came to power in 2014. In previous years, each attempt was stopped by threats of hooliganistic violence. But then the government endorsed the event and for the past four years it has gone ahead without incident. Was this a “real” Pride march or a two hour-long bubble of freedom? When there aren’t thousands of armed policemen to protect them, queer people in Serbia remain mostly invisible.

As Miloš Kovačević from Da Se Zna tells me, the Progressives’ neoliberal economic policies only exacerbate inequalities, so financially poor LGBTQ people don’t have much to hope for. He notes that, regardless of her mandated appearance at Pride, Brnabić has done almost everything possible to publicly distance herself from the disadvantaged LGBTQ community in Serbia. Not that she ever really belonged or had any contact with it before for ascent — a key difference between her and many other publicly out political figures in Europe.

Despite gruesome verbal attacks addressed to her — including from MPs — Brnabić has continued with an official narrative that ignores homo- and transphobia. “We need to be patient” is her message. Tolerance will grow with our economic stability. Try telling that to gay or transgender people living in poor or rural areas, dealing with poverty like any other citizen. LGBTQ people in Serbia are not a homogenous, privileged group of people who live in the centre of Belgrade, as many of our politicians’ statements imply.

Even if Brnabić wanted to engage in improving LGBTQ rights, it is questionable whether she could really contribute, argues Dragoslava Barzut, another Da Se Zna activist. Brnabić’s privileged background — she is from a rich family, and was schooled in the UK — means that “she was never in a position to really see the issues of common LGBT people and to understand them in a right way. She comes from a protected environment, [so] if you ask her, of course [she will say] there is no homophobia,” Barzut says.

One of the biggest problems is violence. There is no systematic and unapologetic response to hate crimes. Even after months of pressure, Da Se Zna are refused “official” police data on homophobic violence. Their website documents around 70 attacks in the past year alone. In most cases where attacks are reported, the perpetrators are not identified; if they are, they are not tried for hate crimes. Serbia introduced hate crime into its Criminal Code in 2013, but there has still not been a single verdict along these lines. We can’t wait for our GDP to grow before we prevent or sanction severe violations of personal safety and human rights. The day before Transgender Visibility Day this year, a 17-year-old trans boy and two friends were brutally assaulted in the centre of Belgrade. On the same day in Subotica, a 19-year-old boy was beaten and tortured for the second time in one week because of his presumed sexual orientation. Dragoslava and her friends suffered a brutal attack in a Belgrade bar in 2015 — the first officially registered case of violence against lesbians — but despite a number of eyewitnesses and security camera footage, the perpetrators were never identified.

Brnabić’s refusal to act on this is frustrating to many LGBTQ activists. Kovačević and Barzut believe that during her mandate, things have actually regressed. For instance: Serbia recently adopted a new law that allows transgender people to legally change sex in their documents — but only after medical transition. LGBTQ organisations are strongly opposed to this law, having spent years advocating for a gender identity law that would allow the altering of personal documents based on solely psychiatric evaluation.

We can’t wait for our GDP to grow before we prevent or sanction severe violations of personal safety and human rights

Another issue, in activism and art alike, is funding. Most LGBTQ organisations I spoke with said that they receive little to no state support. A rare exception is the international queer film festival Merlinka, but the funds they receive are meagre compared to other events. The organisers of Pride tell me they received funds for an exhibition in 2014, but nothing since. Other organisations tell me that they are almost always rejected after responding to open calls for government funding. LGBTQ people are only mentioned on page 48 of Serbia’s latest National Cultural Strategy (and then only vaguely); there is no clear basis for dedicating funds to vulnerable social groups, sending mixed signals to queer artists and groups.

Nonetheless, Serbia’s queer community and culture is slowly developing, outside the mainstream — but no thanks to the government or its lesbian PM. It is only because of the efforts of LGBTQ organisations, cultural institutions, artists and activists themselves.

Those involved in independent art world would agree that cultural opportunities on the local scene have never been worse. As art historian and artist Vladimir Bjelicić tells me, the state’s decision to invest in institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art or the National Museum is determined by profit. Bjelicić believes that the market model focuses on maintaining an image of the city to attract tourists, and not on encouraging new educational models or critical thinking. It seems like our cultural institutions are systematically striving to rid themselves of their socialist heritage, which goes hand in hand with efforts to shut down cultural centres, or else to change their function, depoliticising them and purging them of potential resistance.

“The independent scene is quite weak, there is is less and less funding even from foreign donors, and the state’s open calls are increasingly becoming a scarce joke. It is clear that under such conditions there is no place for queer initiatives and collectives,” Bjelicić explains. “The only option is the DIY principle, especially if we are talking about socially and politically engaged practices. Therefore, the presence of a lesbian prime minister is anything but a concession to the LGBTQ community.”

The rest of the world —including western media and EU institutions — should be aware that their “values” are not really implemented in our society. Yes, it would be amazing were Brnabić to join the fight, but that will not happen until the person running our country decides so. Equality remains a privilege of the elite.

Text and images: Lazara Marinković

Top image: ZlatanJovanovic under a CC licence

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