Monday, 26 September 2011

Homophobia in the Balkans

It is widely accepted as a given by a lot of people in today's world, that in every nation on Earth, regardless of ethnicity, religion or social class, there will always be some men and women who are born homosexual or bisexual, and some people born transgendered or intersexed. It has been established by many scientists in the last century (see here), and observed and speculated for many centuries before by Buddhist thinkers (see here), that these sexual orientations, gender identities and physical conditions collectively represent gender non-conformity among humans.

Persecution of homosexual people has occurred on numerous occasions throughout human history, often religiously motivated, but also motivated by other ideals, such as national pride or racial supremacy. In the last one to two hundred years, however, understanding of the nature of homosexuality among humans has greatly increased, and its widespread presence in human societies and cultures has received greater acknowledgement in the field of anthropology and other sciences (see here). This scientific recognition, that homosexuality and other forms of gender non-conformity are inherently natural phenomena, has provided essential factual support for LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) activism all over the world, helping to tackle homophobic prejudices and attitudes in various societies.

One way of dealing with homophobia in society is to encourage more gay people to "come out of the closet" — or simply "come out" — by openly declaring themselves as "gay", "lesbian" or "bisexual". However, this can be a very difficult thing to do — if not extremely dangerous — depending on personal circumstances. Nevertheless, to encourage greater visibility for LGBT communities and its members, "gay pride parades" are organised in various cities in different countries around the world to gather as many gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans people and straight supporters in one place to show a united front against homophobia in a given society. But what gay pride marches or parades in countries like Serbia and Croatia have shown to have in common is the level of far-right counter-protest, whose participants arrive to create an unpleasant atmosphere — or a nasty scene — at such venues, and the level of police protection that has to be afforded to these manifestations to protect the participants of such gay pride events from excessive violence against them!

Last year in October, there were 1000 marchers in a gay pride parade in Belgrade, not all of them gay or lesbian. But there also arrived 6000 far-right, anti-gay protestors to disrupt that parade and cause violence! A ratio of 1 to 6! And to prevent those 1000 threatened, gay pride marchers from being physically attacked by the 6000 strong, anti-gay counter-protestors, there had to be around 6000 armed policemen stationed in between them! And even that armed contingent didn't prevent anyone from getting hurt or any buildings from being vandalised. (Read here and here, and see pictures here.)

But more recently in the Croatian city of Split this past June, the ratio between the gay pride marchers and anti-gay counter-protestors was even more stark. On the one hand, there were 300-400 peaceful marchers waving rainbow flags and holding placards promoting greater acceptance of homosexuals in society; on the other hand, there was a cordoned off crowd of an estimated 10,000 far-right, anti-gay counter-protestors, shouting homophobic abuse and even raising their arms to make the Nazi salute! A ratio of 3 or 4 to 100! (Read here in Croatian; read here and here in English.)

In this article, I wish to discuss the homophobic attitudes that I have encountered while sharing company with other people from the former Yugoslavia, where I come from, and while surfing the net visiting various Serbian and Croatian sites and forums. Although these attitudes are not unique to the Balkans, they are, nevertheless, very prevalent over there and among members of diaspora communities in more liberal Western countries, that are more "gay-friendly" than their home countries.

Scientifically natural, socially acceptable, or neither?

Around the world, there is a revulsion among many heterosexual people towards homosexuality, particularly towards male homosexuality due to health and hygiene concerns regarding anal sex, even though this sexual activity is not exclusively practiced by gay male couples. This revulsion encourages the opinion that homosexuality is inherently "unnatural", i.e. not supposed to occur, or that it is a "disease", specifically a mental one, which can cause harm to one's general health. This opinion of it being a "disease", even an "incurable" one, is still very common among people in Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans, despite health organisations like the Serbian Medical Society (Srpsko lekarsko društvo) openly declaring in 2008 that homosexuality is NOT a disease (read here and here in Serbian).

Having said that, many homophobes do acknowledge that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon, i.e. some people are naturally predisposed to it, but nevertheless, they don't accept it as something normal, i.e. proper or appropriate. Moreover, homosexuality is considered by many homophobes to be a form of "sexual deviance". As such, you will hear many comments from many people in Balkan countries who compare it to paedophilia, and even to necrophilia, both of which are without a doubt abhorrent. However, the intention behind equating homosexuality with these two paraphilias and others is to create a moral parallel between homosexuality and the various paraphilias as being "equally repulsive", both physically and morally.

“No marriages for poufs or lezzas; no gays near my kids!”

A lot of people around the Balkans are morally quite conservative (some even nationalistic), and culturally quite traditional (some particularly patriarchal). And even though being homosexual is not a criminal offence in any Balkan country anymore, there is huge opposition towards giving gay couples the right to officialise their relationship through marriage. Such equal treatment for gay marriages, setting it on a par with straight marriages, opponents believe would undermine the foundation of traditional marriage between a man and a woman for reproductive purposes.

But more seriously, there is profound opposition towards allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children or have their own with the aid of surrogacy. Opponents believe that such a gay-friendly policy would go a step "too far", and would actually be highly "inappropriate" for children. In fact, many people think that gays should be kept away from children entirely, lest they "corrupt" them with their "immoral" lifestyle. Fot that reason, many parents actually would go as far as forbidding anyone, whom they knew was gay, from going anywhere near their children, even if it was a close relative, let alone their next-door neighbour! Therefore, it makes perfect sense to them that children should never be raised by gay or lesbian couples, as living with two fathers or two mothers constitutes an "improper" family setting for children to grow up in, which could "confuse" them in the long run. This fear that homosexuality can be "taught" or "spread" easily goes hand-in-hand with the strongly-held belief mentioned above that homosexuality is "unnatural" and/or a "disease". And the opinion that homosexuals should not be allowed around children can also go hand-in-hand with the belief that homosexuality is somehow "equal" to paedophilia.

Zero-tolerance towards “provocative” homos in their midst

A lot of heterosexual people in the Balkans are not homophobic at all; in fact, a lot of them do have gay friends and some even have gay relatives, whom they've accepted as such, instead of completely rejecting them. However, there are some straight people who are not actively homophobic as such, but rather passively so. For instance, they won't mind knowing that there are gay people living in close proximity to them, so long as they keep quiet about their "undesirable" sexual inclinations in public, i.e. they must always avoid discussing their love life and sex life with easily-offended straight people, who are "normal", and thus "acceptable", compared to them. This very common attitude among Serbs, Croats and others in the Balkans, is arguably more "moderate" compared to the more extreme views mentioned in this article.

Therefore, what gets on the nerves of these easily-offended straight Serbs, Croats etc. is when gays rights activists in their countries organise events like the Pride Parade and are actively seeking equal rights with the majority straight population, which they consider a "provocation", i.e. an "affront" to the accepted norms of society. Being so irritated as they are by these "provocative" gays, they wonder what the whole point of holding such "gay parades" is, considering that they as straight people don't hold corresponding "straight parades". In their own words, these easily-offended heterosexuals resent what they feel as having the gay lifestyle "rammed down their throats"; they don't want to hear about what gays "get up to in bed" or otherwise do when they're together, and they certainly don't want their children being "exposed" to such discourse either! As far as they're concerned, gays should just put up and shut up; they should keep their "undesirable" habits to themselves, and leave "normal" straight people out of it!

Suspicious foreign influence “promoting” homosexuality

Apart from the conservative morality, there is a stong sense of nationalism among the various Balkan nations, as alluded to further above, that has risen to fever pitch since the collapse of Communism in Europe, and has lead to a number of wars throughout the former Yugoslavia during the '90s. Therefore, it's quite easy for xenophobic attitudes to find their appropriate place in this populistic, far-right milieu, especially in Serbia, which has experienced foreign intervention on its territory at the end of the '90s.

With regards to gay rights issues specifically, the solidarity demonstrated by LGBT activists around the world, including those in Balkan countries, is perceived by far-right advocates and supporters in the Balkans as evidence of some kind of "concerted effort" by gays and other "sexual deviants" within a well-funded international "gay lobby" to infiltrate society, influence it to its detriment by "promoting" homosexuality as a natural and normal part of everyday life (something that they wholeheartedly reject), and even seeking equal rights with married straight couples, thus encouraging moral "decadence" and "degeneration" throughout society! (Read here (homophobic article) and here in Serbian.) But most "conclusive" of that suspicion of all, more so than those "provocative" gay rights activists within those various LGBT organisations active in Balkan countries, are: one, the human rights activists, who detail discrimination and attacks against LGBT people and speak up for their rights, as they are particularly suspected of being linked to and funded by liberal Western sources; and two, pro-EU liberal politicians in the region, who want their countries to follow the course of "Euro-Atlantic integration", who likewise defend gay rights activists' "freedom of expression" et al., and likewise are suspected of being linked to and funded by liberal Western sources themselves. Such support from human rights activists and pro-EU liberal politicians "confirms" the far-right's suspicion that there is detrimental foreign influence present in their countries, that "promotes" the toleration of "immorality" as something perfectly acceptable, and in so doing could undermine the fabric of society in their countries completely!

“Brave” patriots versus gay “pussies”!

It is well known that nationalism goes hand-in-hand with machismo, i.e. a sense of manliness. And given that there have been recent wars in the region, it's important for a man to be seen as a "true Serb" or "true Croat", who will be "brave" enough to fight for his people, i.e. be counted on to not let his people down should a conflict arise in the future. Therefore, being a "true Serb" or "true Croat" is equal to being a "true man". But for some reason, gay men are suspected of having no willingness to fight, and therefore considered "cowards", who can't be relied upon to fulfill vital patriotic duties. That's why, for a straight Serbian or Croatian man, to be considered "gay" by other men is like an "attack" on his manhood and personal pride. Any man who is considered "gay" is perceived to be not much of a man, and therefore not much of a Serb or Croat. So much so that to link "gayness" with one's highly-esteemed national identity is perceived as an "insult" to the nation's pride. Therefore, it's not surprising that websites with names like "Gay Serbia" (see here) are understandably offensive to anyone who considers himself a patriotic Serb! (There is a Croatian site that represents lesbians in Croatia called "CroL" (see here) . Perhaps patriotic Croats are likewise offended by that website's name?!)

Apart from "provocative" pro-gay websites, it's not difficult to find homophobic graffiti, posters and stickers on the walls of many buildings, containing hostile messages like: „Marš Pederi iz Srbije!“ ("Poufs, get out of Serbia!"); or morbid ones like: „Beogradom krv će liti, gej parade neće biti!“ ("[Through] Belgrade blood will pour, the gay parade will not be [held]!"). Other than messages on walls, among the far-right, Nazi-saluting crowd of protestors that gathered round to intimidate the small number of marchers during Split's recent gay pride mentioned above, there was one particularly threatening taunt being jeered at them: „Ubij, ubij, ubij pedera!“ ("Kill, kill, kill the pouf!"). But what is more shocking than the messages that are seen and heard in the region is how a lot of ordinary straight people in those countries consider the violent counter-protestors as the "good guys" in these stories, rather than the LGBT marchers, who bravely venture out to openly express a fundamental part of their personal identity.

Homophobic defense of the family and “sound reason”

In both Serbia and Croatia and elsewhere in the Balkans, there are very vocal right-wing and far-right individuals and organisations, that spread anti-gay rhetoric and promote negative views of LGBT people. One constant accusation they make against LGBT activism is how its promotion of their "alternative lifestyle" somehow constitutes an "attack" on the family as a pillar of society. Clerics from both the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia, and other right-wing organisations linked with them, have also voiced their religiously-inspired condemnation of homosexuality and gay marches, and have voiced their defence of the traditional family setting in the face of growing gay rights activism (read here in Serbian).

You will also find that a lot of very homophobic, right-wing straight people in Balkan countries feel "under attack" or "discriminated against" for being "normal" by gays and those of a liberal persuasion (read here in Croatian). In fact, homophobic outbursts and rhetoric are widely commended by such people as "healthy" and "reasonable" reactions to the "sick" and "immoral" promotion of LGBT "propaganda" and gay-friendly liberalism that supports it! And to top it all off, they resent any liberal politician from parties supportive of joining the European Union, who is vocally sympathetic to gay rights and promotes tolerance of homosexuals and other "sexual minorities" in their countries, with the intent of encouraging their societies to be more tolerant of diversity, and thus increase their countries' eligibility to join the EU. Homophobia, therefore, represents a morally-righteous defense to save the nation's "sound reason" (zdrav razum in Serbian and Croatian) from pro-EU, pro-gay, politically correct liberalism in their countries!

Not easy being a “sexual minority” in the Balkans

LGBT individuals enjoy a lot of acceptance in Western countries, and enjoy a strong presence in Western media. LGBT individuals in Balkan countries, on the other hand, are widely ignored, ridiculed or even demonised by much of the heterosexual majority population, and thus lack a strong presence in those countries' media. If they wish to openly disclose their sexual identity regardless of who's listening, they have to be very brave and have a lot of very supportive friends and/or relatives for comfort and security. Otherwise, they have to guard that aspect of who they are with their lives, and constantly be careful of what they say in public, be it around close friends and family or strangers.

Like much of life in the Balkans, politics permeates and divides people into two opposing camps: fervent nationalist currents against aspiring Euro-Atlantic integrationism. And the issue of homosexuality and LGBT rights likewise finds itself in this battle of ideas between right and left, that polarises Balkan society: between conservative nationalists (considered "primitives" by their opponents!), who play the homophobic card; and liberal pro-Europeans (considered "traitors" by their opponents!), who play the gay-friendly card! Nationalist and religious groups condemn left-leaning governments and organisations for sympathising with the "provocative" and "immoral" demands of "sexual minorities", when they could otherwise be dealing with far more "serious" issues(!); while pro-European and secular organisations condemn far-right groups for spreading homophobic intolerance branded "hate speech", that later leads to scenes of intimidation and violence branded "hate crimes". It is in this contentious political climate and tense social environment that LGBT people in Balkan countries find themselves, and without a doubt, it's not easy for them.

15 comments:

Owen said...

It's incongruous that it's the humbugs who see nothing wrong in their heroes committing sexual violence on a massive scale - rape of men, women and under-age children, along with the most appalling other forms of sexual abuse - who see themselves as occupying a position of moral authority that qualifies them to condemn the conduct of others. That's nationalism for you.

Asteri said...

There was an article published a while back that said LGBT people were pretty offended by the way they're represented in the UK media and in reality TV programs, where their portrayed as shallow, vindictive, vicious sexual predators rather than ordinary people.

At the same time you have the truly awful Hip Hop 'culture' taking over the planet with its message of cynical materialism and misogyny. I never understood how you can have that everywhere while preaching tolerance and respect.

Owen said...

This is what should be causing revulsion and critical self-analysis - it's almost too much to bear reading:
http://www.bim.ba/en/288/10/33395/

Yes, Asteri, as you remind us, attitudes in the UK and the US can be shallow, hypocritical and vindictive in this area as in so many others, but at the same time I don't think the elephants in the middle of our own whited sepulchre are quite so determinedly ignored.

When people choose to turn their eyes away from the reality of KDZ 051's experience, they forfeit the right to pontificate on matters of morality and normality. And I'm not just talking about sanctimonious church authorities and street hooligans. The battles that Bakira Hasecic has had to persuade the Bosnian legal authorities (not to mention the ICTY Prosecutors responsible for the Milan Lukic trial) to pursue wartime crimes of rape with any real degree of seriousness and commitment speaks equally loudly for a regional inability to come to terms with the substance as opposed to the form of moral discourse.

Asteri said...

I don't think its that surprising that rape allegations aren't pursued seriously. My understanding is that rape isn't dealt with that seriously in the normal context. When you have it in the scale of open warfare it would be impossible to deal with.

Realistically speaking it would set an unwanted precedent, given that soldiers will always rape civilians in war and during occupation. No one wants to put their own armed forces on trial.

Owen said...

Asteri, you don't seem to have paid much attention to legal developments. Quite apart form the existence of the Geneva Conventions - apparently unknown to you - the landscape of legal precedent now includes the finding that the brave Chetnik heroes of Foca were guilty of the use of rape as a weapon war.

Open warfare? The likes of Milan Lukic, Dusko Vuckovic, Dusko Tadic and so on weren't soldiers rampaging in the wild violence of the battlefield, they were men recruited, trained and controlled by the municipal authorities masquerading as Serb Crisis Staff Committees and their Serbian allies.

Your relentless sideways excusing of war crimes is a demonstration of the same simple humbuggery as the bigoted Serbian Orthodox prudes who chose to parade their sexual and moral values at the launch of Milan Lukic's self-excuse on St Sava premises.

Asteri said...

My reply seems to have been eaten. I can't be bothered to write all again but in short the reason the ICTY decision not to pursue rape charges more seriously was due to in being infeasible.

The attitudes in Serbia toward gay pride are the same as its neighbours, all of which are conservative countries. The only time anything positive is said about Serbia in the media in Croatia and Bosnia are about its counter Gay pride protests.

Owen said...

It was feasible to prosecute, the Office of the Prosecutor were too busy with the rest of their case against the Lukics and applied to the Court to add the rape charges when it was too late for the defence to mount a response in the time before the trial began. Incompetence and prevarication, not incapacity.

And now we have the Belgrade launch at St Sava of the year's literary sensation "Ispovest haškog sužnjao", published by the Serbian Radical Party and carrying the clerical blessing of the Serbian Orthodox Church, like other notorious events that flickered past momentarily on Belgrade television screens.

I presume the bits of the Lukic memoirs that were read out in the St Sava parish house omitted the bits about Vilina Vlas and other heroic deeds presided over by the Visegrad Crisis Staff Committee, that might have been a bridge too far to cross in that environment of sexual and moral continence.

You ask Bakira Hasecic whether the survivors are prepared to testify and allow prosecutions to take place. I suspect she'd have rather a forceful answer for you.

When these humbugs have cleaned out their own holy middens, then they can feel entitled to express their views on the conduct of others.

Owen said...

Here are some nice pictures of the jolly. http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.212463518802108.52762.212421498806310&type=1
I presume the icon is St Sava himself, recruited by his disciples to elevate the tone of the proceedings.

Asteri said...

That's fine, I except that it was feasible and should have been pursued. The actions of the SOC in this case are highly objectionable and tasteless but I don't see how in indicts every one who participated in counter protests (which were really more against the EU than against homosexuals). One has to jest except that its really about attitudes in a very 'macho' conservative society. I note that when gay pride parades were held in Zagreb and Sarajevo they were greeted with neo-nazi's shouting "kill the gays", "fags go to Serbia" "fags in concentration camps" "Tudjman, Tudjman, Tudjman!" "Ustase!".

Asteri said...

Apologies that should be "I accept that it was feasible and should have been pursued"

cambusken said...

I was asked by Amnesty International to send a letter to the President of Serbia and the Interior Minister urging them to guarantee the right of ordinary Serbians to express their pride in being gay or lesbian. (I was so ashamed to have to address him in English, that I am now trying to learn some Serbian). I was shocked to learn of the the massive hate in Serbia against - some 20,000 people taking to the streets of Belgrade to express this hate. You say they were extreme right people, but most of the online coverage does not go that far. I was also amazed to read of the unbelievable bravery of the small number of Serbs (500?) who were prepared to take part in the Pride Parade. Lastly, it is to the honour and credit of the Serbian nation that it tried to protect the Parade, at the cost of some 200 injured police.
I read your article with interest, but the dreadful scale of the hatred still defies explanation - I don't remember anything like it in any Western Country. There must certainly be something about identity in this - backed up by religion, which seems to be a key and highly charged marker of identity in these regions.

But you really cannot rule out a generalised uncertainty about sexuality.

In African countries this is apparent too, and egged on by religious groups there too, though it also linked to widespread abuse and rape of women. These guys think their sexuality is under scrutiny at all times and they need to show themselves and others that they up to traditional male norms. Can they not just loosen up a bit?

Having said all this, I guess I have got to admit that I have no personal experience of racial cleansing, tribal disputes and the hightened sense of identity these dramatic experiences provoke. Moreover,Serbia seems to be making more progress than the African countries. You all seem so reasonable when you see you individually!

Thanks again for your detailed analysis. I hope the gays in Belgrade will one day have their march in the sun (and I have no doubt they will be ahead of the Zimbaweans).

Owen said...

Looks like Tadic and Dacic have just laid down the law to Obraz and the beards in black frocks on what minority rights means in Serbia.

Alan Jakšić said...

Hi Cambusken, thanks for commenting and feel free to comment elsewhere.

It's always nice to hear people wanting to learn my language. Not many people speak it, apart from over 20 million throughout the former Yugoslavia and in the diaspora, but even many of them won't call it the same thing(s) as I call it! And yeah, the grammar is really hard. Even now I have to check to make sure all the words in my sentances are grammatically correct just so I don't get spotted and then embarrassed, and I'm a native speaker of the language! But nevertheless, keep up the learning! Samo tako nastavljaj! ;-)

Back on topic though: you're right to point out the "dreadful scale of the hatred" re: homophobia, and I agree that right-wing religious opinion plays an important role here.

Religious leaders over there are seen as "spiritual leaders" of their nations, and as such, they portray themselves as their "moral guides". And ever since nationalist sentiments re-surfaced after Marshall Tito died and exploded into open inter-ethnic warfare following the collapse of Communism, the religious institutions have restored/reaffirmed their place in the hearts and minds of their nations, offering comfort to traumatised populations, that have re-discovered their ethnic identity and traditions following the loss of the common Yugoslav national identity brought about by devastating wars, even though a lot of them weren't and aren't personally that religious or conservative. Nevertheless, homosexuality and other LGBT issues offer religious organisations, like the national churches, a platform upon which to influence public opinion and discourse re: morality with the intention of maintaining and promoting conservative religious views. But what's really worrying is the aggressiveness of the far-right currents linked to mainstream religious institutions, that preach very intolerant views, like Obraz and Dveri Srpske in Serbia.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that people need to be told how to be anti-gay; in fact, they're more than capable of being homophobic without priests and bishops giving them instructions! I think that a lot of it is about proving to your fellow Serbs, Croats or whatever that you are a "true Serb/Croat/whatever", besides the usual anti-gay views a lot of straight people subscribe to there. And in their nationalistic and homophobic opinion, gays don't fit that mould! As for far-right religious "defence of the family" or "traditional values", I think they merely add fuel to an already burning fire.

I read this comment on another blog, which I want to quote here, 'cause it sums up brilliantly the homophobia among Serbs and other Balkan people:

Funny how the only time when Serbs turn to "traditionalism" is when the subject of homosexuality comes up.

I rest my case!

Alan Jakšić said...

Yep, it looks like they have, Owen. At least by this example of bowing down to far-right pressure, we'll know what to expect in other scenarios. This does not bode well for Serbian society or elsewhere in the Balkans.

Owen said...

Alan, it really seems quite serious politically. I think we'll have to see where it leads but the omens are not good. Tadic appears to have abandoned his version of a strategic vision. It was hard to expect more from Dacic than a very basic electoral opportunism but Tadic gave the impression at least of looking for his opportunities across a wider perspective. I've seen some horrific comments that appear to fail completely to understand that this is about more than homosexuality. The implication of one comment I saw seemed to be that the Norwegian government shouldn't have annoyed Anders Behrens Breivik - maybe all would have been well if they'd simply stopped young people going to summer camps on Utoya.