My first experience of how deeply uncomfortable Serbian society is with non-standard sexualities and genders came in the days after the bloody debacle of the first Belgrade Pride Parade in 2001 – a mixture of hooligans and ruffians of all stripes attacked and injured more than 40 attendees who believed that the freedom to love whom you choose would come hand in hand with political freedoms following the fall of Milosevic.
I was just entering my teens, so I didn’t experience it on the streets but in my very liberal Belgrade home when I told my father I intended to write a student newspaper piece about the unfairness of the state, society and the Serbian Orthodox Church towards the LGBT population.
Though a tolerant guy, he immediately blanched and explained to me, concerned and in no uncertain terms, that while I certainly had a point, I, a boy of 13, should not want to associate with “that” and “risk being labelled”, because the stigma attached to homosexuality in Serbia would make my life miserable.
Headstrong as any teenager would be when confronted with parental disapproval, I wrote the article and submitted it to my teacher who was in charge of the newspaper.
Again, rather than getting a pat on the back, there was an uncomfortable silence and an explanation that it would not appear in the newspaper because “it is not appropriate”. It was shelved, replaced by lyrics to some pop song.
Seventeen years later, even without my self-righteous, angsty article, things may have changed for the better. But society’s basic unease with a diversity of sexuality and gender remains.
While we have an out prime minister, an out Eurovision winner, and our normally campy pop-culture even produced out reality show contestants, being out and out of the limelight still requires great courage and confrontation with society-wide prejudice.
Rather than strong condemnation and action, occasional physical attacks on LGBT people, to say nothing of off-colour remarks by public figures, still produce deafening silence.
Perhaps even more painful than the lack of public support for LGBT rights or any progress on the issue of same-sex partnerships, are the private challenges that my LGBT friends face, which routinely include anything from not knowing how to answer who they are dating at large gatherings, to the emotional turmoil that can ensue when they come out to their families.
Their sexuality, or rather the unfair stigma placed on it, complicates their daily lives, from considerations about which cafe they can sit in and chat frankly with their loved ones to having to carefully judge how open they can be with anyone they meet or work with. Rather than being respected for who they are, they are pilloried, or, worse, pitied.
What pains them more than a priest blaming gays for environmental disasters (yes, that happened in 2014), is the message that many of them all too frequently get from their social environment, that they will always be outcasts.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, some of my LGBT friends got fed up and decided to leave Serbia and seek places where they can love freely, even if they were living here in relatively protected liberal circles.
Many however, stayed, and day after day they fight to live and love a bit more freely, one small battle at a time.
While, thankfully, there are growing pockets of Serbian society where their personal lives are not an issue and the LGBT going-out scene is booming, I cannot but be inspired by their courage, perhaps even more than I am disappointed by the fact such courage is still necessary.
This very diverse bunch of people, who I am a lucky to have gotten to know in various ways, are arming themselves daily to withstand the slurs, the nasty jokes and threats of violence and exclusion, and to fight for they know is right: to follow their hearts.
What we too often forget, however, is that they are fighting even for those of us who do not share their sexuality or the stigma associated with it.
By showing that an individual shall not only withstand, but also stand up to unfair scorn and derision, they are loosening the grip of fear on all us – and allowing us a glimpse of how we can all be a bit freer and bit more courageous in the way we go about things.
Although this sort of courage is necessary everywhere, it is essential in Serbia, where the increasingly mercantile-cronyist system places little value on integrity and disproportionately rewards conformity.
Indeed, there are many people in Serbia, of all sexualities, shapes and sizes, who are brave in their own ways, but my mind and heart often goes back to my LGBT friends, who serve as daily examples of resilience and grit, whenever I feel I need it.
I hope Serbia will not only learn to tolerate all of its daughters and sons, but also be proud of the courage of those who lived their lives freely in recent years, unwilling to betray themselves despite the risks.
Belgrade would certainly be a much better place if more people took to heart the words of Igor Dobricic, one of the attendees of that first Belgrade Pride in 2001 and who was severely beaten up: “If, out of fear, I must sacrifice my human dignity and my right to be who I am, I would rather kill myself, than live and hide”.
This article initially appeared in Belgrade Insight newspaper’s first Pride-month themed edition.