Homosexuality in Serbia through the Ages

One of my first encounters with the concept of other sexualities was when, as kid visiting my grandmother`s tiny summer house in Montenegro I was walking around the yard and pointed to a far-away house on a land neighbouring ours and asked who lived there.

„That was cousin M.`s house…“ she said, somewhat darkly, unlike her eager explanations of who else lived in the 20km radius.

As the day went on and I pestered my grandma and other relatives for some family history , it was revealed that cousin M. was gay (a „peder“) and spent most of his professional life as a clerk of some sort in Belgrade (where he had relationships with local University proferssors) only to return to this village by Nikšić and spend his last days as an unmarried village alcoholic. That side of my family rarely lets on anything more about M.  which is hardly surprising: my grandma was known for having strained relationships with many of her family, especially when they were neighbours, and then, there is the local culture. Another story that I heard, albeit much later, about the local attitude towards being (allegedly) gay, was that some guy my dad and uncle knew was beaten up for wearing a yellow sweater, taken to be a sign of gayness, during the usual night stroll through Nikšić’s main street some time in the 1970s or 1980s. However, as these things happen, Nikšić is also where the first openly gay activist  in Montenegro is from.

The other, Belgrade, side of my family was much less awkward around these issues. According to my mom`s stories, my great-grandmother had a gay friend (married to a much older lady for companionship, working as salesman in a fashion store, if I remember correctly) who paid her house-visits, albeit my great-grandfather, a former military man from Lika, liked to leave the flat during those visits after making them coffee. That great-grandad also scolded his son in law whenever he wore perfume or after shave, as he saw that as gay (“pederasto”) behaviour.

These topics started being interesting to me around the time of the first, very bloody, Belgrade pride, which happened on June 30, 2001 while I was still in primary school. I was shocked that same-sex attraction between people in their private lives elicited so much hatred: people were brutally beaten in the streets, and clergy gave many awful comments about the participants. As a proto-SJW and a nerd, I thought that the incident warranted an op-ed in the school paper, which I wrote. Although I submitted it, it was spiked, which made me wonder even more where the big problem lay, and how it came to be that much of a big deal.

In the past few decades a lot has changed: Serbia has a lesbian PM (albeit one who said she opposes legalising same-sex partnerships, despite being in one), while Montenegro not only has allowed same sex partnerships, but the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church there, late Metropolitan Amfilohije, a staunch critic of LGBT movement, baptised a trans person who sought to join the Church`s fold. However the history of the local attitude towards same sex relationships remains intriguing as it traces the effects of faith, ideology and international politics on identity and private, sexual life. There have been many truly fascinating resources on the topic, the first being Među Nama, a collection of mostly scholarly essays on gay and lesbian experiences and history in the region, as well as “Kata Nesiba i komentari”, a truly unique book by Ivan Janković, an ardent advocate for decriminalisation of same sex relationships in Serbia, which tell the story of various vices in mid 19th century Belgrade. I would also suggest a reading one great piece by Milan Radonjić on the history of homosexuality in Serbia which cites Janković and which was published in the late Belgrade Insight, in what was the first Pride-themed issue of a print newspaper in Serbia.

         The most common caveat in researching any of this is that the views of sexuality and identity, both on personal and social level, were very different across the ages and cultures that existed in what is now Serbia and the Balkans. Given that sexuality, in the end, is an extremely private and personal thing, anecdotes, which very much depend on specific familial, class and other cultural parameters, should probably not be used for extrapolation for overall social trends especially over large geographies and periods of time: social and private experience, as well as self-perception as a homosexual (although one wonders if he himself self-identified that way) like my distant relative in a city in Montenegro was a very different experience to that of my great-grandmother`s friend in Belgrade, let alone being part of the current, much more liberated, LGBT scene in either place. 

Still it is these differences that really make going through the history of homosexuality quite fascinating as they reveal how differently societies can treat one aspect of human experience.

Going through the analyses of the medieval attitudes towards homosexuality is especially fascinating due to clergy`s very serious attempts of dissecting all types of sinful thoughts and, especially deeds. Eve Levin`s impressive study, Sex and Society in the World of Orthodox Slavs 900-1700, as well as Stanoje Bojanin`s essay in Među Nama, show how the church and secular attitudes changed towards homosexual practices and how they were treated in the various, very convoluted, texts however a few things seem to stand apart as being relatively constant in the Medieval Orthodox Christian: homosexuality was in general seen as just another expression of lust from which Christians should refrain, and the attraction itself to various objects of desire was less problematised in the East, as much as the fact that one decides to engage in a sinful act of various severity.

 Lustful acts, including homosexual ones, were put on a scale of their naturalness and gravity with acts like masturbation (which often included non-penetrative same-sex activities) seen as less grievous, and things like incest, penetrative same-sex acts, adultery and copulation with animals see as much worse. Secular law seemed to punish penetrative male homosexual acts, while lesbian activities were less punished (although were often seen as leading to paganism). The Ancient Greek distinction in gravity of a homosexual penetrative act depending on whether one is penetrated (which in Ancient Greece led to social ostracism) or whether one penetrates (which was not seen as disgraceful) was maintained in secular practices (people who were, willingly or not penetrated could not join clergy according to Levin), while the relative difference in sinfulness was debated (some even saw that willingness to be both an active and a passive participant as the worst option).

While Levin suggests that Orthodox Slavic lands, perhaps under the influence of Greece, were more tolerant of male and female homosexual practices compared to Catholic Medieval Western Europe, they were equally interested in preserving the usual gender (and economic) roles and ensuring high rates of procreation within families to keep societies going – hardly surprising given the labour intensive manufacturing and agriculture, and the challenge of high infant mortality and frequent plagues, in medieval times.

Interestingly, it is the Balkans – more precisely Bosnia and Bulgaria, is also where the Bogumils, an ancient heretical movement, first took root in Europe  and they were painted (mostly by their opponents, of course), as notoriously libertine. Libertinism and especially tolerance of homosexual acts, was such a big part of anti-Bogomil propaganda, that the British term for a homosexual penetrative act – buggery – actually comes from “Bulgar” via French, as they associated Bogomils with Bulgaria. Knowing this, one wonders if similar reputation – or rather a moral panic – followed them in Serbia`s medieval predecessor state, when Stefan Nemanja, the decided to root out this heresy from Raška (Rascia) in 1186.

         Indeed, then that would be the first instance of seeing (tolerance of) homosexuality as a pernicious feature of one`s political foes something that became common when Serbs and other Balkan nations fell under the Ottoman rule in 15th century.

Sexual libertinism and asexual assertiveness of the Ottomans was a common trope among Christians, and something that was initially used to stir up animosity and then later (in 19th century) used to draw in European libertines like Lord Byron. There of course, have been grounds for these beliefs: Belgrade had a male and female harem for its Ottoman Pascha will into the 19th century and sexual slavery was legal in the Empire almost until its end. The practices of sexually exploiting the conquered non-Muslim populations of both sexes were commonly reported on (I assume at least somewhat propagandistically), and there were stories about Ottoman incursions into Central Europe beyond their borders, to enslave attractive sex slaves, including boys. Jonathan Drake`s essay on homosexual practices in the Ottoman empire includes many descriptions of the Ottoman lords raping boys and men of subjugated populations, including a 16th century account of a certain Bartolomej Đorđević, of both his exploitation, but of the mechanics of Ottoman sex slavery, where the best looking slaves of both sexes were treated better (so to be given to Ottoman grandees) while the others were routinely mistreated. Interestingly, Charles Sabatos, points to a counter example: an account by an 18th century Ottoman noble of Slavic descent from present day Timisoara, who was sexually tempted and mistreated at the hands of Christians, to the point of being tempted by what he described as an attractive Austrian boy who allegedly wanted to be taught about the “degrading morals of the Turks”.

         There were, of course, many consensual homosexual acts at the time within and outside religiously segregated groups in the Ottoman empire. Nik Jovčić-Sas even argues that the Orthodox tradition of “brothering” between men can be seen as sort of a proto-same sex marriage.  In the immediate post-Ottoman Serbia, Janković describes a male peasant who was charged for indecent behaviour for having sex with males and paying his paramours in socks. On the other hand, some men decided to join male harems as a career opportunity (as also described by Janković). However, given the private nature of these acts and thinly spread literacy among Balkan (and especially non-urban, non-Muslim) population I assume they are really difficult to come by. Still,  the occasional sexual violence against man as well a generally more sexually permissive attitude of the Ottoman elite, made tolerance of homosexuality a political, identity issue as Serbia was becoming an independent state.

         Janković also describes the foreign, Western pressures on Serbs in 19th and early 20th century to regulate sexuality and make homosexuality illegal. Copying the prudish, Victorian West was the chief fashion among the Serbian elite and key in making sure all vestiges of Ottoman identity (including libertinism) are removed. Male homosexuality first became illegal in 1817 as Miloš Obrenović took power and remained so until 1858, when the Ottomans made sure this penal code was rescinded. It was reintroduced to the penal code in 1860 and stayed illegal in the territory of Serbia all the way until 1994. (Vojvodina made it legal in 1978), however there were relatively few instances when anyone was changed for homosexual behaviour, but the arrests did happen, especially during the first Yugoslavia, when the Belgarde police found and arrested owners of what seemed to be a transvestite homosexual sex club.

Despite low enforcement of anti-homosexual laws, homosexuality was seen as a stain on a person`s career and was used a smear by political opponents. Nićifor Ninković, Prince Miloš`s disguntled barber, and author of one of the saucier autobiographies, alleged that Miloš had sex with men, and that smear is common to this day. Another famous example of the political use of allegations of homosexuality was the case of Pera Todorović, a populist journalist, who was smeared by his liberal (more elitist) opponents as a homosexual.

However, despite these attitudes, there was a relatively remarkable number of homosexuals and lesbians who were celebrated and accepted in 19th and 20th century Serbia.

Predrag Marković, who did research in the topic, alleges that Mihajlo Petrović Alas – Serbian mathematician and world traveller, who reached both Arctic and the Antarctica, had homosexual proclivities. Another confirmed bachelor, Petar Živković, a coup plotter, general and prime minister of Yugoslavia, was allegedly involved with soldiers on the front and is generally assumed to have had affairs with men, while Serbian generals fraternised with lesbian British nurses who came to help Serbs in WWI.

The treatment of homosexuals under the Nazi occupation of Serbia (1941-1944) is yet to be researched, however while the contemporary lore tries to paint the Yugoslav Communists and Partisans as more LGBT friendly, that was not necessarily the case. Milovan Đilas, one of the chief idelogues of the Yugoslav Communists before his fall from grace, describes a very strange situation in his memoir about WWII, in which Rifat Burdžević, a prominent Sandžak partizan, debates whether to execute a loyal partizan fighter who was found out to be engaged in homosexual acts. The alleged homosexual pleas for his life explaining that he was raped as a boy by a former Ottoman feudal lord, and succeeds to persuade Burdžević to spare him, however Đilas offers a very stern condemnation of the patrizan`s vice: “I did not know the party practice either, nor was anything about such issues written by Marx and Lenin. But, following the common sense, I have concluded that proletarians also suffer from such vices, not just the bourgeois decadents, but also – that such vultures cannot have positions or be members of the party.”.

This stance, however, was not shared by all members of the Party, even though homosexuality was illegal in Yugoslavia (until 1974 in Slovenia, 1977 in Croatia and Montenegro, 1994 in Serbia, 1997 in Northern Macedonia, and 1998 in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Prominent Croatian Communists and writers, Vladimir Nazor and Ivan Goran Kovačić were a couple, while Dragoslav Srejović, a famous Serbian archaeologist who discovered Lepenski Vir was also open about his sexuality, as was Jovan Ćirilov, a tour de force of Belgrade cultural life, who proudly and loudly campaigned for homosexuality to be decriminalised and accepted in the wider society.

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