Serbian capital’s small lesbian and gay community has learned to safely maneuver what they see as often hostile streets.
Graffiti declaring “Send Karadzic to The Hague” had appeared one day on “Eifranloo’s” street. Later that day, walking back home, a man he describes as a neo-Nazi was standing next to the graffiti.
“He started yelling: ‘Do you know who drew this? I’m looking for the person who did this because only a fag could have written this, and you look like one. Did you?'”
Eifranloo, 20, who wants to be referred to only by his nickname, says he just kept on walking, ignoring the thug’s comments. He says he has learned how to avoid conflict of this sort.
Eifranloo has been living in Belgrade for over a year, and avoids outright expressions of his sexuality in public. When walking on the street with his boyfriend, he certainly doesn’t hold his hand.
“Belgrade is pretty anti-gay, but also anti-anything that deviates from the Balkan norm,” he says. “However, I don’t feel unsafe. I’ve learned how to act, but I think that if a foreigner came to Belgrade and wasn’t aware of how to keep his sexuality hidden, he’d run into trouble. In this city you have to think hard before you make any move.”
Many activists, and people, from the gay and lesbian community, echo these sentiments. They say that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender scene in Belgrade is very small precisely because of the unwelcoming and often homophobic atmosphere. They believe this is rooted in several systematic failures, such as the refusal of the police to offer adequate protection and in the unwillingness of most politicians to be associated with “anything gay”.
Public attitudes in Serbia have yet to reflect the sweeping changes that have been made in Western countries in recent decades in relation to lesbian and gay visibility.
A study by the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy found that 70 per cent of Serbs still see homosexuality as a disease. More than 50 per cent of people in Serbia think state institutions should work to prevent homosexuality, and 50 per cent also think that homosexuality poses a danger to society.
Recently, however, Queeria, an organization for the promotion of queer culture, received a €3,000 grant from the Ministry of Culture for the development of a website. This was the first time an LGBT group had received any funding at all from the Serbian government.
“In this country, we experience violence, we experience hate, we experience discrimination, but the problem that Queeria tries to highlight is political disqualification, which is by far the most damaging,” says Slobodan Stojanovic, a member of the organisation.
“To be honest, this is a fairly small grant, but the minute this became public there was a discussion about who works in this ministry, and whether they are gay, or married,” he said, adding that the tone of the discussions only highlighted the way in lesbians and gays remained outside political life.
Predrag Azdejkovic, also of Queeria, echoed Stojanovic’s statement, saying that the reasons that contributed to the small size of the gay scene in Belgrade went very deep.
“The gay population faces many negative messages on a daily basis, which differ in intensity from attacks on one’s dignity to death threats,” Azdejkovic said.
“These messages lead to fear, retreat from public life, and hiding, and often result in you starting to hate yourself,” he added, explaining that this was why many gay Belgraders chose to remain “in the closet”.
However, Azdejkovic said Belgrade was still less homophobic than other Serbian towns and cities such as Jagodina, Krusevac, and Cacak.
Boris Milicevic, an LGBT activist and program manager of Belgrade’s gay club, Apartman, said the city had a population advantage over Jagodina, Krusevac and Cacak.
“The advantage of Belgrade is that it is a city of 2 million, so you can hide there more easily than in smaller towns. And since Belgrade is the capital, LGBT groups can more easily pressure the government,” Milicevic said.
Milicevic added that although Belgrade’s gay scene was small, it did exist. There were now several clubs like Apartman, Toxic and Black.
A source, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not an “out” activist, told Belgrade Insight that gay clubs in Belgrade were neither public nor mainstream for safety reasons.
This 22-year-old student from New Belgrade added: “The scene here is pretty undercover. If everyone knew where these places were, who knows what might happen?”
He agreed with Eifranloo that he has learned to act in order to stay safe in Belgrade.
“I can’t hold my boyfriend’s hand when we’re walking down the street, I’m used to that,” he said. “I don’t expect this to change. This the Balkans, after all.”