The Serbian Orthodox Church and right wing extremists have had their way: Belgrade Pride Parade has been banned by the Serbian Government for the second year running. Belgrade Pride has attracted a great deal of attention again this year, and not for good reason. Even before the Serbian Minister of the Interior knelt down to the church and extremists and banned the Parade, fear was mounting that alleged security issues would be used as justification for the government’s submission.
As well as the Church and some family groups who are vehemently opposed to a gay lifestyle, right wing extremists had been making their jaundiced opinions and intentions entirely clear. But threats of demonstrations should not be justification for a government ban on people exercising their legal rights to gather peacefully in a parade – a rights that has been recognised by the Serbian Constitutional Court.
The fear was that this decision had been made long before today’s announcement. Some politicians showed their hand a little early and said that Pride would be banned and sources were briefing earlier this week to say that it would not go ahead. It did not help that the situation was agitated even more by certain media-hungry LGBT activists who, although unconnected to the organisation of this year’s Belgrade Pride, were able to stir up controversy with unhelpful comments that reflect badly on the vast majority.
This decision of a discriminating government has shown that Serbia has a long way to go before it can be classed as a modern and democratic country. It should also bring into question whether the country is ready or willing to progress toward full EU membership, if it is unable to protect the rule of law and human rights. Serbia’s Orthodox Patriarch will feel that he has triumphed after he urged the government to prevent what he called a ‘parade of shame’. But while his prejudiced opinion might have directly contributed to the government’s decision, neither he nor they will silence the community in their efforts to improve life for the LGBT people who live side by side with many who oppose their lifestyle.
Everything about Pride can be divisive. Those who call into question why gay people need to march at all can use even the name itself to criticise events. Some even ask ‘What do they have to be proud of?’. Maybe these people should consider the importance of living with confidence and self-respect, as well as need to speak up against prejudice and to fight for equal rights and conditions.
There will be plenty of stone throwing over the ban and the Serbian government should be condemned in the fullest terms for rolling over to terror threats by hooligans and other groups intent on silencing free speech. And not for the first time. The influential power of the church in legal matters that should be beyond its remit should also be queried. But, that is doubtful, of course.
Looking beyond this travesty for human rights and the rule of law, it should be remembered that Pride is about far more than a walk through the city centre.
In the run-up to Saturday’s planned gathering, a week-long programme of public discussions, presentations and events is being held to air and debate issues that affect Serbia’s LGBT community and those who relate to it. Topics to be addressed came out of a year of research and discussion within the wider community.
The importance of such a programme of activities should be underestimated, especially in light of the ban on a Parade. There is a need for more openness, understanding and respect for LGBT people in Serbia and, by bringing some of the issues into the open, organisers hope to dispel myths, increase understanding and lead to a life without ignorance, bullying or prejudice.
The theme for this year’s Belgrade Pride is the three universal values of love, faith and hope. But these need to be more than just words. They need to be lived and they need to be shared. People need to forget the actions of their government and make the change in themselves.
Friends & Family Can Learn From Pride
One hope for this week was that families and friends of LGBT people would attend the events and learn more about life as a gay, bisexual or transgender person in Serbia and to understand the small things they can do to improve life for them. People are never going to agree on everything, never going to openly accept all that goes on in life. Tolerance is something that everyone has to learn if a society is to live in peace. The trouble comes when personal opinions impact negatively on the rights of others to live in safety and without prejudice. When you are gay, the dangers can be very real when these feelings get out of control.
Communication is key to a better understanding of how we all live alongside each other. Belgrade Pride organisers have seen how a more constructive dialogue between the LGBT community and the authorities has helped with preparations for this year’s events. The authorities have a responsibility to protect human rights for all people within their borders, but real change must start at home, where needs to better dialogue among friends and family. When people can accept their neighbours, be tolerant of others in their community and provide love and support for their family, a wave of change can sweep through society, gently and without shock. Lasting change will only take hold when people can embody the fundamental values of love, faith and hope for all, starting with those closest to them.
Pride Begins at Home
For instance, the pressures and concerns of young people who wish to come out can be intense. Pride needs to begin at home, within the safety, comfort and support of a loving family. That is what should happen, but often the reality can be very different. Of course, it can be hard for people to accept when someone close to them comes out as LGBT. When that person is a brother or sister, son or daughter, those difficulties can be even greater.
When someone comes out as gay, there are bound to be questions and concerns from both sides, but a lack of communication can inhibit an understanding of the issues affecting all involved. Some people hope that by not saying the words they will somehow prevent the situation from being real. Such denial and avoidance is quite common and it is not specific to Balkan communities, although the traditional structures of family, religion and society in those countries can make any level of acceptance more hard won. Sadly, the love and support of the family can be a casualty of these situations.
Prejudices that are felt by the LGBT community should not be tolerated or excused by any peaceful and caring society. If Serbia wants to be recognised as a fair-minded country that respects the rights of all citizens, provides a stable homeland where people can live according to fair and equal laws, and has a warm welcome for visitors, then some issues will need to be addressed.
This is not a concern just for the gay community. All people deserve to live with dignity, tolerance and respect and, to see this happen, we should refusing to accept violence, prejudice and abuse. It cannot be right that one group still lives with these burdens daily. This is not right and it should not be accepted. Everyone should be free to walk the streets without fear, to work without prejudice and to live without threat.
Living side by side should not need to be so hard, especially as we have so much more that unites us than divides us. It would be good to think that this week could see some people think again about friends and neighbours and reflect on what is actually important in life. There is a far greater need for greater solidarity in our communities than for more divisions. Is it wrong to expect our religious leaders to be more charitable to everyone in their community?