By cancelling a gay pride parade scheduled for last Sunday, Serbian authorities have surrendered to the threats of hooligans and neo-fascist groups.
Just two days before the event, interior minister Ivica Dacic suddenly announced that it had been banned, along with a number of counter-demonstrations. "Because of these rallies – above all the anti-parade protests – we could expect enormous damage to public order and peace," he explained.
This was a rather strange and startling step, as only last year the government praised itself for standing up to far-right extremists by allowing a pride parade in the Serbian capital and providing appropriate police protection.
In previous years, there had been several other attempts at a gay march. The first one, in 2001, left marchers exposed to homophobic thugs after the police refused to offer protection.
Following this year’s cancellation, the website of one of extremist group, Obraz ("Honour"), correctly described the ban as a victory. Meanwhile, the Serbian president tried to make out that cancelling it was in the interests of the LGBT community: "That way, the citizens, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population are protected."
Indeed, how can one not be protected when one stays invisible? Homophobia is deeply rooted in Serbia, as in many other eastern European and ex-Yugoslav countries. To stay safe, gay and lesbian Serbs often have to hide, and live in the shadows of the closet. This is the situation that the Serbian government seems to want to perpetuate.
Not only do gay and lesbian Serbs have to go into hiding for fear of being physically attacked, but they also have to endure a shower of insults and condemnations, mainly uttered by the Orthodox clergy. Patriarch Irinej, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, labelled the planned gay march a "pestilence" and a "parade of shame".
Incitement of attacks often goes unpunished, despite an anti-hate speech law and a high proportion of gay Orthodox priests. In the face of hateful words coming from high places, the voice of the gay and lesbian population often remains dim and unheard.
Gay pride marches are sometimes seen as a cure for homophobia or an indicator of how far a country has advanced in terms of gay rights. But shouting "Love! Love! Love!" through a loudspeaker – as Croatian gay marchers did – has never made anyone more loving or accepting.
To use a medical metaphor: if homophobia were an illness, then gay pride parades would be the antibiotic. The problem with antibiotics is that they tend to breed more resistant strains of germs. In some cases, doctors recommend alternative, "softer" approaches which deal with the root of the problem. Similarly, homophobia can only be truly banished through multiple channels – education, art, literature, etc.
But in Serbia’s case, where the illness has taken over the whole social body, there is no time left for soft approaches. In a situation of emergency, a gay pride march is the only opportunity left for gay and lesbian Serbs to express themselves.
Dacic is right to want to avoid bloodshed, but unless they tackle the problem of homophobia, Serbian authorities are only paving the way for more violence.
If they think a gay march is inappropriate, then they would need to compensate for this by effectively enforcing anti-hate speech and anti-discrimination laws and by suggesting more creative approaches. For instance, why not organise a cultural festival, or have Brokeback Mountain shown on primetime TV, as Fidel Castro’s niece did in Cuba?