Pride Week Musings: Being Gay in Serbia

It's the Pride Week in Amsterdam, so it's time to reflect on my growing up as an LGBT person in Eastern Europe.

Pride Week Musings: Being Gay in Serbia

It’s the Pride Week in Amsterdam. The eventful seven days filled with LGBT arts, culture, and sports events. Its culmination is the Canal Parade that usually happens on a Saturday.

Where I come from, the Pride parade is still a protest.

It takes cordons upon cordons of police to hold a Pride parade in our capital. I’m not sure how successful is such an event if you need 5000 policemen to secure just a hundred people who are walking and holding banners. I guess you have to start somewhere.

I’m gay, and I'm from Serbia, a homophobic country with, currently, a lesbian prime minister. Don't be fooled, she was appointed to that function just to show to the EU how liberal Serbia actually is — so that the country doesn’t have to do anything about LGBT rights for a couple more years.

Why do you need so much police to secure a gay pride parade? Because thousands of hooligans will flock to Belgrade to kill the fags. Some policemen that I talked to, for a brief time when I was involved with an LGBT NGO project, shared that sentiment. I guess I should have thanked them for choosing to do their job instead of joining the angry mob.

It's not unusual that the Pride day in Serbia gets canceled due to uncertain safety of the participants.

Growing up there, I could never imagine that I was, at one point, going to be able to be openly gay to my coworkers, landlord, or government officials. The police in Serbia would occasionally catfish gay men to threaten them and get their names, but that was for a different reason.

I can be fairly open about my life now, because I live in Amsterdam, not because anything has changed in the place where I came from.

In retrospect, I never had anything particularly bad happen to me because of my sexuality. There were a couple of panic inducing circumstances, but overall, I was lucky. When I was in high school, my boss at a local radio I worked at saw my search history on one of the computers in the office. When I was in college, I got some light threats, and someone has posted my phone number publicly on a gay dating website. (Like that could harm me?) In 2008 my email was hacked, so somebody has gotten the access to my GayRomeo profile.

I came out to my mother because I was in my first long term relationship and it was too hard to keep up with the lies I was making up to cover that up. I came out to other family members because it was too hard to keep up with the lies I was making up to cover up anything related to my sexuality. There are, also, family members that I only see once a year, and if they all met in the same room, they’d all know conflicting stories about my life. I came out to my father and stepmom because I couldn’t contain the excitement when my hubby and I had got a mortgage for a flat in Amsterdam. And, every time, it went surprisingly well.

I do know, however, of some scary coming out stories. Disenfranchised LGBT youth. Parents making their children go to anti-gay treatments, see a priest, a psychiatrist, throwing them out of the house, or all of the above. Even my mother, who is generally very supportive, had suggested I should try taking hormones or just give up being gay when I was alone and miserable after my first serious relationship.

Many people in Serbia think that homosexuality is an illness. Many, also, claim they don’t mind it if it’s not shown in public. They don't seem to realize that's the source of oppression.

They fear a pride parade because they don’t want half-naked men dancing in their streets. What they do not realize is that it would take decades of LGBT walks that are just civil protests to get to that point.

There are the ones who think that the country has more serious issues to deal with than human rights — and I can, unfortunately, see their point. Serbia is a poor country, with a meager average wage and a lot of people are working under the table. Happy people tend to be more tolerant. People in Serbia are unhappy. LGBT people even more so.

When I was 15, I went online to find out if there were any other gays in Serbia. I was thrilled to see that I wasn’t the only one in a 50km radius! But then I realized I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw.

I’ve seen depressed 50-year-old gays with wives and two or three children, not able to give anybody anything more than a frightened blow job in a car next to a highway. I've seen gay guys not willing to meet you in a public space because they don't want to be seen with a fag. I've met a guy who would go for years without sex, but anytime he would sneeze he would go into a full-blown panic attack because that might be a sign of HIV.

My first long term relationship was with a man who was trying not to act suspiciously. He would move to his family home for two months every summer. For them, he was single, and changing the routine from his early college years would raise questions.

I’ve been with a guy who would invite a female friend to family gatherings to play his girlfriend, and then freak out what would happen if his mother bumped into her in the street.

When we first moved in together, my hubby and I have told our landlord we were cousins. We said the same thing to our gym coach.

Well, they say that gay boyfriends do look alike. :) Hubby and I, June 2017.

A mayor of a small town in central Serbia claims there are no homosexuals there. Many of them get married to women nonetheless — because the mayor gives a couple of thousands of euros to newlyweds to stimulate progeny. And that’s a lot of money if you’re in central Serbia. After all, the new Constitution of Serbia, adopted in 2006, defines marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman.

There are not many places in Serbia where LGBT people can be themselves. You can count the gay clubs in Serbia on the fingers of one hand. They're mainly located in major cities (namely Belgrade and Novi Sad). And they're usually thrashy.

I'm not saying the big cities are ideal. While I was living in Belgrade, a German LGBT activist was brutally beaten up some 20 meters from my flat in the very city center.

Oppressed gay people are prone to auto-homophobia. Pair that with a small town mentality and a constant fear of what will other people do or say and you've got an unhappy place. Being discreet becomes more important than being human. Not without reason: I remember some right wing extremists downloading Facebook profile photos of attendees at an LGBT event and printing them on posters which they distributed around the city. That's what having a target on your forehead looks like.

I have a friend who hadn't even come out to himself until his thirties. He moved in with the first guy he had a spark with. They waste a lot of energy to keep up appearances, their blinds are always shut, and they get paranoid every time somebody points out the obvious: that it's not normal to "need to have a roommate" when you're almost 40 and working.

I do go to the Amsterdam Pride parade. Occasionally I cover my beard in glitter. But I always feel a bit guilty that I've never been brave enough to join the one in Serbia.

Header image by Peter Hershey on Unsplash