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The historian Eric Hobsbawm developed a thesis that even small, left-oriented and progressive movements have a tendency towards establishing their tradition. In this text, I will draw a parallel between the Stonewall riots that are perceived as the beginning of the contemporary struggle for the rights of sexual minorities and the Pride Parade that was planned in Belgrade 40 years later. Very concisely, I will state the circumstances in which both events take place, the dominant perceptions of human rights, and try to put the common experience in the repression into a framework of the beginning of any social liberation.
In the Waiting Room
After the Pride Parade scheduled for the twentieth day of September 2009 was cancelled/banned, a space was created in public for the discussion on the position of the GLBT (1) community in Serbia. Or it wasn’t. Likewise, the Government of Serbia and the entire society demonstrated readiness to stand up against those that threatened to jeopardize the Parade. Or they didn’t. Perhaps it was all a reaction to the murder of the French citizen Brice Taton (2). Or it wasn’t. Every potential answer depends on the standpoint.
In the days after Taton was beaten up, the seething atmosphere before the Pride Parade was to take place reached its boiling point. The announcements of new violence were coming from different sides, and the Government of Serbia initiated an action against hooligans, drug dealers and organized criminal groups. At the same time, after Taton’s death, we witness a series of protest actions in Belgrade, lighting of candles, street walks. From the top of the state and police messages were coming that all those who brought about the increase of violence would be arrested. However, these messages were not articulated enough and it remained unclear to which violence the political elite were referring: to the murder of a foreigner or to homophobic threats. Everyone could interpret in his/her own way.
The answers to these questions are complex and should not be observed from the angle of only one interest community that found its place within the Pride Parade. And so… as an average Serbian citizen would say, the Parade did not take place, it left behind a great number of open questions, problems, unarticulated ideas and undefined moves: from the organizers of the manifestation to the highest state organs.
What cannot be disputed is a fact that the Parade, from the moment when it was announced to take place, became an intersection point in which a number of social factors found their interests: from alternative groups and established non-governmental organizations, to media and highest institutions of Serbian society. Above all, the Parade showed that the perception of human rights in Serbia is not unequivocal, uniformed, but on the contrary, very polarized with an infinite number of points that stand between these two poles.
Pride Procession or Pride Parade, Gay Parade or whatever we call it, has its foundation in three points.
First of all, Gay Parade is marked as a commemorative celebration in memory of the Stonewall riots and the victims of days-long confrontation in New York’s Greenwich Village, in June 1969. This event is perceived by the GLBT community as the beginning of the contemporary struggle for their rights.
The second point is pride, namely a concept in which the GLBT community starts from three premises: (a) people should be proud of their sexual orientation/gender identity, (b) difference is a gift and (c) sexual orientation/gender identity cannot be changed willfully (3).
The third point is human rights and the belief in their universality (4). The contemporary concept of human rights is most recognizable in the countries of Western Europe and North America, while the rest of the world is trying to establish the same/similar standards or to abolish the existing concept of human rights by denoting it as fundamentally Christian, as is the case with the countries in which Islam is the dominant religion. It is necessary to mention that there exist two basic perceptions of human rights: the cosmopolitan/universal and the culturally-relativistic (5), as well as that the rights of sexual minorities are relatively young and that they became legitimate only in the early seventies, with the recognition in the mainstream of the United States of America.
As in most countries in the transition, the dominant form in Serbia is culturally-relativistic, which in the framework of the analysis of the Belgrade Pride Parade was also confirmed by the organizers of this manifestation, having in mind that from the start the organizers demanded respect and state protection for the GLBT community in Serbia. (6)
Likewise, besides the organizers, not once during the preparations for the Procession a larger number of the members of GLBT community appears publicly except for a few activists of non-governmental organizations. Media and the public failed to recognize the Procession as an initiative of a wider GLBT community in Serbia, so this place was filled with fragmenting of the Organizing Committee, constant controversies of former and current members of the Committee, as well as GLBT activists-individuals that were not involved in the organization process of the Procession, and who disputed the work of the Committee.
The main argument, both in the Manifest (7) and in the public, was the existence of preconditions that hinted at the possibility of organizing this event. First of all, there was the Anti-Discrimination Law as well as the declared will of certain individuals in state institutions (Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, Ombudsman), who in the period before April 2009 (when the Pride Procession was announced) were giving positive indicators that this manifestation could be held with no problems whatsoever. Therefore, the organizers wanted to prove in public space the existence of political will and the need for the Procession to be held. This will was recognized by the representatives of non-governmental organizations, while the wider public (media for example) did not declare itself on the issue.
Stonewall – Plato
Beside the preconditions, the organizers also stated other contexts in the frameworks of which the Belgrade Pride Procession was being organized. Before everything else, there are the Stonewall riots (8) that took place in late June 1969 in New York’s Greenwich Village. During 2009 in Gay Parades worldwide, the 40th anniversary of this event was celebrated. One of the tendencies of the organizers of the Belgrade Procession was to establish historical continuity with the Stonewall and in this way validate, on the one hand their own engagement, and on the other, the political will to approach the European Union. However, was it (at all) possible to establish the history of GLBT movement between the Stonewall and the Plato?(9)
The historian Eric Hobsbawm (10) states that every, even a minority or a leftist movement has a need to establish a tradition (and a linear history, author) by selecting a certain event in the history and establishing the continuity of its meaning to present day. The Stonewall riots are perceived as the fundament of the gay-lesbian movement and the beginning of the liberation of sexual minorities in the broadest cultural sense. The GLBT community worldwide takes this day, June 27th, as the holiday of its legitimacy.
The unquestionable importance of this event lies in the fact that the Riots were directed against the state authorities, its organs and the police, as well as against the laws that limited the freedom of expression of GLBT people.
Also, broader social context in America in the late sixties (11) created the preconditions both for rebellions of minority groups and for strengthening of tolerance for them. As a balance to the Vietnam war and its hegemonic policy worldwide, the United States Government allows small advances within the institutions (art, (12) university), but not on the plan of the quotidian. (13)
Likewise, one shouldn’t forget the fact that the Stonewall Inn, after which the riots were named, was the name of a bar in Greenwich Village whose visitors were a profound social margin: transvestites feminized gay men, male prostitutes and homeless people. (14) Therefore, the Riots come as a reflex of the deeply repressed and marginalized, those that did not want to hide, nor to change, nor for their freedom to be determined by laws. The Riots began during one of the regular and frequent police raids on New York gay clubs. The transvestites first gave resistance when the police wanted to determine their gender, and later the other visitors joined in the resistance. A fight broke out that provoked a reaction of the GLBT community and which due to the course of events in the following days became a part of the official history. It was also the beginning of the modern GLBT movement, which is based on the existence of a body of laws that admit equal position for the GLBT people in the society.
Unlike the American authorities that managed to calculate with the society’s needs, the Serbian authorities did not do this.
First of all, the GLBT movement in Serbia did not emerge from rebellion, but on the model of already formed movements in Europe and America. The first groups were formed in the early nineties, but due to the war conflicts, they redirected their activism towards antiwar operations, and thus the continuity of the GLBT activism in the period 1991–2001 was lost. In 2001, the activist groups come to an idea to organize the first Belgrade Gay Parade, several months after the regime of Slobodan Milosevic was replaced by democratic government. However, the accession of democratic government did not also bring about a structural change in the society, so strong nationalist forces unite and with passive approval of the citizens, they break up the Parade. The second attempt took place in 2004, but, due to death threats, the activists gave up on the planned manifestation. What is important is that the first two times the organizers did not rely on the state very much, except in the domain of police protection. Thus, an atmosphere was created that the Parade was happening on the initiative of the GLBT population itself.
Although forty years passed from the Stonewall riots to the Belgrade Pride Parade, the activists’ focus changed. From the struggle for natural laws (15), the activists shifted their focus to the institutions that are to say to the advocating of a concept of law determined by the state. In Serbia, the improvement of the status of sexual minorities does not come as a reflex of the population itself, but as a recognition from a certain number of professional groups whose engagement is directed towards the institutions and the EU standardization.
The social context in which the Pride Parade 2009 is taking place is reflected in the flirting of the authorities between the pro-European and the traditionalist factions, without a clear left and right political option, with declarative support to human rights that does not carry the institutional actions towards them. In addition, one should not forget the fact that important processes are being led in The Hague Tribunal that influence Serbia’s accession to the European Union, and that the most wanted suspect – Ratko Mladic – has not yet been apprehended. The world economic crisis affects Serbia as well in a great measure, a large number of workers lose their jobs. As regards the minorities, dominates the repression against the Roma people, which emerges from the tendency of the Belgrade authorities to dislocate them from their settlements in Novi Beograd under excuse that they are illegal and unhygienic. Hence, if a parallel were to be drawn between New York in 1969 and Belgrade in 2009 and a parallel between two ways in which a minority gains its rights, significant differences would be noticed that would point to the non-existence of an evolutionary process that includes a wider GLBT community.
Certain factors that contribute to the bigotry towards sexual minorities in Serbia are also insufficient knowledge of the concept of human rights; the feeling of injustice and being deprived of basic majority rights (the right to work); a high degree of intolerance, which is a product of xenophobic politics in the last twenty years and a number of other problems. On the one side, there are the ones who believe that all these problems can be solved concurrently, while on the other there are the ones that give priority to their own problem. In a sea of problems that are sweeping over Serbia, the authorities know not how, cannot or will not equally stand up for all their citizens. The political rating is being maintained by decoding the code of the majority, and the majority in Serbia does not have a positive opinion about the GLBT population. (16) At the height of the preparations of the Pride Procession, the Mayor of Belgrade, Dragan Djilas, gave his homophobic statement that “everyone’s sexual orientation is their own private thing” and that this orientation should remain inside four walls, and that he doesn’t see a reason why someone would in this way demonstrate their sexual inclinations. In this way, he sent a clear message to the organizers that he did not support the Parade, but also defined his attitude to the rest of the citizens. Likewise, several months earlier, Djilas wasn’t any more tolerant towards the Roma minority living in Belgrade.
Without an analysis of political and cultural context, without an initiative that comes as a reflex of the minority against the existing repressive conditions in the society, it is not possible to hold the Pride Parade regardless of its name or form. There isn’t a society that didn’t first solve the problems of acceptable minorities, and only then focused on sexual minorities. For example, the law against homosexuals was in effect in Germany long after the Second World War was over, in spite of the fact that a large number of homosexuals were killed in the Nazi concentration camps. In most other countries as well, the rights of sexual minorities and the cooperation of the GLBT organizations with the state represents a highly democratic move.
Very important elements that are slowing down the acceptance of human rights and democracy are lack of empathy and cultivation of the cult of victim, which fits into the traditional national code. On the other hand, the pressure of international organizations, as well as the conditioning by the EU standards that most often do not observe the culture of the country where they are being implemented, completely distorts the human-rights idea of equality because they act imperialistically and uniformly.
Without acquaintance and without mutual knowledge there is no freedom for anyone. The minority that perceives the state’s repression must not have confidence in that state, because by giving it minor attention the state is pulling it into a system of blackmail and silence, in a Philistine policy of keeping on good terms with everyone. Without moving away from the authorities and institutions, there is no rebellion, no critical thinking and a feeling of dis/satisfaction, and thereby no freedom.
Boban Stojanovic was born on May 9th 1978. in Zajecar. He is proud to have been born on the Day of victory over fascism – Freedom day. That is why he got the name Slobodan (Free). One of the most famous German antifascist activists, Sophie Scholl, was born on the same day. For five years he worked as journalist and a radio host on Radio Zajecar, and during that time he interviewed over 70 people from Serbian cultural and public life. He has been an activist on the different Belgrade’s peace groups for several years now and he is the founder of Queeria – Center for promotion non-violence and equality. His main interests ate the questions of gender, militarism, confronting the past and it’s perception in Media and Pop culture. If the state allowed him to marry, as it did to the rest of the tax payers, he would say that he is a happily married man. He loves his boyfriend of Muslim origin. At the moment Boban lives and works in Belgrade.
(1) Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
(2) Brice Taton is a French citizen who was brutally beaten up by the hooligans in downtown Belgrade, right before the football match between Serbia and France on September 18th 2009. After several days and several operations, Taton passed away.
(3) https://www.bates.ctc.edu/studentservices/Diversity/pdf/June%202007%20Word.pdf (01/10/2009)
(4) The concept of human rights is based on the idea that all human beings possess universal natural rights, independent of law and state, as well as of other determining factors: gender, ethnicity, citizenship, sexual orientation. The modern notion of human rights dates back to 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, which opens the possibility of inclusion of new groups, and by this a constant redefining of the minority concept.
(5) Within the cosmopolitan concept there is a thesis that the citizens are the factors that criticize the state and the violation of human rights no matter if it comes from the state or other subjects, while in the culturally-relativistic there is a thesis that the state is above its citizens and that it decides on the status of their rights by adhering to traditional values of a given society.
(6) Dragana Vuckovic, Organizing Committee of the Pride Parade: “We firmly believe that the police is prepared to cooperate with us higly professionally and to protect this gathering,” she said, pointing out that they were convinced that the state institutions and organs would do everything in order for the Pride Parade to go safely. (Press conference, April 28th 2009) from: https://www.gsa.org.rs/cmsrun/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=856:
Parada-ponosa-ovog-leta-u-beogradu&catid= 34:vesti dyn&Itemid=61 (01/10/2009)
(7) www.belgradepride.rs (01/10/2009)
(8) The riots were a response to constant police raids on gay clubs and they took place from the early morning hours of June 28th 1969 and throughout the next several days. A year later, on June 27th 1970, the first Gay Parade was held. The greatest perceived success of the Riots is the binding of non-heterosexual community in New York, and transcending of gender, class and racial divisions that ruled within the local GLBT community.
(9) It was planned for the Pride Procession to start from the plateau in front of the Faculty of Philosophy.
(10) Hobsbawm, Eric: The Invention of Tradition. Trans. S. Glisic and M. Prelic. Biblioteka XX vek, Belgrade, 2002.
(11) For example, in 1969 John Lennon’s song Give Peace a Chance was released, the counterculture was very strong, in a number of American cities protests were held against the war and Students Left was formed, which gathered several thousand of students organizations.
(12) Leading poets of the beat generation William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg wrote about homosexuality, of man’s desire towards man, by which they achieved the sympathies of the gay community, but also established a channel between the gay community itself and a wider social community in New York and America.
(13) One should keep in mind that only a year earlier Martin Luther King was assassinated, which closed a significant period of contemporary American history, and that 1968 was the year in which African-American Civil Rights Movement discontinued its engagement.
(14) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots#cite_note-4 (01/10/2009)
(15) Natural law in the philosophy of law is regarded as being above state and positive law, is not based on the making or forming of human law, and state laws cannot contradict it under any circumstances. www.dadalos.org
(16) According to a survey of Gay-Straight Alliance/CeSID, as much as 70% of the surveyed feel that homosexuality is a disease, 50% that homosexuality represents a danger for the society, and 28% that homosexuality is being imposed by non-governmental organizations. (01/10/2009) According to: https://www.gsa.org.rs/cms run/press/pdf/istrazivanje_ljudska_lbgt_2008_za_gsa_cesid.pdf (01/10/2009)