BELGRADE, Serbia — There was not a gay person, let alone a banner, in sight in the square in front of the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade’s city center at lunchtime on this Sunday. The Gay Pride Parade, scheduled for Sept. 20, had been banned by officialdom, or cancelled by the organizers, depending on which “spin” one happened to hear.
But, the cops were there in force — and so were an assorted crowd of thugs egged-on by ultra right-wing factions. Among the groups was Movement 1389, who had decided to stage a parade of their own in “honour of the cancellation of the Pride Parade.”
When the police got wind of this demonstration, they quickly issued an edict: all public gatherings in Belgrade city center were prohibited for security reasons.
Only a dozen nationalists turned up to “celebrate” — and they were heavily outnumbered by the riot police there to greet them. Meanwhile gay men and women were making their way to suburban Belgrade for a private event they were soon calling a “mini Pride.”
There were just six police visible outside the residence of Swedish Ambassador to Serbia Krister Bringeus who hosted the event for Serbian LGBTs and those from other countries. Some 50 activists and community members attended the reception.
“Pride is all about the message of tolerance,” Bringeus said. “I am very sorry that Pride didn’t take place. But welcome to this small Pride event.”
Flags and banners once due to have been displayed at Pride were unfurled and photographed (the only safe photo opportunity of the weekend), and Belgrade Pride 2009 t-shirts were given out. “A collector’s item,” one woman from Austria said.
And while the Swedish reception was a safe and welcoming retreat from the anti-LGBT sentiments of mainstream Serbia, the reality of LGBT life here wasn’t all forgotten.
American William Urich, chair of InterPride’s committee on LGBTI Human and Civil Rights, said he felt unsafe on the streets of central Belgrade and was followed by some of the same thugs protesting earlier in the day.
His experience showed him just how Serbian society had to live “in a constant state of fear of thugs.”
Urich was attending Belgrade Pride as an official observer for InterPride, an international federation of LGBT Pride organizations, festivals and events. He told UK Gay News that, after returning to his hotel from the reception given by the Swedish ambassador, he decided to go out and explore the downtown area that evening.
“As I was walking along, I noticed in the reflections in shop windows that I was probably being followed. I crossed the street twice, and the group of three young men clearly continued to follow me. They just looked like normal kids.
“When they were still following me after crossing the street twice, I became concerned.
“There was a group of police officers in riot gear standing on a corner, so I walked over and stood by them. One of them looked at me and I just signalled to the three young guys who were following.
“The police looked over and the three men disappeared down a side street.
“People who live here must have to go through this on a regular basis — living in a constant state of fear of thugs. It’s really scary.”
Urich could well have been lucky. The day before the canceled Pride, an Australian tourist was beaten by thugs in the city-center park. And it was gay Greeks from Athens who witnessed the attack and raised the alarm.
“Local people did nothing to help the victim because they were afraid,” one of the witnesses said.
Not knowing exactly how to contact the police or an ambulance and fearful of language difficulties, the witnesses called the “emergency Gay Pride line.” Volunteers there in turn called the police.
Just a week earlier, three French football fans from Toulouse were attacked while having a drink in an Irish pub in the centre of Belgrade. One of the fans remains in critical condition in hospital.
And, just days before that, a British citizen was attacked by thugs, again in the city centre.
At a pre-Pride meeting of gay men and women who had planned to be at the Belgrade event, the dangers that were common on the streets of Belgrade were explained to visitors from other countries.
They were told not to anything that made them look “gay,” and to be alert at all times. “Foreigners are especially targeted,” an official said.
And to bring the point home, a Serbian gay woman, saying that she totally supported the cancelling of the Pride parade because of security concerns, uttered what certainly summed up the lack of security from thugs on the Belgrade street.
“I am not ready to die,” she said.
— Andy Harley is the editor of UKGayNews.org.uk, an international LGBT news website based in Manchester, England. Harley travels the world attending various Pride festivals and other LGBT events. In 2008, he traveled to Columbia for SC Pride following the international “SC is so gay” advertising brouhaha.