EuroPride 2022 in Belgrade - Reflections on the day after the march and hopes for the future
As I am sitting on the flight back to London and in my sofa back home, I am left with a series of emotions I cannot describ\e and I do not know how to process. I feel proud of all the activists that have stood proud and stood up against state level intimidation and state condoned violence. It was beautiful to witness the defiance against oppression throughout the whole week. On the other ha nd, tears are lurking in the corners of my eyes - ready to open the flood gates at any moment. The lack of sleep probably does not help to deal with these intense emotions of what has been a hectic and intense week. It is hard to describe or even make sense off.
What has been my experience of Europride in Belgrade? What does it mean to be part of an event like this, as a researcher, but also as a friend and ‘adopted’ member of the Balkan activist community (as they often call me). What does it mean to be observing and living through an event where you are subjected to state violence and intimidation? As well as, what did I go through? What has been triggered in me? What have I personally been subjected to over the week? These are all questions I am grappling with - unclear whether I will ever finds answers to them all and perhaps there is many more days and weeks of reflection needed to fully grasp EuroPride 2022.
Whilst the level of homophobia and state created, condoned and even nurtured aggression towards the LGBTQI community in Serbia does not come as a surprise to me, the political theatre show (this is the only way I can describe it) that we have been experiencing over the week has taken me quite aback. Throughout the week I have tried to make sense of it and tried to understand as a scholar what was happening right in front of me. But today, I am left wondering as a person, what the consequences of this theatrical farce for LGBT people in Serbia and for us as a wider community?
What does it mean to force a community to live through a sequence of events where the state bans the Pride, but then the openly Lesbian Prime Minister comes mere hours later to open the international human rights conference. A speech in which Brnabic repeatedly speaks about how proud she is that Belgrade hosts the first EuroPride outside the European Economic Area and in Southeastern Europe. Then the uncertainty of the event continued in ways in where each different strand of the government would provide conflicting messages as to whether the Pride will be allowed to walk and be protected by the police. Then when the Pride did finally take place, the long expected clashes with the police happened quickly. More so, several protesters made in through the security perimeter. Leaving me to wonder who well we were protected, and how safe the measures actually have been.
Yes - the hooligans were kept outside and far away from the march. But safety are we talking about when you see a small group of young unfriendly guys stroll past the bar where you are having a pre-Pride reception, when there is a police cordon in place to keep activists safe? What is safety when you suddenly have a group of religious people standing on the large pride flag declaring their homophobia in a space that we would expect to be a safe zone.
As such, the events of this week represent nothing less than state violence where we all were subjected to a constant threat and insecurities. We lived through a constant reminder that we would be putting our lives and bodies at risks and the lack of support by the state one could describe as a psychological warfare - a sustained attack on the organisers who do not only have to worry about their own safety but of all those that have decided to take part in the EuroPride, as well as on all those attending the event. Over the week, I have seen many struggle to make sense of the succession of events, but I also saw people getting getting more and more exhausted - particularly amongst organisers, I could feel things changes as one appeal after the other was rejected.
Throughout many of my conversations over the week, it became clear that even seasoned Pride activists who have been part of Belgrade Pride for many years, or have organised their own respective Prides in their countries had concerns about the potential of violence and some even admitted they were scared of what would happen if we would defy a Pride ban and claim our rightful space in the public domain.
And before one might forget, the week was also a happy week. Outside the political spectacle, EuroPride 2022 consisted a full programme of inspiring talks, panels, exhibitions, theatre and drag shows as well as parties. At all of these, there has been happiness, togetherness and strong sense of belonging our mutual fight against the heteronormative society we live in. Of course, the week was not all doom and gloom. We has plenty of good times, and plenty of opportunities to reconnect with friends and colleagues, many of which we had not seen for years. Yes, there has been a joyful meeting of new people and new connections were made - many of which might even shape the future of LGBTQI activism.
Sadly, at this time, I struggle to see past the violence. I cannot forget the feeling I had when I was preparing for the worst case scenario in the morning before the Pride. I cannot escape the pressure I felt under when I was preparing my family for that they would most likely receive news of violence in the City. I cannot escape the heaviness of trying to manage the worry of loved ones, knowing that by taking part in the Pride I would potentially put myself at danger.
Even though, I have been thinking about Pride as an scholar from the moment Vucic announced his intent to cancel the pride and having been writing about the real prospect of violence in the streets for before I arrived in Belgrade, there is nothing that prepares you for the gulf of emotions that hit you when you actually have to prepare for such reality. Similarly, I cannot see past the text messages I received last night in which I was informed that a group of Albanian activists had been severely beating, amongst one my close friend who had to be taken to the emergency room. I cannot see past the reports that when these attacks happened, the police that was reportedly standing nearby without intervening (at first). I cannot see past the fact that Ana Brnabic is able to stand in front of the press, stating she is proud of the country for what it did on this Saturday. I cannot see what is their for Serbia to be proud of. Is she proud that she intimidated people? Is she proud that the condoned violence to LGBT people? Is she proud that only a handful of people were attacked? The only people I feel have the right to be proud of those who have been resisting and went out on the streets, to declare that queer exists, that no matter what the state throws at them, they will not give in.
So with all of this, I am left wondering, how does on make sense of it all? How does one shake this off the buildup of tension that settled in ones body?
And as I am struggling to process and I consider how I can look after myself, I cannot help but realise how privileged I am I can leave the country. Quite quickly my thoughts go to those activists and LGBTQI people in Serbia that have to stay after all the international guests have disappeared. What happens to them now? Who will provide support for them in the days, weeks and months to follow? How will have their back? And what about those who do not live in the big cities? What of those who have been targeted in smaller cities and rural areas - who do not have the strong police presence to protect them?
When the state engages in extreme intimidation and condones (implicitly) the threat of violence to queer people, it emboldens the homophobic forces in a society. It basically provides a green light for hooligans to attack anybody they do not agree with. Is that the Serbia Ana is proud of?
So, the question I now have is, how do we turn this around? How do subvert the violence to help us fight for a more just and equal society? How do we make sure that all of this hard work was not for nought? How do we make sure that we did not suffer this violence for nothing? How do make sure EuroPride has the impact we all want it to have?
The first thing that needs to be done - and activist have already taken the lead on this during the whole week - is to highlight the complete failure of the state and call them our for the way in which they have approached they simple duty. Whilst activists have been pushing this frame, the key point here is that also the international community does not congratulate the state for protecting the Pride. Because, if we are to believe Vulin, the minister of interior, a Pride never happened. The state only escorted the Pride participants from the gathering place to the concert venue. Thus, the first thing that needs to happen is a strong condemnation of the State.
Equally, international community needs to look at its own interventions. Whilst their pressure has been vital to ensure an Pride-like event could happen, they from the onset pushed for a compromise - suggesting that human rights are negotiable. Whilst I can see how they were trying to make the event happen and build a dialogue - this has only worked in the hands of Vucic who once again managed to co-opt human rights and hollow them out to benefit his own politics.
The next step also relates to the ability of the LGBT activist to tap into the defiance that has been throughout the week and build a movement that is more, that demands more from the state. Inspired by the new generation of activist who are tired of compromise, I hope this EuroPride can be the beginning of a new type of LGBT politics in Serbia, in which no one is willing to compromise, and take comfort when the state performs the bare minimum of what is supposed to be its function. I truly hope for a qualitative change in the movement, one that demands more and demands better. Homophobia should not be tolerated, and never be instrumentalised by the state. We queer people exist and we will not go back into our four walls. We will not be intimidated.
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Dr Koen Slootmaeckers
Senior Lecturer in International Politics at City, University of London. Writes about LGBT politics In Serbia.