"Prevent the spreading of unchristian immorality and perverse orgies."
Journalists view images of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague. Does his war crimes trial mark the end of Yugoslavia's troubles? Or the beginning? Paul Vreeker
Gay Rights and Democracy
by Milan Djuric
BELGRADE, JULY 23, 2001. On Saturday, June 30th, I woke up with a feeling of excitement. A historical day was beginning, not just for me, but for Yugoslavia's lgbt population and all our citizens who care about human rights. After months of hard work helping organize the Gay Pride Day celebration, my only worry was with my imminent role as facilitator of one of the day's panels. I was also going to sing the gay anthem "I Will Survive" at the opening ceremony.
I was aware there had been threats against us. An anonymous poster had been plastered all over Belgrade several days earlier, saying, "Prevent the spreading of unchristian immorality and perverse orgies."
Several groups had announced counter-demonstrations, including the extremist Christian organization "Obraz" (rough translation: "Chastity"), whose website features death threats against "enemies" including Jews, Albanians, Croats, Bosnians, democrats, and "perverts." The Serbian Orthodox Church, which has yet to take a public position regarding Obraz, was also going to demonstrate. Leaders of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party were actively encouraging their supporters to disrupt our celebration.
But I was reassured by the fact that our event had been duly registered with the police, unlike the counter-demonstrations. They had been informed about the threats, and had agreed to protect us. Pride Day organizers had also prepared alternate strategies in case of incidents (primarily based on peaceful methods of conflict resolution and a plan for changing venues).Ý
The Square of the Republic
It was obvious that many in the mob were members of "Obraz" and of "Justin," another extremist Christian organization. I also saw members of the Parents Forum, which had demanded that the authorities rescind our permit. There were also representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, fans of the soccer teams "Crvena Zvezda", "Rad," and "Partizan," and young skinheads. In the newspaper Nedeljni Telegraf, the Serbian skinheads of "Krv i cast" ("Blood and Honor") had published a hate manifesto threatening gay people, Roma people, Albanians, Croats, and many others, even Yugoslavia's President, Vojislav Kostunica.
The police were relatively few compared to the huge number of attackers, and basically did nothing until they themselves became targets. Why did the police allow such a large number of attackers to gather at our site? Why did they wait so long before they finally reacted? What was their assessment of the situation? Were they tricked by Obraz, which right before Pride Day, had said it was pulling out of the counter-demonstration?
Shortly after 3 p.m., several hundred men detached themselves from the main mob and began running towards the National Museum Building, across the Square, in a total state of frenzy, maniacally shouting slogans and beating up several young men they probably perceived as gay. I tried to get close, but it was impossible. Our celebration of pride, love, diversity, and tolerance had been transformed into a manic melee of fascists, hooligans, extreme-rightists, and nationalists.
Together with another activist from Gayten-LGBT (Center for the Promotion and Development of LGBT Human Rights), I began to search in all directions, hoping to find people we knew. I told them to go home or to head towards the Students Cultural Center, where the second part of the Pride celebration (two panels, a concert, and a party) were scheduled to start at 5 PM.
"Why should we protect you?"
I was desperately trying to find her when the stampede occurred: about 1000 attackers started running towards the nearby Army Center building, chasing several young men. Journalists were also running at the forefront of the surging, furious mass. The attackers were throwing bottles, eggs, stones, and clubs at the people running away from them, and also at the police. One policeman was hit on the head by a rock. As the frenzied mob was about to catch up with the young men, the police finally blocked their way and began shooting in the air.
Bystanders and ordinary citizens rooted for the aggressors, as they had throughout the entire afternoon. They egged them on with approving shouts of "Well-done that's what they deserve!" "Kill the faggots!" and so on.
Back at the Square, a TV crew from 3Kanal was looking for an attack victim to interview when a woman I had never seen before began to scream at me: "Come on, give an interview as a representative of the organizers!" I explained to the TV crew that I wasn't up to it, and a friend of mine who is a psychologist, an activist with the Women's Center and The Voice of Difference, and a heterosexual, took my place.
She was pelted with eggs, water, and spit by a large, out-of-control group of men screaming, "It cannot happen here," "Get lost, you whore, go bear children," and "Sick to the sick house." Several friends surrounded us, protectively. The men then turned on all of us, and began spitting, pushing, kicking and hitting us. Lepa Mladjenovic's mother, who is in her seventies, tried to interpose herself between the attackers and us, while four or five police officers stood a few yards away, doing nothing. When we asked them to do their duty, they said "Why should we protect you?"
Later on, I realized I could have been killed then, recognizable as a long-time activist for lgbt rights, coordinator of Gayten-LGBT (the Center for Promotion and Development of LGBT Human Rights), and one of the main organizers of the Gay Pride Day, along with the lesbian rights group, Labris. Hatred of gay men is even more pronounced in this society than hatred of lesbians, both according to research and every day experience.
Allies and Enemies
At about 4:20 p.m., a group of us headed towards the Students Cultural Center, even though we'd heard it would be attacked next. Bomb threats had also been made. Again, we heard ordinary citizens praising the attackers. These average citizens spit on us, abused and pushed us. Young men were still arriving and running towards the Square, "Let's go break them into pieces!"
When we arrived in front of the Students Center, it was completely shut down. Windows and doors were boarded up, security bars in place. Inside, there was practically no one aside from the Center staff. I reached the Labris activists by cell phone, who were all safe and not coming. Journalists came, requesting interviews and asking if there would be a program.
Some participants were willing to try to break through the mob and come in; others weren't. Attackers were gathering at different locations around the building, trying to lay siege to it. This time, special police forces protected the building. Shortly after 5 p.m. shots were heard again.
Amazingly, Tanja Pavlovic-Krizanic, a lawyer with the Humanitarian Law Center, arrived with her baby at the Center and coolly asked me when we were starting the panel. I was completely bowled over by her support and that of many other friends and activists. Without being overly dramatic, I realized that we were living a very important historical moment, that nothing would be the same any more, that this was our Stonewall.
I felt as if I was in occupied, yet free territory. Journalists continued to pour in, along with several more bloodied and beaten parade participants. I began to think that if our audience could get in, so could the attackers. I heard they were following anyone they consider "suspicious," and were even assaulting people far from the parade site. I finally decided around 5:25 p.m. to cancel the rest of the program.
Around 6:45 p.m., when we regrouped at the Women's Center, we found out that 40 civilians and 8 police officers had been badly injured.Ý
Based on what we had achieved so far, I'd thought the time was ripe for our first public celebration of Gay Pride Day. Last year, still under the Milosevic regime, a number of public activities had taken place without incident, including a rally against racism and homophobia, protesting violence against the Roma and LGBT populations.
I myself acted in one of the first explicitly gay plays in Yugoslavia "Hissing Sonnets," appeared on a TV talk show, and lectured with two other activists on the history of the modern gay movement at the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy. Not to mention all the activities of our organizations.
Besides, wasn't there a change of government, and isn't this society supposed to be rapidly moving toward democracy? We were attempting to finally bring attention to the violation of our rights, to the fact that we exist, that here and now we have the full right to enjoy all human rights guaranteed by international legal norms which Yugoslavia has signed.
Should we retreat in the face of the same groups that were implementing the nazification of the society and ethnic cleansings, that were inspiring wars, aggression and hatred, which dug mass graves right at our doorsteps?
During the last ten years, the police managed to control protests of more than 100,000 citizens against the former regime. On Gay Pride Day, however, they couldn't protect some thirty of us. Or wouldn't. Many of us witnessed police ignoring pleas for help. The police chief's statement speaks for itself.
After everything got quiet, for the first time that day, I felt an abiding fear. But I remembered that there is an alternative to fear: to live openly and with dignity, fully enjoying the rights and freedom that belong to all of us. I reminded myself of the words of my sister, poet, and gay/lesbian activist, Audre Lorde: "When I dare to be powerful to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."
And like my teacher, Louise L. Hay, I too want to participate in "Creating a world where it's safe to love each other..."
The very next day I started organizing a panel and a press conference at the Center for the Decontamination of Culture.ÝÝ
Milan Djuric is the Coordinator of Belgrade's Gayten-LGBT. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde. Includes a RealAudio clip of Lorde reading.
For the independent radio and tv station B92, with breaking news from Yugoslavia.
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