[INTERVIEW] Goran Miletić: ‘LGBT couples in Serbia cannot continue to live in a legislative void’

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The Belgrade Pride Parade, held on September 17, marked the end of a week-long celebration of LGBTQ life in Serbia’s capital. This celebration, however, included more discussion panels, press conferences, and campaigns to raise awareness and discuss the issues that LGBTQ individuals face in the country, than partying. The parties were few and far between. The points raised were countless.

Several iterations of public LGBTQ Pride events were attempted in Serbia since 2001. Until 2010, all attempts failed, mostly due to threats of violence or outright violence, and often inviting public scorn, hate speech, threats and public security issues.

The first Belgrade Pride Parade was finally held on October 10, 2010, and with the public support of then President Boris Tadic, Parliament Speaker Slavica Djukić-Dejanovic, Minister of Interior Ivica Dačić, as well as other ministers, politicians, and celebrities. The parade that year was a relative success, although some 6500 far-right hooligans began rioting in downtown Belgrade in response to the event. Belgrade’s police managed to quell the violence, in which 132 police officers and over 20 civilians were injured.

That year and on both sides of the fence, a message was sent. In a country in which active male homosexuality was explicitly defined as a criminal offense until 1994, the LGBTQ community sent the message that the country was ready for a new, more diverse age. Many far-right organizations sent the clear message that they wanted none of it and that this new age defied what they hold to be Serbian tradition and culture.

By the Parade’s fifth edition, in 2015, downtown Belgrade and several government buildings were adorned in rainbow colors and flags. Belgrade’s city center wasn’t exactly the spitting image of Harvey Milk’s starting point in the Castro District of San Francisco, but it was more than either side had expected. Violence and riots were still a possibility, but now an almost marginal one.

Goran Miletić, a human rights lawyer by trade and now Civil Rights Defenders’ Director for Europe, as well as one of the organizers of Belgrade Pride Week, was there – following, persuading, arguing, explaining, and pushing each step of the way. This year was no different.

While most headlines related to the 2017 Belgrade Pride Parade readers may have run across have featured “Serbia’s Openly Gay Prime Minister Joins Belgrade Pride Event,” we sat down with Miletić just days after Belgrade Pride Week and the parade to summarize some of the issues that these events were meant to draw attention to not only in Serbia, but also in Europe and the world.

“I walk #forchange”

SEE Observer (SEEO): The 2009 attempt at holding Belgrade Pride, in which the parade was canceled because authorities couldn’t guarantee public safety in downtown Belgrade, was a debacle. In less than eight years, Belgrade Pride has come a long way and turned from one day of celebrations and public debate into Belgrade Pride Week, a seven-day series of events, coverage, and discussion panels. But how far have the LGBT community and rights for that community come in that time?

Goran Miletić (G.M.): Although someone might think of it as insisting on insignificant details, no Pride event was ever canceled, nor did the organizers ever “give up on it.” We had four Pride events banned – in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013 – and there is a Constitutional Court decision on record, finding each of those bans unconstitutional.

Changes came about in 2009 and since, but their tempo has been unacceptably slow. That year, the most important law to date was passed – the Law on Prohibiting Discrimination – and a year later the appointment of a state Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, while hate crimes were defined and included in the Criminal Code of Serbia in 2012.

Still, the implementation of these laws is extremely poor. For instance, five years after hate crimes have been recognized by Serbia’s judicial system, there are still no convictions on record for such crimes. Two laws that haven’t been disputed among the general public (the Law on Gender Identity and the Law on Preventing Violence in Schools), still haven’t even been accepted into parliamentary procedure. The biggest issue lies in the judicial system, because convictions for violence, threats and discrimination are exceptions, not the rule. Because of all of this, Pride is a reminder that these issues exist and that the state must resolve them, without delay.

SEEO: Outright discrimination, in particular in the workplace and public sphere, is now illegal in Serbia. How are these new laws being upheld? How have LGBT individuals reacted to these laws, in terms of reporting incidents? Do you feel new legislature related to LGBT individuals has truly benefited the community and really improved LGBT day-to-day life in Serbia?

G.M.: The legal framework for the LGBT+ community isn’t perfect, but it is a very good one, even in comparison to those of some EU member states. However, the implementation of these laws is devastatingly bad – so much so that examples that we can point to and call access to justice for individuals of the LGBT+ community are rare.

Reporting of attacks and other incidents present an even bigger problem. Those in the community who feel empowered to report incidents are very rare. The rule of thumb is that incidents go unreported out of fear of how police will react or whether the case might end up in the media, in particular when the person reporting isn’t “out”.

Laws are the basic step in improving the position of the LGBT+ community and increased visibility is a prerequisite for change. But the change itself happens when laws are appropriately put to use.

SEEO: This next detail has been stressed time and again in the media, so we’ll just touch on it here. Aside from being the first appointed female Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabić is also the first openly gay Prime Minister. Do you feel this has affected the LGBT community in Serbia at all or is it more of a symbolic thing? Do you feel a Prime Minister’s gender and sexuality can affect the region and Europe in any way?

G.M.: I belong to those who don’t believe that the appointment of Ana Brnabić [as Prime Minister] will atomatically mean a better position for the LGBT+ community. That depends much more on the judicial system and executive powers. Although, a move like this would be big (positive) news in any country of the world, in particular in those in which there is a huge level of bigotry toward LGBT+ communities, as is the case with Serbia.

Because of this, the choice was a significant one in that every citizen of Serbia will see a member of the LGBT+ community, every day, in one of the highest government roles. This can add to improvement in the long run, but only if other concrete steps are taken. In terms of how this affects the region and Europe, it’s hard to say.

SEEO: While it’s clear that Serbia has come a long way just over the last decade, how far is that on the grand scale of things and in comparison to other countries, both those more progressive and those more repressed? Where does Serbia stand on a global level in terms of LGBT rights and everyday life?

G.M.: I think we’re somewhere in the middle. There are many countries yet in which homosexuality is punishable by death of life imprisonment. In 73 countries in the world, it’s illegal for two men to have sex with each other. However, Serbia can’t compare itself to these countries.

Serbia is a member of the Council of Europe, which is 47 countries strong and which provides enough standards in this realm. If we compare Serbia to other member countries in this organization, we certainly rate much “better” than Russia and some other countries, but we are definitely still behind most EU countries. In this country, one can still go unpunished for assaulting someone because they are a member of the LGBT+ community. Impunity is the norm and a big issue in Serbia.

SEEO: One of the many questions on the LGBT community’s mind is that of same-sex marriage. We know your organization and others are actively working on getting that on the table and opening discussions with lawmakers on the matter. But where and when do you see Serbia making a move in the direction of adoption by same-sex couples and other family and child-related matters? Serbia already has a small but present percentage of gay or bisexual parents. Do you see LGBT-parent families and their children being accepted in society as a norm?

G.M.: After December 2015 and a certain ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, the regulation of unions between two people of the same sex became the standard for its member states, and this applies to Serbia as well. According to this ruling, the state must regulate such unions and it is left up to [the state] whether this will be done through recognizing same-sex marriage, civic union, domestic partnership, cohabitation or similar.

People in relationships cannot continue to live in a legislative void. I believe this will happen in the next few years and Serbia has projected this in the Action Plan for Chapter 23 [in negotiations for Serbia’s accession to the EU]. As for adoption of children by same-sex couples, I don’t believe we’re close to legalizing that and lesbian and gay couples find various ways of working this out.

SEEO: Last but not least, let’s talk about Europe. Europe has seen a disconcerting rise in far-right ideology and man far-right groups and political parties being elected into local and even national governments. What has this meant for LGBT communities throughout Europe and where do you see it going in the near future?

G.M.: Although I always try to remain optimistic, the situation is very bad and, in the least, complicated. From Brexit to relations with Russia and Turkey, the rise of populism within the EU itself – such as Hungary and Poland – and all the way to the migrant crisis. We all hope that this complicated moment will only be encouragement to move forward in strengthening Europe. As someone whose job it is to deal with human rights, I can only say that the weakening of Europe brings about a revision of human rights values that should be universal and indisputable across the world. I hope this trend will be stopped.

Image source credit: Belgrade Pride 2017; Goran Miletić, personal archive 

Danica Radisic

Danica Radisic is Editor-in-Chief of The SEE Observer. She is also the proud owner of toddler, teen, two dogs, and a boutique communications and marketing agency. Danica has spent over a decade not only following and working with media in Southeast Europe, but also training journalists in using new tools and new media development. Follow Danica on Twitter as @nikibgd.

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