Belgrade Pride

12 October 2012

Belgrade Pride 2012

I wanted to come to Belgrade to help the Serbian LGBT community mark their Pride celebrations, which were due to culminate in a short parade on Saturday 6 October. Twice over recent years the Serbian authorities have prohibited the parades taking place, citing ’security concerns’ as the reason. With growing international support for the event this year the organisers had hoped the parade would go ahead.

Those hopes were dashed last Wednesday when, once again, the authorities refused permission for the event. Right wing hoodlums threatened to disrupt the parade, and the Orthodox Church also called for its cancellation. Since Wednesday there have been protests and criticisms from many including the European Union and the United States, as well as from countless NGOs, including Amnesty International.

By refusing to allow Pride to take place the government has failed human rights on several fronts – freedom from discrimination, the right of free assembly, and movement, and the right to a personal life. They have also demonstrated they are incapable of applying the rule of law.

Who is running Serbia, the government or the homophobes? For Serbia to nurse ambitions to join the European Union looks fundamentally unrealistic until concrete steps are taken to protect peoples’ human rights.

Friday 5 October 2012 – a warm welcome and a sharing of views

Caption: "Turn back or die" graffiti greets us

My first port of call in Belgrade was a reception hosted by the urbane Swedish Ambassador, Christer Asp. Birgitta Olson, the Swedish minister, was in town and this event was held for NGOs and other diplomatic missions.

Conversations I had with several people quickly followed the same thread. Serbia had once again stepped out of line, and was failing to deliver a 21st century governance based on equal rights. Time and time again the conversations pointed to a lack of willingness at senior levels to engage with the issue.

I them went on to speak at the final session of a week-long seminar organised by the Federation of Young Greens, the Heinrich Boll Foundation, the Green European Foundation, and the Serbian Green party.

On the panel was Ulrich Schneider, a German Green MP, who addressed the seminar’s theme ‘How to reach equal rights in family law’. There was discussion around the definitions used for relationships, and I explained the current debate in the UK around the issue of gay marriage.

I spoke about Brighton and Hove, where we have just celebrated our 20th annual Pride, and explained how it is now an important fixture in our calendar of cultural events.

I explained how our local Green council has worked with the health, education and police authorities to reduce hate crime and homophobic bullying. One area that is incredibly important in helping change societal attitudes to LGBT issues is working with young people and this is something which the council is doing with great success.

Caption: riot police guard the entrance to the Pride meeting

It had been a gradual process, where those who held entrenched views needed to be supported to change how they felt.

Saturday 6 October 2012 – Parade day

The ‘parade’ was actually two hundred or so LGBT supporters, a rank of international speakers, the media and the organisers – all crammed into a meeting room at the Belgrade Media Centre, behind cordons of riot police.

Birgitta Olson, the Swedish EU Minister, started the meeting, setting out the political context and imperatives for the LGBT community, and spelling out the action that is needed from the authorities – to allow all the community free expression and not to artificially suppress it. Incidentally Birgitta is the only other politician I’ve ever heard – apart from me – who quotes Bob Dylan! She also said that politicians need to “get out of their closet of intolerance”. It was a fine speech, which won admiration and agreement.

Also speaking was Vincent Degert, the head of the European Action Service in Serbia. He underlined the EU’s objections to the cancellation of Pride and referred to Commissioner Fule’s concerns which were expressed in his statement of support and call on the Serbian government to ensure that the rights to freedom of assembly and expression are fully respected and that any future peaceful gathering is allowed to take place. Commissioner Fule heads up the acession processes for aspiring new members of the EU.

Goran Miletic, the main organizer of the event spoke next. He spoke with passion, saying that LGBT people would not be going away, and would not give up. Inspiring stuff!

Also speaking was my fellow Green MEP, Marije Cornelissen from the Netherlands, who is a well established Pride supporter across the whole of Europe. Her rousing speech of solidarity brought cheers from the audience.

Caption: Pride meeting in the Belgrade media centre

Then it was my turn to speak and  deliver a message of hope from my home city of Brighton and Hove. I explained that this year we had celebrated our 20th annual Pride celebration, that 130,000 people had turned out to cheer the procession and 30,000 people paid to come into the park for a party hosted by Fatboy Slim! Pride is an important part of our cultural calendar, and our LGBT community of 35,000 or so is a vital and valued element in the diversity of our city.

But I then explained that progress in the UK didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that sex between men was made legal and once legal, progress toward full equal rights was then hindered by the Conservative government’s repressive Section 28 which tried to ban or restrict mention of same sex relationships in schools. There was a battle to get rid of that, but in the end it was successful.

Now we have civil partnerships for same sex couples, and we are arguing for full marriage rights – the fight goes on. I said that a change in cultural attitudes and political positions would be best achieved through evolution, not revolution.

I said that I had asked opponents of Pride, “what is the worst thing that could happen if you give a gay person equal rights?” I’m still waiting for an answer, but perhaps that’s because there isn’t one. After all, can you imagine trying to justify why a black person isn’t equal? You can’t, and I am left seething at the injustice and stupidity of it all.

We were herded into a courtyard for photos under the threatening eye of the riot police, and Goran announced that a date had now been fixed for Belgrade Pride 2013. It’s September 28 and I, for one, will be there. Anyone care to join me?

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