By Ellie Tzortzi
BELGRADE (Reuters) – The last time gay men and women took to the streets of Serbia’s capital, they were beaten by nationalist gangs while police looked on.
Seven years from their first and only Pride march, activists now see the glitz, media attention and gay tourists coming to Serbia with the Eurovision Song Contest as a big chance to come out again, louder and more confident than before.
“There are no gay celebrities in Serbia, nobody’s out,” said Predrag Azdejkovic, one of a handful of openly gay Serbs. “Eurovision is so gay, so camp, it’ll be a shock to the system.”
“Yes, maybe it reinforces stereotypes, so people think all gay men are effeminate and all lesbians drive trucks. I have no problem with that. All visibility is good and we must use it.”
Homosexuality is a taboo subject across the Balkans’ largely conservative and patriarchal societies, where many people view it as a treatable mental illness.
Boban Stojanovic, who runs the gay rights group Queeria with Azdejkovic, said homophobia in Serbia stems from an obsession with national identity in the 1990s, a notion of aggressive masculinity created by and for the Yugoslav wars, and the increased influence of the Orthodox Church.
“Before 1990 the gay scene was more free. Although formally illegal, homosexuality was tolerated because the social climate was more liberal,” Stojanovic said.
“But when Yugoslavia started breaking up, there was a rush in all the republics to define a very clear national identity. Today, to be a Serb means to be Orthodox and heterosexual. Being Serb and gay is seen as incompatible. The macho warrior culture of the 1990s is the root of Serbia’s homophobia today.”
Eurovision’s mix of high camp and low culture attracts millions of viewers and a loyal gay following. The 2008 event is held in Serbia after Marija Serifovic won last year’s contest with ballad ‘Molitva’ and a daringly lesbian chic-tinged act.
The nuance was lost on far-right groups who declared open season on gay visitors.
“We are waiting for them,” the Obraz group said, adding it would patrol Belgrade’ streets and show “zero tolerance to the promotion and spread of evil” and use “all means to stop it.”
Authorities initially pondered having policemen escorting gay visitors, then opted for increased security across the city for the week of semifinals and up to the May 24 final.
The attention meant the time was ripe for the first campaign in years, Stojanovic said.
Discreet posters featuring same-sex couples called for “Love on the streets, hooligans in prison.” They survived several days on the streets of Belgrade before being torn down or defaced.
“With all this repression there is huge pressure to be invisible,” Stojanovic said. “We don’t agree. First we must be visible to the majority and then we can start to communicate.”
Azdejkovic and Stojanovic say the influx of colour and fun that comes with Eurovision will be a much-needed challenge to Serbia. An international pariah in the 1990s for its role in the wars, it still has a love-hate relationship with the West.
The two men don’t expect any violence because the flipside of nationalism is “an obsession with being a great host.”
“The government wants to project a great image of Serbia and make this the best Eurovision ever,” Azdejkovic said, adding that there was pressure on police to contain extremists.
“We can only ask our government: Please, if you are going to protect gay foreigners, also protect gay Serbs. The foreigners will be here for a week and then leave, but they’ll have a freedom we can only dream of.”