“Whose family values?” — Serbian style. This poster for what was supposed to be Belgrade Pride is savagely funny. At the same time, there’s a faint regret for the protecting state the Partisans built that sits a bit strangely. Unpacking the paradox involves thinking about what values Pride itself is supposed to embody in Eastern Europe.
Friday, the Serbian National Security Council banned Belgrade Pride, together with two right-wing marches (a “Family March” and a “Prayer March”) intended to confront it. In 2010, the attempt to hold a Pride parade saw a few hundred marchers confront ten times that number of violent neo-fascists, with the Belgrade police helpless to stop the latter’s assaults. This year, the Interior Minister lamented that
Because of these rallies – above all the anti-parade protests – we could expect enormous damage to public order and peace … We have seen reports that indicated riots would spread in central Belgrade… to burn cars, headquarters of ruling political parties, seats of foreign companies and embassies.
In other words, the government frankly admitted it has no capacity to stand up to powerful, openly fascist movements, including Dveri Srpske, Nasi 1389, and Obraz. The latter, which has declared undying enmity to “Zionists, converts to Islam, Ustashe, democrats, false pacifists, perverts, criminals and drug addicts,” exulted on its website over the ban on the “shame parade”:
This is a great victory for all Serbian patriots, and proves that anything is possible when the Serbs are ruled by faith, courage and unity. The entire Serbian people showed determination to fight against the imposition of warped attitudes … We call on all fellow patriots to express their gratitude to God for this great victory, by participating in the Holy Liturgy in their local churches.
A few human rights activists organized a flash mob in central Belgrade on the day of the cancelled parade, holding banners that read “Love. Normal.” Pride organizers settled for a press conference. B-92 radio reported on several statements there:
Belgrade Centre for Human Rights Director Vojin Dimitrijević stated that by adopting the decision to ban the meetings scheduled for the weekend, including the Pride Parade, the government showed that they had no means to protect those whose rights were guaranteed in the Constitution.
Faculty of Electrical Engineering Professor Srbijanka Turajlić noted that by their perseverance, participants of the Pride Parade pointed to the complete disorientation of the country. She believes that the government is not helpless under the pressures of hooligans, but rather that it does not want to do anything to cause their dissatisfaction because it probably needs them for some other activities.
Actress Mirjana Karanović made an ironic remark, saying it seemed that several hundred up to one thousand people who wanted to take a walk along Belgrade streets are the enemy who can destroy and jeopardize Serbia’s prosperous society.
A government that confesses its prostration before right-wing militias is acknowledging it cannot govern — an awkward admission as it applies to enter the democratic club of the EU.
The experience of Communism in most countries worked to deepen rather than bridge the chasm, psychological as well as social, between public and private life. The end result of the heroic, parental Partisans’ armed struggle was a state that declared everything public, watched its citizens like a vigilant BIg Father, and intruded its nose into anything it noticed. In response, people retreated into whatever privacy they could scrape together, enthroning the meanings and most important values of their lives in that safe preserve: in the marriage, the dacha, the flat, the kids, the car, anything but the public realm of hypocritical slogans and lies.
A post-’89 challenge in almost every country was to turn privatized people into citizens who believed politics was real. The Pride model of visibility therefore had a special resonance for LGBT activists in Eastern Europe who adopted it after 1989. It helped create movements by reminding queer people of their citizenship. It tackled that persisting chasm head-on, asserting that love and sexuality were not “private” values to be locked in the bedroom, but belonged on the sidewalks and the streets, parts of a common and open existence. Desires and bodies, they insisted with considerable courage, were entitled to their place in the sun, in public life.
By marching and rallying, they embodied this demand — literally. But they also put themselves under the state’s protection. They challenged it to take responsibility for creating an open and fair public sphere, but in the process they admitted its power. The Pride paradigm may reach the limits of its usefulness in places where the state refuses to function like a state, or (like Russia or the present Hungarian government) is implicated itself with the forces of terror and repression. Maybe a new strategy, a new model of visibility, is needed.
Meanwhile, my friend and colleague Lepa Mladjenovic, a Serbian feminist and lesbian activist, writes that the “lesbian community is discussing these days if ‘Pride’ is a form at all suitable for states with fascists who together with nationalists amount to 50% of citizens.”