Pride marches challenge endemic homophobia in the Balkans

Skopje Pride 2023 march, June 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, <a href="">CC-BY</a>.

Skopje Pride 2023 March, June 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, CC-BY-3.0.

Hundreds of people marched through the streets of Skopje and thousands more in Sarajevo during the annual Pride events on Saturday, June 24. In the two weeks before that, Pride marches took place in Zagreb, Prishtina, Athens and Sofia, while International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) was celebrated in Tirana on May 17.

And while only the Pride in Istanbul faced official government restrictions, these celebrations also came with similar demands in all Balkan capitals: stopping hate speech and hate crimes fueled by widespread homophobia and transphobia.

A region ‘championing’ homophobia in Europe

In March 2023, the Institute of Sociological, Political and Juridical Research (ISPPI), which is part of Sts. Cyril and Methodious University in Skopje, revealed the results of the European Social Survey (ESS) pertaining to homophobia, xenophobia, and susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Starting in 2002 the survey has been held every two years in up to 35 European countries, and the latest round covered North Macedonia for the first time.

Balkan countries marked in red: Responses to the question "If a close family member was a gay man or a lesbian, I would feel ashamed." <a href="">European Social Survey Round 10 Data</a>. Data file edition 3.0. Sikt - Norwegian Agency for Shared Services in Education and Research, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data for ESS ERIC, licensed under <a href="">CC BY-NC-SA 4.0</a>.

Balkan countries marked in red: Responses to the question “If a close family member was a gay man or a lesbian, I would feel ashamed.” Source: European Social Survey Round 10 Data. Data file edition 3.0. Sikt – Norwegian Agency for Shared Services in Education and Research, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data for ESS ERIC, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The results of the survey revealed that citizens of North Macedonia are among the most homophonic and most xenophobic in Europe, as well as declaring themselves among the most religious. They have strong authoritarian tendencies, distrust state institutions, and are disinterested in participation in democratic processes that would lead to social change. They are susceptible to conspiracy theories, doubt science, and blame their state for low quality of education, economy and politicians.

Responses by the representative sample of 1429 respondents placed North Macedonia as outlier among the 24 countries covered by the survey conducted during 2022, but most other Balkan countries had similar results.

For instance, while 61 percent of respondents from North Macedonia confirmed that they would “feel ashamed” “if a close member of their family is a gay man or lesbian,” a significant percentage of respondents in neighboring countries also agreed: 39 percent in Montenegro, 37 percent in Bulgaria, 30 percent in Croatia, and 29 percent in Serbia.

The ESS results also indicated that only 24 percent of  respondents in North Macedonia agreed that “Gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish.” Other European countries where such tolerant people are in the minority include Montenegro (30 percent), Serbia (41 percent), Lithuania (41 percent), Bulgaria (48 percent) and Hungary (48 percent).

"Skopje has no place for homophobes," a banner at Skopje Pride 2023, June 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, <a href="">CC-BY</a>.

“Skopje has no place for homophobes,” a banner at Skopje Pride 2023, June 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, CC-BY-3.0.

In a statement for Radio MOF, the ESS national coordinator for North Macedonia, Professor Aneta Cekic, pointed at high levels of social conservativism in Macedonian society as the cause of this situation.

Имаме исто така доста негативен став и кон абортусот, на пример, релативно негативен став кај некои категории испитаници и кон жените, меѓутоа факт е дека најекстремниот или најнегативниот став е насочен кон оваа (ЛГБТ) популација, можам да кажам и традиционално веќе.

We've also detected very negative positions about abortion, for instance, and in some categories of respondents we found relatively negative positions towards women. However it is a fact that most extreme or most negative positions are against the LGBTQ+ population, which I may say has become traditional.

North Macedonia ranked lowest in Europe in responses to whether it is good or bad for the economy “to allow people from other countries to live here.” These negative  opinions on migrations, with 41 percent refusing to allow people of other race or ethnic group to live in their country, placed North Macedonia in a like-minded group with Hungary, Czechia, Greece and Slovakia. Cekic explained to Radio MOF that factors contributing to xenophobia and authoritarian tendencies include relatively high poverty, as well as “political instability, high level of conflict, corruption and problems in society.”

In the Western Balkans, homophobia has been especially damaging as a weapon of geopolitical influence, as both domestic and foreign anti-democratic forces use it to recruit support among the conservative segments of population.

Demands for basic safety

In Bosnia, while preparations for Pride were underway, representatives of the LGBTQ+ community demanded less security than in previous years and shared a feeling that “progress has been made.” Several public events aimed to increase public support for LGBTQ+ people, rather than declarative tolerance under condition of them staying stays inside their “four walls.”

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) reported that public support is getting louder, and more visible, after two hooligan attacks on members of the LGBTQ+ community in Banja Luka, the capital of Serbian entity Republika Srpska, where local police banned a preparatory public event in March.

SARAJEVO PRIDE 2023. 🏳️‍🌈🏳️‍🌈

Around 3,000 people gathered for this year's Pride March which goes on under the slogan “Proud together.”
(video by @sanjinbuzo) #bhpridemarch #sarajevopride

BIRN also reported on a counter-protest in Sarajevo, attended by several dozen Muslim conservatives, which held banners reading “The people doesn't want you,” “You have stolen the rainbow,” and “We love Prophet Mohammed.”

Skopje Pride 2023, February 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, CC-BY-3.0.

Key messages from Skopje Pride 2023 included appeals to the whole of society to help solve the issues of basic safety for LGBTQ+ people, such as violated body autonomy, hate speech and social exclusion. Participants addressed the authorities in particular with demands to end impunity for discrimination and hate crimes, and to provide protection of basic human rights for all in North Macedonia.

Lila Milić, a transgender person, held a keynote speech at the start of the march, outlining the  main concerns, such as the lack of reaction by the police and Public Prosecutors Office to reports of documented cases of hate speech and threats to the physical safety of LGBTQ+ people.

И покрај тоа што безброј пати сме пријавувале документирани случаи на говор на омраза и до полицијата и до Јавното обвинителство, сè уште немаме ниту еден случај во кој поединец или група биле осудени. Јас лично, континуирано сум жртва на говор на омраза, особено од организации кои се здружуваат со единствена цел – да ги негираат правата на ЛГБТИ+ заедницата и родовата еднаквост. Ме нарекуваат болна, неморална, ми посакуваат ќотек, силување, смрт, не го препознаваат мојот родов идентитет, постојано ми се закануваат и ме исмејуваат. Многупати досега сум поднела кривична пријава и сум побарала заштита, но Обвинителството и полицијата ништо не преземале. Пораката од институциите до мене е јасна – мојот живот и животот на трансродовите лица не е подеднакво вреден за заштита.

На оваа ситуација се надоврзуваат верските лидери кои повикуваат гласно да не се донесе законот за родова еднаквост и законот за матична евиденција во делот за правното признавање на родот. Да, верските лидери, оние кои уживаат моќ и статус, оние за кои државата прави исклучок од (законот за) антидискриминација и им овозможува легално да дискриминираат жени при вработување, да не плаќаат даноци, а да наплаќаат за добра и услуги. Оние кои градат облакодери кај холидеј ин спротивно на јавниот интерес и на грбот на народот што осиромашува. Тие морализираат за тоа што било жена и како жената треба да се однесува и да изгледа. Тие си земаат за право да шират омраза и да поттикнуваат насилство кон ЛГБТИ луѓето и тоа да го викаат морал. Ако тоа е морал, а нашата борба за да не не тепаат, вознемируваат, за да се вработуваме и да имаме подеднаква можност за образование е неморална, тогаш треба да се запрашаме дали навистина сакаме да бидеме демократија или теократија.

Even though we've filed reports on documented cases of hate speech with the police and public prosecutors countless times, there's still not one case of conviction of an individual or group perpetrator.  I have personally been a victim of hate speech, especially by organizations formed with a single goal — to negate the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and to prevent gender equality.  They call me sick, immoral, they express wishes for someone to thrash me, to rape me or to kill me, they don't acknowledge my gender identity and constantly threaten or mock me. I've filed criminal charges many times, asking for protection, but the Prosecutors Office and police did nothing.  The message from these institutions for me is clear: my life and the lives of transgender people are not equally worthy of protection.

This situation is made worse by the religious  leaders who loudly advocate against the laws on gender equality and recognition of gender in public registry. Yes, the religious leaders, who enjoy power and status, those exempt by the state from the antidiscrimination law, enabling them to legally discriminate against hiring women, those who are exempt from paying taxes, while they charge for goods and services. Those who build skyscrapers next to the Holiday Inn against the public interest and on the back of the people who get more impoverished.  They are moralizing about what a woman is supposed to be and how a women must behave and look. They dare to spread hate and incite violence towards LGBTQ+ people, and call that morality. If that is morality, while our struggle not to suffer beating and harassment, to be able to get a job and have equal opportunity for education is immoral, then we should all ask ourselves whether we  really want this country to be a democracy, or a theocracy.

Pride marches in other Balkan capitals usually take place during the second half of the year. Traditionally Belgrade Pride is scheduled for September, while Montenegro Pride will take place in Podgorica in October.

According to the posted schedule, the next such event in the Balkans is the Bucharest Pride, scheduled for July 29.

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