Saša D. Lazić/Belgrade, 9 September 2023
“I have friends whom I want to support. I believe that it is not fair how the LGBTIQ+ community is treated and consider my presence here today as a kind of duty”. This is the testimony of Pavle, a first-time pride-goer as an ally who joined on 9 September the over 15,000 people who, according to the organizers, participated in the Pride 2023 in Belgrade, Serbia, demanding respect for the human rights of LGBTIQ+ people – in a year marked by the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Elegant suits, t-shirts with flowers, home-made slogans, jeans, shorts, mothers, fathers – some of them with strollers –, groups of friends, loner allies, Pride flags, office workers, team managers, doctors, lawyers, gardeners, teachers, scientists, bartenders, students, human rights and LGBTIQ+ activists, first-time pride-goers as allies… As varied as a rainbow flag, 15,000 thousand voices are marching together, in their own way and with their own words and codes, demanding something as simple as respect for human rights. They bring with them the most diverse life stories, colours, attires and identities. As a backdrop, the Serbian National Assembly and a banner reading “I march for love”.
Under the slogan ‘We’re not even close’, this year’s Belgrade Pride, attended by 15,000 people, was bigger than ever. The local community was joined by LGBTIQ+ people from the growing Russian and Ukrainian diasporas, and by numerous new allies.
Allies such as Pavle. When we approached this young man asking him why he decided to join the march, he was nervous that he might say something wrong, a feeling many new allies may encounter. Nevertheless, he spoke with an open heart, showing that even though he may not yet know much about LGBTIQ+ people’s reality, he is ready to take a stand for equality. “LGBTIQ+ people should not be treated differently than the rest of us because, after all, we are all human,” he said. “I really haven’t been around LGBTIQ+ people most of my life, but now I am. I am glad that I saw people who were free to be their true selves and hope that one day there will be no need for Pride as a protest but as a celebration.“
Pride can be a mix of many different emotions for those involved – a bittersweet state. Agata, a non-binary person and a pioneer of the Serbian LGBTIQ+ movement, puts this feeling into words.
Why Pride is important?
“We have been told that we are something that should not exist. This is the most devastating message that a human being can receive and internalize. Pride sends a different message: that LGBTIQ+ people are human beings who deserve dignity, love and rights equally with all other people on this planet. It also shows all LGBTIQ+ people who are facing various forms of violence and discrimination that they are not alone and that they should not feel ashamed of who they are”, Agata said.
Not there yet, but well on the way amid a history of resilience
As in most previous years, Pride 2023 in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, took place behind thick police cordons surrounding the entire route of the march. Behind the tight security, the sunny Pride Park reveals itself, full of flags, powerful messages, but most importantly, jolly people – community members and allies alike. Looking at the jolly pride-goers, Nora Janković, trans woman and human rights defender, points out:
“Pride is a rare opportunity to make our voices heard, to be visible citizens of this country – and it is crucial that there are enough allies marching with us. Otherwise, we would end up isolated and excluded again behind these police cordons.”
The history of Pride in Serbia isn’t long but quite eventful. Fifteen Pride marches were attempted over a period of twenty-two years. The first two marches were attacked by extremist groups, with over 180 people getting injured. Five marches were banned by local authorities, denying the local LGBTIQ+ community the freedom to peacefully gather on the streets of their city – despite this human right being protected under the Serbian Constitution and international human rights treaties ratified by Serbia.
When they were not allowed to gather in public, LGBTIQ+ human rights defenders kept striving for equality off the streets, claiming victories on the legal side with some important LGBTIQ+ protections being passed into law over the years. In 2013, the Constitutional court of Serbia ruled the Pride ban as unconstitutional. Despite their victory in court, Pride organizers were informed about a new ban on the night before the event in 2013, and they took to the streets right away – in the middle of the night – gathering in front of the Serbian National Assembly under the slogan ‘This is PRIDE’.
From 2014 to 2021, Pride marches in Belgrade have taken place without incidents. However, the EuroPride planned in Belgrade for 2022, a pan-European international Pride event hosted each year by a different European city, was banned again amid new threats of violence from anti-LGBTIQ+ extremists. The local community, however, didn’t stand down. Despite the ban, a crowd of 10,000 people showed up in the pouring rain in front of the Serbian Constitutional Court demanding respect for human rights, all the while anti-LGBTIQ+ extremists clashed with the police. Looking back, Alexis Plastic, a popular drag queen and LGBTIQ+ community leader sees the ban as a lesson learned:
“I feel that last year’s EuroPride ban turned out to be a good thing. It painted an accurate picture of the attitude we face. Worse than the ban were the efforts made to make us seem irrelevant. Nevertheless, the ban pushed our fellow citizens to show their solidarity and take to the streets in larger numbers than before. It also helped us understand, as a movement and as a community, the context we’re facing and that we must keep fighting for equality”.
And fellow citizens did indeed show their solidarity this year at the 2023 Belgrade Pride, many joining the march for the first time. New allies are often unsure how they can help, so we asked Jelena Vidić, psychologist and old friend of the LGBTIQ+ community in Belgrade, and lesbian activist and LGBTIQ+ human rights defender Jelena Vasiljević, for some advice.
Why are allies crucial to advancing the rights of LGBTIQ+ people?
“It is important that we, as allies, remember not to speak on behalf of those we support, but to speak from our own experience and to refer to scientific and legal facts when doing our part in the march for LGBTIQ+ equality. Our strength is in solidarity and only through solidarity can we build a world where we will all feel safe and in which the dignity of each person is respected, ” Vidić said.
From her side, Vasiljević, emphasized the many big and small ways in which allies can support LGBTIQ+ people:
“Other than coming to Pride, simply standing up for human rights is how allies can express solidarity. Supporting LGBTIQ+-led organizations and groups, wearing symbols of support, sharing useful information on social media, or simply providing emotional support and understanding to LGBTQ+ people in your life, are just a few ways you can take action. Learning about our experiences, as well as our challenges can help you better understand our reality and, as such, become a better ally as we move together toward justice and equality. ”
A decade later, same demands
The main national demands of the march were the same as a decade ago: adoption of the law on same-sex unions and the law on gender identity and the rights of intersex people, as well as proper protection against the violence LGBTIQ+ people are still facing.
“We hope that the long-awaited law on gender identity, as well as the law on same-sex unions will be adopted. I also hope trans people will stop being pathologized and able to have their identities recognized without abusive requirements such as surgery or divorce. Our existing laws should be better implemented too. Hate speech and violence against LGBTIQ+ people should be sanctioned as our laws foresee”, said Aleksa Milanović, one of the leaders of the local trans community.
Since its launch in 2016, the national UN Free & Equal campaign in Serbia has been standing with the LGBTIQ+ community, supporting Belgrade Pride and the advocacy for the adoption of the laws on same-sex unions and on gender identity, as well as the depathologisation of transgender identities, in line with recommendations of UN human rights bodies on these issues. As a reflection of this partnership, some pride-goers spontaneously used old banners from the UN Free & Equal campaign with slogans such as “I march for love” or “We are all born free and equal in dignity and rights.“
For new allies as Pavle, this Pride was maybe the first of many. As he said, by becoming allies, in our own ways and capacities, with big or small actions, we can take a stand for anyone’s and everyone’s “freedom to be their true selves”, regardless of who they are or whom they love.