In a country where LGBT+ people face daily rejection, violence, and are forced to live double lives, each person out of the closet counts. Many have noticed that, in that context, the election of Ana Brnabic as prime minister could help change the sentiment of the homophobic part of the population towards LGBT+ people.
One of the statements made by LGBT+ organizations says: „Ana Brnabic is one of the few openly gay prime ministers in the entire worlds which is… of historic importance for Serbia, but also for the entire region“. This claim is true, but when it comes to LGBT rights, can Serbia be compared to the countries whose prime ministers are members of LGBT+ community?
When Johanna Sigurdardottir became the prime minister of Iceland in 2009, Icelandic gay couples were already allowed to marry and adopt children. Lesbians already had the right to in vitro insemination. And, even more importantly, 87% of the citizens of Iceland supported same-sex marriages and 65% thought that same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt children.
Almost a decade before openly gay Xavier Bettel became prime minister of Luxembourg, same-sex couples were allowed to marry in that country. Lesbians were entitled to in vitro insemination. Homophobic crimes were classified as hate crimes.
Elio di Rupo became prime minister of Belgium in 2011. This country recognized same-sex marriages in 2004 and the right to adopt children in 2006. In general, Belgium is considered one of the most progressive countries regarding LGBT+ rights.
In June this year, Leo Varadkar of Ireland joined the group of openly gay prime ministers. Just like in all other countries, in Ireland the LGBT+ community has all the same rights as other citizens. The right to adopt children was granted to them in 2016.
All the countries led by these prime ministers prime ministers have a long history of Pride parades: the oldest one belongs to Belgium (1978), then to Ireland (1983), Iceland (1998) and finally Luxemburg’s is the youngest (1996).
Such statistics point to the fact that a high degree of respect for LGBT+ rights necessarily preceded the appointment of gays and lesbians as prime ministers. Implementation of laws, continuity of visibility, openly LGBT+ people in all parts of public life were preparatory steps for a society to have LGBT+ people in such high position.
Today, human rights often look like a battle field. This is nothing new. The Universal declaration of human rights (adopted in December 1948) wasn’t supported by the countries of the pro-Russian block, Yugoslavia, and Saudi Arabia. They abstained. Partially due to that fact, Serbia (like other former Yugoslavian countries) doesn’t have a developed culture of human rights. The expansion of human rights in the Western world happened during the 1990s. During the same period, these rights were severely violated in Serbia/Yugoslavia: by raging nationalism, war, infiltration of the church into state affairs, mass executions, rapes, sexual exploitation, trafficking, corruption, hyper-inflation, to mention just a few.
After the fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, in the newly created democratic society, only a small number of civil society organizations tackled the issue of human rights. The state never motivated the citizens to exercise their rights. Hence, human rights and respect for minorities are still seen as conspiracy, luxury, or taking away power from the majority. The majority of citizens are indifferent about human rights.
When it comes to politics and core values, Serbia is indecisive. It wants to cooperate with the EU and the West, but also with Russia and Arab countries. In other words: something for everyone! And so, when it comes to LGBT+ rights, we get a little bit of Pride being banned for the homophobes, a little bit of the gay prime minister for the West, a little bit of the phrase „in cooperation with LGBT+ organizations, the state has managed to…“ for the EU, a little bit of homophobic violence for the Russians, and so on.
The case of Ana Brnabic should also be considered in the context of these cheap tricks.
Overnight, Ana Brnabic became an imaginary proof of Serbia’s progress, an example Vucic uses to fool the West, (allegedly) slap Russia in the face, annul homophobia in Serbia, because – come on, gays – if our prime minister is gay, how can you have it bad!?
In the local context, the Brnabic case is supposed to shut up civil society and other critics of the government and promote Vucic as the undisputed pacifier of the nation. So, like a master juggler, he perfectly balances the expectations of different parties. While serving as a Serbian Radical Party official, he stood behind the policy of using homophobia as a means for political disqualification of opposition leaders. Although he changed parties, he continued with the same policy for a while afterwards.
In 2014, when the public was overwhelmed with the issue of the Pride parade, Vucic presented himself as the first leader to make the parade happen. During the preparations for Pride 2014 and 2015, government representatives wanted to control the Pride Week program, as well as all announced speakers and participants. As years went by, the situation got tougher, and the first warnings came. As we didn’t pay attention to them, suddenly, in 2015, an event called Pride Serbia was planned at the same time as the Pride.
This was Vucic’s first act of pinkwashing. The main actor was a failed SPS experiment – Boris Milicevic. As Milicevic’s inclusion on the board of this party did not result in raising its credibility in the Socialist International, Ivica Dacic dismissed Boris. After briefly serving as an advisor to Branko Ruzic, Milicević lost that position, and his vulnerability was used by Aleksandar Vucic’s government. So, Milicevic, with the support of the Government and a group of several unknown LGBT+ activists, some of whom were members of the Arkan Guard, organized a counter-Pride featuring Serbian plums, Serbian flags, and (Serbian) three fingers held high. The fact that the national symbolism was never used by any LGBT+ movement in Serbia, makes this whole iconography even more strange.
As Pride 2014 was completely peaceful (the only incident happened between the police and Vucic’s brother), the silence before Pride 2015 could have been used for the exact purpose of Pride: a debate on LGBT+ rights in Serbia. However, Milicevic and his activists constructed sensationalist stories about large sums of money donated to Pride by Western embassies, on the indifference of the LGBT+ community regarding this event, on the luxurious lives of Pride organizers and similar topics. During Pride Week 2016, when we, as organizers, were warned to behave or else they would „use Informer“, Milicevic and his activists boycotted Pride by bringing yellow ducks to the opening of Pride Week.
The Ne da(vi)mo Beograd initiative was only the first of many Milicevic humiliated. The list also included Biljana Srbljanovic, Zene u crnom, LDP and many others. The interesting thing is that the members of this group were given several venues by the City during the 2014-2016 period and also worked in state institutions which funded their organizations and their projects (Office for human and minority rights).
Pride is established now and is no longer a hot subject for debate (more on this in the next article), the state granted no additional rights to the LGBT+ community, so Vucic tried to fulfil the expectations of the international community by catapulting Ana Brnabic into the stratosphere.
No matter how it seems now, Ana Brnabic’s contribution to LGBT+ rights is negligible. Although she is referred to as a lesbian, Brnabic never came out. She agreed to be outed by Vucic. She often states that her outing was their joint decision (!?), in order to prevent the problems that public knowledge about her sexual orientation could bring. She says that she is not an activist and that she doesn’t know the problems of the community she belongs to.
Under the patronage of an omnipotent, fatherly, patriotic and militant heterosexual man who lives the values that suppress her as a lesbian, accepting and (indirectly) acknowledging that gay (actually) is not OK, Ana Brnabic didn’t make a step forward for LGBT+ rights in Serbia. There is nothing troubling, revolutionary, provocative, nothing that shakes the foundations of a patriarchal and closed society in Serbia in their joint decision to out her. There is only the message that the heart of the dictator is open to others.
For now, the only support Ana Brnabic gave to the LGBT+ community was her appearance at last year’s Pride Parade. She came alone, with no other members of the government, and said: “If I am here today, the whole government is here.” She, thus, stood in defense of a government that did not want to stand next to her at Pride. And, at that moment, that government included the people who made problematic statements about the LGBT+ community: Dacic, Stefanovic, Antic, Mihajlovic, Vulin and others. Minister of Justice Nela Kuburovic told us several days before Pride 2016 that we, as LGBT+ people, have to contribute to the implementation of the law if we want things to get better. How!?
Under these circumstances, it is equally unlikely that Ana Brnabic will contribute to the improvement of women’s rights. Especially if you consider the fact that her appointment is happening in parallel with the disqualification of MP Marinika Tepić through the use of crude sexist arguments. Ana often refers to herself as part of the Aleksandar Vucic apparatus. She helps him, stands behind his promises, wants to make them come true, believes that Vucic is changing Serbia for the better and above all – has no opinion of her own. Such a viewpoint is contrary to the idea of emancipation of women and light years away from feminist values.
Brnabic will remain only a statistical fact as the first woman and lesbian prime minister in Serbia and Eastern Europe. But can this be considered emancipation? Only the normative frameworks of human rights perception oblige us to be satisfied.
And, in the end, the question remains: Is all this possible and is it all that bad?
Yes, it’s possible.
And, yes, it’s bad.
And Serbia is not alone in this. A phenomenon called pinkwashing is a known strategy in contemporary global politics. In the western world, thanks to the equalization of rights, the LGBT+ community has become recognized as a serious and large voting body. That is why even the most stubborn right-wingers like Marine Le Pen were not reluctant to support LGBT+ rights, while at the same time they were ready to abolish the rights of others. For years there has been a debate about the participation of right-wing parties on major European Pride events: many activists ask if parties that promote hatred of Muslims have the capacity to truly support LGBT+ rights. Within this term, Israel is most often used as an illustration, because it abolishes the rights of Palestinians while, at the same time, presenting Tel Aviv as a paradise for the LGBT+ community. That is why the big question is whether the LGBT+ community can and should feel safe when supported by right-wingers and nationalists like Aleksandar Vucic.
This is why I consider it not only ineffective, but also devastating that the appointment of Ana Brnabic is considered to be a remarkable improvement in the human rights of LGBT+ people. From this large piece of cotton candy Vucic gave us, the mouth of gay people will become so sticky that we won’t be able to express our pain.
June 19th, 2017, Calgary, Canada
Translated by Marijana Simic