How the Brice Taton case shows what a difficult task it will be for a true celebration of Gay Pride in Serbia

Some years ago when I was young, I lived in a town called Brighton. Many of you will know Brighton from its reputation these days as a romping party town on the south coast of England where anything goes, where men and women don’t conform to gender stereotypes, and the partying goes on late into the night supported by legal and illegal drugs of all kinds. But when I was young, it wasn’t like that. Then it was a seedy seaside resort where paint flaked from every lamppost, and the rusting piers were all but collapsing into the sea. On public holidays my parents wouldn’t allow me out. That was because it was a playground for mods and rockers and punks. They would all stream down from London on their scooters, motorbikes or the train, choosing their mode of transport according to their image. Once they arrived, the beer would flow, then the chains and the knuckledusters came out, and the scenes of rampage through the town that those of us who grew up in Seventies England remember well.

Pitched battles were fought between gangs – not because they bore a grudge, or had something to fight over. Rather, it was simple entertainment for young men with too much testosterone and not enough imagination.

In the Brighton of that time, a foreign student was stabbed to death. Many young students came to Brighton during their summer holidays to learn English (they still do). I’ve met many people here in Serbia and elsewhere in Europe whose memory of England is one of a summer spent in Brighton with a kindly family learning English and struggling with the food. We were shocked, of course. Why would a young German teenager be stabbed in the street? What had he done wrong? The answer, of course, as we later found out when the attackers were caught, was that he was foreign. Not because he was German and all of that, but because he was simply foreign. Xenophobia and the fear of difference runs deep in people with not enough imagination and too much testosterone.

This case came to my mind this week as all the events surrounding the death of Brice Taton unfolded. As you will all know by now, the young French football supporter was visiting Belgrade to watch a football match, and was beaten to death by a gang of hooligans. Last night, as I was sitting in a kafana talking to a friend, he said how proud he was at the reaction of the public to this terrible event. Not one, but three days of marches, candle-lighting and speeches of shame and anger was the response in Serbia to this attack.

Although the attack itself was terrible, there was some redemption in the people’s sense that they themselves felt deep personal shame, and were prepared to come out onto the streets and show their anger and their determination that it shouldn’t happen again.

When the young German in Brighton was killed, it made the front pages of the local newspapers, people talked about it on the bus, but nothing more. No-one was moved to go and demonstrate on the streets, no-one lit candles in the centre of town. Why was the reaction so different in Belgrade?

Aside from the obvious sensitivity to Serbia’s image abroad, one conclusion, that I can’t avoid coming to, is that the sense of identity of people in Serbia with their national image is much closer and stronger than ours in England. When something shameful occurs in Serbia, people feel the shame themselves, almost as if they did it or are blamed for it. In England, we can detach ourselves from the national identity – it wasn’t me what done it, guv, it was someone else, someone different from me, with whom I have nothing in common, so why should I feel the blame or the shame?

Here in Serbia, that sense of unity, of belonging to the same people, the same nation, is so much stronger. What one person does reflects on all the others. It creates a solidarity and a community spirit: we are all in this together, we stand or fall together. It is one of the traits in Serbia that I admire so much.

But as I reflect further, I realise it is also behind something else, something that I don’t admire so much. The intolerance shown towards those brave people who wanted to march in celebration of their identity and sexuality was truly shocking to me. That someone should wish violence on another person because of something he or she does – or feels – in private is beyond my comprehension. Clearly a lack of imagination and too much testosterone are involved, but there is something more. Rejection of a repressed sexuality for some, certainly. But something else, too. Perhaps this strong sense of a single identity, this sense that we are all one people and we all feel shame (or pride) at the activities of others in our nation has something to do with it. As long as being a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or whatever is seen as something to be ashamed of, that shame will be felt by everyone – not just those who are actually gay or whatever – precisely because of this strong sense of solidarity and identity with the nation.

The battle for tolerance therefore has two sides. In the UK, it was easier because the straight majority didn’t feel the same sense of personal shame at the deviances of others. They could learn to accept these others as long as they weren’t my son, or my daughter. There could be tolerance, even though the stigma remained. In Serbia, that sense of collective solidarity will not go away. So rather than plead for tolerance of ‘others’, the first step has to be to remove the stigma first. Only then will the tolerance follow. Can this be done? I sincerely hope there is a way.

Richard Allen lives and works in Belgrade and Novi Pazar.

Pešč, 05.10.2009.