Despite Serbia having legislation designed to protect LGBT communities from discrimination and hate speech, the influence of the country’s Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, which is strongly supported by far-right groups, is still proving an obstacle to equality in this Balkan state of some seven million people.

The latest demonstration of faith-based hatred occurred in September after Belgrade staged its third Pride Parade. Incensed that the march was allowed to proceed, a group of Orthodox priests moved in afterwards to “spiritually cleanse” the streets along which the revellers had passed by chanting hymns and sprinkling holy water. They also carried anti-gay banners, one of which showed a homosexual being driven into the fires of a EU hell by a figure bearing a cross.

Nevertheless, the parade served to demonstrate that matters are improving in Serbia, mainly because numerous politicians and diplomats lent their support to the event. Belgrade’s mayor Sinisa Mali also joined the parade, alongside Bojan Pajtic, leader of the Democratic Party, and Cedomir Jovanovic, President of the Liberal Democratic Party.

The head of the EU delegation to Serbia, Michael Davenport, and the German ambassador to Belgrade, Axel Dittmann, were among those from the international community who took part.

But the woman who excited most interest by joining the parade was Ana Brnabic, one of six new ministers in the Serbian government and the first openly gay minister to serve in any Balkan country. The 40-year-old Brnabic speaks English and Russian. She was educated in the United States and United Kingdom. An expert in public administration, she established the National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED) in 2006.

Ana Brnabic

In 2013, she was declared businesswoman of the year in Serbia.

She made headlines around the world in August as  she prepared to be sworn in as the first openly gay minister in Serbia. Speaking to reporters during a parliamentary recess on August 9, Brnabic expressed hopes that the public attention would eventually fade after she is sworn in.

“Hopefully this will blow over in three or four days and then I won’t be known as ‘the gay minister.’ I’ll be known as the minister of public administration and local government,” she told reporters.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who made the appointment, was singled out for praise by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Serbia.

According to the Belgrade based Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), choosing Brnabic as a minister is historic because it raises the hope that Serbia can become a society in which everyone has equal opportunity. “It’s important to recognize the skills and qualities of people in high positions regardless of their sexual orientation,” the GSA said in a statement.

Among the first to react was Boris Milicevic, the first LGBT activist to enter politics in Serbia. He is a high-level official in the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the junior partner of Prime Minister Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in the new government. He sees the Brnabic appointment as important for the entire LGBT community.

“I hope that the Prime Minister’s decision will encourage more LGBT people to take part in politics, as well as encourage many who already hold positions in the government to come out,” Milicevic said.
Serbia is still struggling to become a more inclusive society. Homophobia is widespread, as in any Balkan society. Belgrade has been under pressure since the start of its EU-accession talks to improve its protection of minorities, including the LGBT community.

Memories of the violence surrounding the 2010 Pride Parade are still fresh. Hard-line nationalists and radicals attacked participants and clashed with police, wounding 150 people. Because of security concerns, the parade was cancelled for the next three years. Last year, the Pride Parade went ahead without incident, although there were more police officers than members of the LGBT community in the streets.

There are still many influential voices preaching discrimination. When Serbia was hit by heavy floods in the summer of 2014, Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej proclaimed the disaster a clear warning from God just as Belgrade was getting ready to host another pride parade, which in the Patriarch’s view was “something that is against God and the law of nature.”

Earlier, in a written statement issued in 2012, Patriarch Irinej denounced that year’s march as a “parade of shame.” He said it would threaten Serbia’s centuries-old Christian culture and the model return heterosexual family as the foundation of humankind.

Asked about the Brnabic appointment, Vucic claimed that he was simply being faithful to his promise to put together a government that would deliver results.

“Her personal choices do not interest me, she is welcome in the Serbian government”, the Prime Minister told a press conference. “I told her that what interests me is the work that she can do.”

Following the violence sparked by the 2010 parade which saw thousands of young people rioting on the streets, throwing stones and missiles, injuring police officers and setting alight buildings and vehicles, Pride marches were banned between 2011-2013, as authorities said they could not protect the participants.

But one unnamed Orthodox monk, in an Internet post, said that neither the Pride parade nor the priests’ counter-demonstration, were needed because the “abomination” of homosexuality is a non-issue in Serbia. He argued that that there are so few homosexuals in Serbia that they don’t merit either religious or political consideration.

“The visible gay community in Serbia is tiny, and most of the people in it are foreign, of only partial Serb ancestry, or otherwise just kind of elite/foreign-minded – definitely not average Serbs by any stretch of the imagination.
“It is largely due to this that Serbs feel pressured into accepting something they don’t want. The parade almost certainly came about due to foreign influences and not from a request from Serbs themselves. Serbs are generally not interested in and not tempted by this particular aspect of Western influence.”

He added: “In Serbia I have met exactly two openly gay people. I have met about as many who at least openly state that homosexual acts are acceptable.

“The general culture is very openly against homosexuality. So how can anyone say with a straight face … that the troubles which have befallen Serbia are due to punishment from God for allowing gay pride parades, when every day in Serbia thousands of children are murdered through abortion, and no one really cares?”

He is certainly correct that “the general culture is very openly against homosexuality”. According to Wikipedia, research carried out in 2012 showed that 48 percent of Serbs believe that homosexuality is an illness.