Sarajevo has a habit of making history. On Sunday, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital became the last in the Balkans to hold a Pride march – and delivered in some style. The landmark event attracted over 3,000 LGBTI+ and human rights activists, but also public figures, actors, singers, foreign diplomats, and ordinary, free-thinking Sarajevans who reveled in this defining moment. The singing was loud, the energy buzzing, and the demands crystal clear: our struggle for equality and freedom has just begun.
The journey to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first-ever Pride had been long and winding; marred with physical attacks on activists, counter-protests, slander from mainstream media, and the shameless discrimination which has become an inescapable part of everyday life.
For a country – and a region – which has endured so much pain and suffering during the war of the 1990s, the LGBTI+ community remains one of the few to still feel the full brunt of nationalist aggression.
Undeterred, Pride is also one of the rare multi-ethnic initiatives tirelessly bridging Bosnia’s bitterly divided communities, not least by attracting activists from Bosniak, Serb, and Croat backgrounds. In this spirit of inclusivity, organizers went further to pledge solidarity with all other discriminated groups, including Roma, persons with disabilities, low-paid workers, and migrants.
LGBTI+ Rights in the Balkans
As someone who has fought for LGBTI+ rights for the better part of three decades, I sense that something truly ground-breaking is unfolding in the Balkans.
Aside from Sarajevo, in June this year, we welcomed North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, into our Pride family for the first time ever. Buoyed by their recent democratic reforms, almost 2,000 Macedonians joined in the march and were greeted by special rainbow-colored Coca-Cola cans, a breakthrough when it comes to any Pride movement in the Balkans ever receiving any corporate support.
We can only hope that businesses across the region will finally step out of the shadow, instead of fearing backlash from their conservative customer groups.
Today is the day for Bosnia to get its first Pride march. Proud for all of those who will walk the streets of Sarajevo, LGBT folks and allies alike. To those opposing, remember that this is about love you tend to ignore at best and oppress at worst. That's why #imaizać ????️????????️????????️????
— Aleksandar Brezar (@brezaleksandar) September 8, 2019
This seems light-years away from where it all started. Arriving as a student in Belgrade in the dark days of the early 1990s, in our initial fight to decriminalize same-sex relations we would convene in basements and rundown cafes to evade the full-force of Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal rule. Once we had consolidated and the regime was toppled in 2000, we felt we were finally free and dared to take our cause to streets. It would prove to be disastrous.
Belgrade’s first Pride the following year was met by hundreds of football hooligans and right-wing organizations who – without much deterrence from the police – proceeded to smash their way through the brave activists that turned up. Dozens of my friends and colleagues were mercilessly beaten that June afternoon, but we would live to fight another day. Between 2009 and 2013 we regrouped and took to the streets again, but were met with either bans from the government, or in the case of 2010, 6,000 hooligans who proceeded to riot and trash Belgrade’s city center.
Winds of Change?
These days in Serbia, winds of change seem to be blowing more powerfully than ever before – on the surface, at least.
Since 2014 we’ve organized consecutive annual Pride marches without any incidents and are in full preparation for Belgrade Pride 2019 this Sunday (September 1). And just last month, we submitted our bid to bring EuroPride – the most significant event in the Pan-European Pride calendar – to Belgrade in 2022.
Most remarkable of all, in 2017 Serbia became the only country in the world to be governed by an openly lesbian prime minister; all things considered, an extraordinary turnaround. And yet, violence discrimination is still widespread, same-sex marriages remain unrecognized, and adoption by same-sex couples is outlawed, nor are there encouraging signs that legislative reforms are near on the horizon.
— AFP news agency (@AFP) September 16, 2017
Elsewhere in the region, the taste is equally bitter-sweet. Activists from Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania have fought and succeeded for their right to hold Pride in their countries over the past few years. But with populist, nationalist rhetoric dominating public discussion while governments falsely profess democratic values in the eyes of their E.U. patrons, allowing Pride is an easy and symbolic concession to give. However, away from the cameras, up to 60 percent LGBTI+ persons in the Balkans face regular harassment, while around 30 percent says they have been physically abused.
We know this because we’ve been on the frontline together, every step of the way. In a region infamous for ethnic tensions, Pride movements have led the way in promoting solidarity and cooperation between otherwise hostile communities.
We share experiences and resources, regularly attend each other’s activities, and most recently, we proudly received backing for Belgrade’s EuroPride 2022 bid by all regional Pride organizations. Collectively we recognize the watershed moment hosting EuroPride in the Western Balkans could mean for changing society’s attitudes towards LGBTI+ issues, and ultimately pressuring policy-makers to implement meaningful changes.
The legacy for the international LGBTI+ community could be just as seismic. Aside from the rainbow-draped corporate logos and town halls which decorate public life in the West for a few weeks in the year, the spirit of Stonewall yearns to be recaptured.
The Western Balkans – representing a crossroad of western and eastern values – is an important frontline to take this fight further. And on Sunday, Sarajevo proudly showed us why.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.