Relentless Homophobia Rages in the Balkans

“Be IN-tolerant! Be normal!”, appeals a poster that recently flooded the streets of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

As the first gay pride parade in Bulgaria is about to take place, amid strong opposition by nationalistic organisations and a large part of society, the high levels of persistent homophobia in the country and the Balkans as a whole come to attention once again. Despite the fact that virtually all the countries in the Balkans have laws that guarantee equality and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the lack of tolerance towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender/transsexual (LGBT) people still seems deeply engrained and prevalent.

Members of the LGBT community across the Balkans continue to be largely marginalised, routinely facing prejudice in their professional and private lives, getting shunned from their families and even being at risk of violent attacks. That is, if they choose to come out, which is not what many of them do.

Insulting and demeaning terms are regularly used not only in private conversations but also publicly by politicians, other official figures, national media and on television – without causing so much as pause. Even individuals who are otherwise progressive, forward-thinking and well-educated tend to take a stance that is not only conservative but outright intolerant when it comes to the gay community.

Throughout the Balkans, it is not uncommon for the terms ‘homosexuality’ and ‘pedophilia’ to be used either as synonyms or as closely linked. For example, the Bulgarian National Union, a marginal nationalistic party, organised a roundtable on the theme “How to limit and win over the harm from homosexuality and pedophilia in Bulgaria?” in opposition to the planned parade in Sofia.

Another belief held commonly on the Balkans is that homosexuality is not only unnatural and perverted, but also a disease. “The strong patriarchal traditions and the hetero-norm also contribute to the wide-spread opinion that homosexuality is a mental disorder, which can be treated,” Aksinia Gencheva, managing director of the Bulgarian advocacy non-profit gay organisation Gemini, was quoted as saying in a  journalistic handbook on reporting on diversity, recently published by the British Council in Bulgaria, as part of its Media and Diversity project.

This clip, highlighting the general public’s perceptions of people who have a different sexual orientation, was also produced as part of the British Council’s Media and Diversity public awareness campaign, which started in Bulgaria at the beginning of 2008. The campaign’s motto is “First we’re people, then we’re different.”

Encouragingly, across the region, violent acts by neo-Nazi or nationalistic groups seem to become increasingly a thing of the past. Prior to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which took place in Belgrade, for example, the far-right fascist organisation Obraz threatened violent attacks on the gay visitors to Serbia’s capital, as reported. In the end, the event went on without any such incidents, though the threats in and of themselves serve as indication enough.

Violent attacks or not, what ultra-right groups say out loud still seems to be what the majority of the population thinks and homophobia and lack of tolerance continue to mark its default attitudes.

Although, generally, it seems that homophobia is a Balkans-wide trend, the situation differs somewhat on a country by country basis. Greeks, Romanians and Bulgarians are among the EU’s most homophobic nations, according to recently published statistics in connection to the first gay marriages that took place in Greece at the beginning of the month. Nevertheless, Romania remains one of the very few countries in the region where a yearly LGBT festival (on the picture below) has taken place since 2004.

Although statistics that exist on the rest of the Balkans states are not comprehensive or always recent, the situation there seems to also be grim, if not grimmer. According to a 2006 Cafebabel publication, 54.3 per cent of the 1,500 people surveyed by the Factor Agency said that homosexuals need to “receive medical treatment,” 14.5 per cent thought that homosexuality should be banned and 10 per cent want homosexuals to be “isolated” from society.

In Albania, according to accounts by regional media at the end of 2007, homosexual people were forced to leave the country or face constant abuse and discrimination, as well as poverty resulting from their extreme marginalisation.

In Macedonia, a survey by the Centre for Civil and Human Rights from 2002 showed over 80 per cent saw homosexuality as a danger to the family and as a psychiatric disorder, while about 65 per cent described being gay as a crime. Athough observers say things are slowly changing, these percentages have probably not dropped significantly since the study was done.

In Turkey, according to a Human Rights Watch report issued in May, authorities continuously harass human rights defenders and civil society groups working on issues of gender and sexuality. The publication – which called for an urgent change in the law and policy to protect LGBT people from extensive harassment and brutality on the streets, in homes, and in state-run institutions noted a number of cases, including police raids of the office of an NGO which advocates LGBT people’s rights, police rape and torture of transgender people and violent attacks against gay and lesbian indiviuals.

Although some strides have been made in recent years, as the gay parades that have taken place in some countries’ capitals seem to indicate, they have been intermittent and without wide-sweeping results in terms of the general public’s negative attitudes and high levels of homophobia. The reactions to gay parades in the respective Balkan countries serve a kind of barometer of the (un)acceptance towards the LGBT community. While some states, like Croatia and Romania, have a tradition of organising yearly parades, in others such efforts are suppressed.

The first pride march organised in the region was in Belgrade in 2001. Police failed to protect the participants from football hooligans, clerics leading ultra nationalist youth and skinheads who not only stormed the event and attacked and seriously injured several participants, but also stopped the manifestation from taking place. All attempts to organise subsequent parades in Serbia failed.

Seven years on, the danger of such clashes in Bulgaria seems real. The planned parade in Sofia – a first for the country, has been moved – on the mayor’s initiative, from the capital’s central streets to one of its parks. Although the official reason for the change is to ensure the participants are better protected against anticipated counter-protesters, it may turn out to be just another attempt to marginalise the LGBT community and its supporters.

It remains to be seen how this milestone for Bulgaria’s gay community will be pan out. But one thing remains certain – it will be a true test of the country’s society as a whole.

by Ekaterina Petrova
Source – Balkan Travellers