This is what happened in 2001
Why Gays Got Attacked
An Eyewitness Account
JULY 5, 2001. Jasmina Tesanovic, the writer, filmmaker and co-founder of 94, Serbia’s first women’s publishing house, was on hand at Belgrade’s Square of the Republic last Saturday June 30 to support her country’s first public Gay and Lesbian Pride. This is what she saw.
It was supposed to be a celebration, the first public demonstration of the gay and lesbian movement on their international day of pride, to be held in the main Square of the Republic, site of all the important events in our democratic history. The only thing we feared was bad weather.
OK, let’s be honest. For years, homophobia has run rampant in Serbia, strengthened by wars and nationalism, and ignored in the face of all those men’s issues, the latest being the extradition of Milosevic, the guy who was the role model for such manly behaviors as bombing, killing, ethnic cleansing and, finally, mass graves on our doorsteps, under our living bodies.
Two days ago, when the former President was suddenly transported to The Hague, his supporters organized in this same square a meek demonstration, kept well under control by the police. Not today, though, when a lively, colorful and happy group of 30-50 gays and lesbians was supposed to sing and dance there. Afterwards, a public forum was going to be held at the Students’ Cultural Center, a traditional free alternative space for politics and culture.
I was in the square at 3 p.m. when I saw a large crowd approaching. They were mostly young men with shaved heads, big muscles, and tight tee-shirts. I heard a cameraman standing next to me say, “It’s over now; no way they’re going to let something like this happen in Serbia.” I wanted to tell him, “No way, this is my Serbia too,” but I was already on guard.
A few seconds later, I was overtaken by the wild mob’s stampede to the other side of the square. I spotted the gay group there with balloons, singing. I ran towards them too: it became a few hundred screaming, insulting, violent people against the few. The police were invisible, but here and there you could spot a special forces guy.
The big mob attacked the small group, which scattered in all directions. I followed some of them. I saw a guy with dyed blonde hair being beaten with sticks, his head and his nose bleeding. My friend tried to drag him away while ten policemen made a circle around us, but there were hundreds of attackers and they were about to break the circle.
There were many journalists with cameras. I thought we would be witness to a lynching; I felt utterly helpless, lost. But the police started shooting in the air, and the thugs drew back for a second. The next minute, though, they were back in the square, screaming “Whores! Degenerates!”
Other cops just stood there and watched while the mob beat up a woman from a feminist group who was giving an interview to a journalist. The crowd threw eggs at anybody who seemed to be a participant, and grabbed and insulted a girl who was just passing by.
As I started walking towards the Students’ Cultural Center with three friends, a group of men followed us, insulting us and spitting on us, while passersby, ordinary people, made comments, like, “Why bother with queers, kill them all, they’re ruining our clean Serbia.” Some were just afraid or dumbfounded. Not one said: “Let them be, they’re people just like us, they have human rights.”
When we arrived at the center, it was closed. Police were all around, and some women onlookers were screaming at them: “So you voted for democracy and this is what you get!” “You assholes, you should protect us straight people, because these decent men are protecting our honor!” A hideous, fat, elderly man was sweating and screaming, “Give me the lesbians, I want to rape them!”
We just stood and watched, giving interviews to anyone who wanted a statement. The only words I could say were, “This is my Serbia, too… this is fascism.”
Only later, at the center, when the thugs were finally being arrested and the mob was broken into small groups, I managed to put a more complex picture together: Milosevic is in The Hague, the thugs are frustrated; instead of beating their wives and children, they are beating everybody that doesn’t resemble their idea of a patriot.
Later still, while sitting at the women’s center and trying to see how many people were hurt (eight policemen and about eight civilians) all of us admitted that this kind of violence and reaction had never happened before, and it was definitely not spontaneous.
There were a lot of news crews, and we gave a lot of interviews, but after a few live broadcasts, the official version prevailed: it had merely been a conflict between homosexuals and their opponents. The official statement of the Belgrade chief of police ran along the same lines: everything’s under control thanks to the brave policemen.
Three days before the police were officially notified about the Gay Pride event, right-wing groups were already distributing leaflets in which they threatened violence. But even that does not explain why this happened. Behind the huge, organized mass of violent, ethnically superior patriots, behind the ultra-nationalist Serb Radical Party, the homophobic organizations, the illiterate democrats, there is a bigger presence: the silent majority, including people in power, from both the former and current regime.
These are the people who will say that Serbs have suffered enough disgrace and dishonor, and gays shouldn’t air their shame in public, that digging up dead Albanian bodies is just about enough. These are the people who, to purify the national self-esteem, would love to impose religion in schools, restrict abortion, silence the voices of ethnic or sexual minorities.
I’m still shaking from fear: it was, maybe, the worst I’ve ever experienced, because it was personal while the deed was impersonal, as lynching always is. But I do not want to speak or let my comrades speak as victims: this is an occasion, no matter how painful, to speak out, to denounce, to call for justice, to demand the names of the organizers of the mob scene at the Square of the Republic.
Getting rid of Milosevic and digging up dead bodies from mass graves is not enough. We have to get rid of all the small Milosevics cruising around our cities and lives, and dig out of our conscience and bodies all the intolerance and homophobia that for many years was ignored and upheld.
I want to stand up and say, “This is my Serbia, too,” though I am a woman, marginalized, and a feminist. I want to strike back at those whom I want to declare outlaws and marginals, those who use violence and hate. This is why I am writing this testimonial, so that this may be known, and to ask for support.
Belgrade, June 30, 2001
For Jasmina Tesanovic’s Diary of a Political Idiot (Granta 67)