NEW YORK—By law in Bosnia-Herzegovina, individuals cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation, hate crimes are illegal and there is no constitutional limit on marriage. Yet when two dozen Bosnians marched in the first unofficial pride parade last June (as no official parade has been permitted by the state), they were met with spitting and shouting.
Casual homophobia and violence are commonplace for LGBTQ people in the Western Balkans. On paper, most of these states have made advances in LGBTQ human rights protections, but this is misleading, argued Brian Silva and Jasmin Mujanović during a Center for European and Mediterranean Studies workshop on Wednesday.
Silva—of Marriage Equality USA—and Mujanović—York University, Toronto—remarked that most of these states face an implementation gap. This has allowed hate crimes to go unreported or unprosecuted. LGBTQ youths remain closeted and homophobia unopposed.
The Western Balkans offer moderate protections, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association in Europe (ILGA-Europe). Yet these measures, and the work of LGBTQ advocates in the region, focus almost solely on the creation of legal protections, Silva said.
“The infrastructure that was in place was all about lobbying and working with parliament, getting an ombudsman created, getting meetings with parliamentarians,” Silva said of the advocacy in Slovenia, “because at the end of the day that’s how law gets passed.”
Activists have found willing partners among many of the political parties because European Union integration—a shared aspiration—is dependent on adherence to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which includes nondiscrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. As much a cultural experiment as an economic one, admission to the EU remains the main motivating factor for these laws, above genuine intention to change, Silva said.
New legislation has fallen into an implementation gap. “If you look at the legal codex of Bosnia or Montenegro or Macedonia,” Mujanović said, “you’ll actually find that these countries have incredibly expansive human rights, gender protection, LGBT rights. The laws are all there: they’re just not being enforced.”
In 2010, the Belgrade Pride Parade was met with such violent protests that the city refused to allow another parade until 2014. A group of masked men attacked the Merlinka Festival in Sarajevo in 2014 during a panel on transgender identity and rights, and no indictments have been made in the two and a half years since.
Silva pointed to the lack of work done on the grassroots level to change culture perceptions, because without this “when you put things to a popular referendum—of which we know civil rights never should be, but it happens—you lose.”
Strict gender roles are part and parcel of the patriarchal nationalism and religiosity that Mujanović sees as a remnant of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the wars of the 1990s. “While LGBT people were not explicitly targeted for expulsion or extermination during the war years, homophobia as a political project in the western Balkans begins at this moment,” he said. “I think nationalism as a political project is inherently homophobic and inherently misogynist. I don’t think it can exist otherwise.”
Successful politicians in the Western Balkans are often those who base their politics on ethnic and national identity—especially in Bosnia. Politicians and religious figures remain in “lock step” as two arms of the nationalist sentiment still prevalent across the region. “The religious communities—whether they’re Orthodox, Catholic, or Muslim,” Mujanović said, “have been really instrumental in the creation and manufacturing of national and nationalist projects.”
As religious leaders reach congregants each week, Silva stated, it is vital for advocates to redirect their focus to community engagement and outreach. “You cannot ‘otherize’ somebody that you know,” Silva said. “It makes it very hard to hate when ‘others’ have actual names and relationships. And you’re seeing more of this.”
LGBTQ friendly cafes and bars persevere. Pride parades have taken place in Zagreb, Ljubljana, Split, Belgrade and Podgorica in recent years. Queer festivals and spaces have opened in Pristina, Sarajevo and Skopje. And influential politicians are showing up in support. “We have seen slow, but discernible, progress,” Mujanović said.
But without a change in attitudes, Silva said, even the seemingly robust legal protections will be little more than window-dressing: “Laws are not enough.”
Featured photo: A counter demonstration against the 2010 Pride parade in Belgrade. The parade was met with violent resistance. Photo courtesy Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung / Flickr.com