Six years ago, the Queer Beograd collective organised the first Queer Beograd Festival. Its story is a good chance to talk about LGBT and queer movements in Serbia – their goals, their fortune, and their imaginary
In 1994, male homosexuality was decriminalised in Serbia (female homosexuality was not deemed worth mentioning in the laws). In 2001, the first Pride parade in Belgrade – now remembered as the “massacre parade” – was violently attacked by right-wing and religious extremists while police stayed indifferent. Since then, we have regular reports about Pride parades (or attempts) in Serbia and the troubles that follow. However, what do LGBT and queer groups in Belgrade do, when they are not being beaten up? This article reports on the Queer Beograd (QB) collective, the festivals they have organised, and the words they use to explain what they want to change.
Welcome to Queeroslavia
The first QB festival took place in May 2005. It was organised by the Queer Beograd collective (created by seven young women and a young man in 2004), which defines itself as radical, international and, obviously, queer. Their flyers announced that the festival takes place in “Beograd, Queeroslavija” – a queer Yugoslavia in an abandoned building of the Serbian capital, and it is not just a cool expression. When national identity becomes strictly entwined with gender normativity (as happens often) and this connection violently manifests itself, as in the Balkans, a conflict emerges with “alternative” gender identities and sexual orientations.
According to Ksenija, extremists in 2001 shouted: “Serbia for the Serbs, not for the gays! Go to Croatia!” Then, I went to the Pride Parade in Croatia and people shouted: “Go to Serbia!” Some months later, at the second festival in December 2005, Maja said: “I do not have a national identity. I am not Slovenian, I am from Ljubljana.” Such conflict involves both female and male genders: those who do not aspire to be a model soldier or a devoted mother are outside the nation's ideal borders. Boban remembered, “In the nineties, for example, being gay meant being garbage, a traitor of the nation.”
Queeroslavija looks like both a nostalgic and utopian invention: the dream of a common space free from nationalisms (as Yugoslavia aspired to be) and open to diversity, it represents a country that no longer and not yet exists, one where full citizenship is granted to every subject – even if “eccentric”, “queer”. However, if queer is an Anglo-Saxon invention, activists have often wondered, what does “queer” mean in Serbia?
What's the Serbian for “queer”?
The elaboration of the notion of “queer” in the local (Serbian) and regional (Balkan) contexts has been widely discussed by activists (and academics) over the years. The second and third QB festivals focused on that issue. Was it just an Anglo-Saxon import, a fashionable word that had nothing to do with the lives and identities of gender and sexual minorities in the Balkans? The collective's theoretical elaboration sought a possible translation – at the linguistic and political levels – and presented it in the manifesto for the third festival (October 2006):
"Serbian has no word that means queer, no way to say what we mean about queer being more than LGBT equality. For us, queer means radical, inclusive, connecting to all kinds of politics and being creative about how we live in this world. So our new festival is called ‘Kvar’, a technical term literally translating to mean ‘a malfunction in a machine’, because in this world of capitalism, nationalism, racism, militarism, sexism and homophobia, we want to celebrate ourselves as a malfunction in this machine."
Just as queer was a derogatory term reclaimed by sexual subcultures, the Serbian translation is a subversive move that turns marginality and being outside the norm into emancipatory values – if the normative machine is discriminatory and unjust, a malfunction cannot be but good news. The latest book by the famous queer scholar Judith Jack Halberstam theorises queer as “art of failure”; thus, the Serbian queer movement may almost seem to have anticipated the times. This may help dismantle some stereotypes of “Eastern” LGBT and queer movements running after “Western” thought and conquests in a linear trajectory of development. Let us now briefly consider the current picture of LGBT and queer movements in Serbia, with an eye on the rest of Europe as well.
Is the whole world a village? Between the State and the EU
“It is the same everywhere,” sighs Slaviša as she talks about internal divisions within the Serbian LGBTQ movement. Last year, for example, the organisation of the Pride parade created conflicts between groups both in Italy and Serbia. In the Serbian case, the queer groups opted out because of conflicts with the majority sectors of the LGBT movement. The division, albeit often counterproductive for the relationship with the outside world, does nonetheless reflect diverging ideas and agendas.
As also happens in Italy and other countries on their way to recognising civil rights, the movement is divided between “assimilationist” and “antagonistic” aspirations. On one side, some want to establish relationships with public institutions in order to be granted equal rights within traditional social structures (for example, marriage or adoption) – in other words, to “be just like everyone else”. On the other side, some claim difference as a value, to question the legitimacy of current norms as well as social and economic power relationships, and to establish an alliance between marginalised subjectivities not only on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, but also in terms of ethnicity, religion, or class (“intersectionality”). Hence, for example, an alliance can form between queer groups and migrant associations. Curiously enough, my conversation with Slaviša took place in the Netherlands, where all political parties support equal rights as an integral part of institutional values – so much that the “antagonistic” movement is virtually non-existent. Actually, a danger exists for LGBT groups allying with xenophobic parties based on a shared Islamophobia.
If the Serbian LGBT community’s struggles for integration has trouble finding support from national institutions very much tied to traditionalist ideologies (such as in Italy), it finds an ally in Europe. Supra-national pressure and aspirations to EU integration have led to the discussion and/or approval of progressive laws (see the OBC dossier "Between the State and the EU” at http://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Dossiers/Between-the-State-and-the-EU). Without a deeper cultural operation, however, this partial progress risks remaining a legal formality and irrelevant for society as a whole. Thus, part of the movement chooses to work towards a comprehensive perspective of social justice.