A Year in Review: LGBTQ+ Rights in Serbia from EuroPride 2022 to Pride March 2023

On September 9, Belgrade’s streets came to life with a dazzling display of diversity and support during the nineteenth annual Pride Parade. This year’s slogan, “We are Not Even Close,” served as a mighty rallying cry against the divisive rhetoric of opposing groups. Hundreds of activists gathered despite the odds, making it the biggest Pride March in Serbia’s history. With security measures cranked up, the city became a kaleidoscope of colours and a sense of unity. The jubilant scene of this year’s event sharply juxtaposed the tense and apprehensive atmosphere from the previous one.

However, it is essential not to be deceived by the apparent calm of the 2023 Pride. Even though it unfolded peacefully, without incidents of violence, the LGBTQ+ community in Serbia continues to confront persistent challenges and hurdles. These issues are directly linked to a broader network of challenges that have persisted between the EuroPride 2022 to Pride March 2023, stemming from continuous physical threats, over unfavourable education changes, to unrecognised legal status for same-sex couples.

Namely, in the aftermath of EuroPride 2022, authorities claimed no violence occurred during the event. However, a starkly different narrative unfolded as the Association Da se zna! documented 14 disturbing incidents of homophobia and transphobia on September 17, 2022. These incidents included eight physical attacks on individuals and groups, alongside harassment and property damage. As the year unfolded, the LGBTQ+ community endured further abuse based on their sexual and gender identities, with human rights organisations reporting a staggering 68 attacks from August 2022 to March 2023. The situation reached a distressing peak in February 2023, marked by targeted attacks, culminating in a stabbing incident. Responding to this alarming escalation, LGBTQ+ and human rights activists joined forces in March 2023, announcing a protest initiative named “Hate Kills.” The surge in hate crimes can be attributed, in part, to a barrage of inflammatory rhetoric from political and religious leaders. Billboards advertising EuroPride have been targeted by vandals, and the Belgrade Pride Information Centre has endured three attacks over the past year. Regrettably, accountability for the perpetrators of these acts of hooliganism remained elusive.

In education, the LGBTQ+ community in Serbia encountered a notable setback in the past year. The turning point came in September 2022 when conservative groups, including the Serbian Orthodox Church and the right-wing parties, called for reevaluating the recently updated school curriculum since the textbooks purportedly promoted “LGBT ideology.” As a result, they demanded the removal of any references to gender and sexual identity, even within biology courses. A pivotal biology textbook, in particular, was scrutinised for its comprehensive coverage of the distinctions between sex and gender, along with explanations of concepts like sexual orientation and gender identity. For instance, the textbook boldly stated that gender “can be independent of the sex assigned to [a person] at birth,” underscoring that “only an individual can determine its gender identity.” In response to these concerns, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology convened a working group to delve into the matter. Following an official review, changes were indeed made to biology textbooks in Serbia, effectively expunging references to gender and sexual identity, which activists and a cadre of scientists view as a setback for school education in Serbia. Furthermore, the omission of mentioning these topics represents a concerning development, with potential implications for a deficiency in comprehension and education.

Moreover, one of the key demands of LGBTQ+ groups since 2014 remains unaddressed. Despite including the Law on Same-sex Unions in the action plan of Serbia’s Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue, there has been little to no substantial progress towards its adoption in the past year. Consequently, same-sex couples in Serbia continue to grapple with a lack of legal recognition. Adding to this dilemma, in August 2023, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić reaffirmed his stance against approving legislation allowing same-sex marriage,  extending the waiting period for the LGBTQ+ community by at least three more years. However, Serbia is not immune to international legal obligations in this regard, as the European Court of Human Rights decision underscored in the 2015 case of “Oliari and Others v. Italy.” This landmark ruling established a clear imperative for Council of Europe member states, i.e., those that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, to ensure legal recognition for same-sex couples, grounded in the acknowledgment that the relationship of a same-sex couples falls under the purview of “private life,” safeguarded by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Thus, Serbia’s persistent refusal to recognise same-sex couples leaves them in an unequal and disadvantageous position, depriving them of the legal protections enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. As the battle for LGBTQ+ rights in Serbia continues, achieving this crucial milestone remains an ongoing struggle for equality and justice.

To summarise, the journey toward recognising and securing the rights of the LGBTQ+ community is a multifaceted endeavour that hinges on the readiness of governmental institutions and societal acceptance. Although there has been some progress in this area in the past – such as legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation since 2009, or the fact that transgender individuals can change their legal gender without surgical intervention – persistent prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community lingers across various domains, including employment, education, media representation, and access to goods and services. Furthermore, many implementation woes surrounding the enacted legal measures and initiatives create substantial roadblocks and delays for LGBTQ+ community members. Therefore, although Pride March 2023 was a success, Serbia has yet to tear down those barriers that stand in the way of fostering an inclusive society where every individual, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, can thrive and live free from discrimination.

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