Cops Outnumber Marchers in Belgrade Gay Pride Parade

PHOTO: Gay activists wave flags during the Pride March in Belgrade, Serbia, Sept. 28, 2014.Marko Drobnjakovic/AP Photo
Gay activists wave flags during the Pride March in Belgrade, Serbia, Sept. 28, 2014.

Some things are the same at gay pride parades everywhere -- rainbow flags, colorful balloons, music pumping from the sound systems, everyone singing and dancing. In Belgrade, though, the parade today had an unusual accompaniment.

Thousands of Serbian police officers in full gear with water cannons and armored personnel carriers sealed off capital's sunny downtown, in a reminder that Belgrade is not quite San Francisco, London or Amsterdam when it comes to gay demonstrations.

Several hundred gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals not only from Serbia but from across the former Yugoslavia, as well as from Italy, Greece, Germany and Canada marched their way trough practically empty streets of Belgrade, for the first time since 2010, calling for greater tolerance, equal rights and the right to civil partnerships.

The event, a culmination of Pride 2014, a week-long festival of parties, films and debates, showed Belgrade to be a place where gays and lesbians aspire the level of acceptance found in the West, yet remain a part of Christian Orthodox society that is still generally opposed to homosexuality and where politicians do not seem ready or willing to change that.

Although there were only several hundred participants, the parade today is most likely the largest gathering of its kind in Serbian history, where the event was banned for the last three consecutive years because of threats of violence.

In 2010, the event went forward in Belgrade but opponents attacked armed police with stones and Molotov cocktails, shouting "Death to homosexuals!" Police clashes with rioters trying to disrupt the parade left more than 140 people injured, most of them policemen.

For most part, today's parade went smoothly, but many gay men and lesbians here say they continue to fear repercussions from coming out of the closet.

"I lived in Amsterdam, there and here are two different worlds," says Ana, a sociologist from Nis.

About 5,000 police officers were there to control the crowd, five policemen for every participant of the march. A Greek man, who said he was there to show his support, remarked that he had never seen so much security at a gay pride parade in his life.

"Maybe next year this ratio will change," U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Michael Kirby said as he walked in parade. "It takes time, but hopefully, this will become a new normal."

In Belgrade, local media live-streamed the day's events and one of the city's iconic landmarks, Albania Palace, turned on its rainbow lights to mark Pride 2014.

There were several high-profile ministers and a mayor of Belgrade marching today, but even if the ruling parties wanted to send gay legislators to join the march, they couldn't have -- not even one member of Serbian Parliament is openly homosexual.

It's probably the law of paradox that says that the country to provide the hub for sex-change surgery is Serbia. And transgender surgery is subsidized by Serbia's national health insurance.

Ivan Djuric, one of the organizers of the Pride, says he sees improvement not just in Belgrade but also outside of the capital in more conservative corners of Serbia.

"Every year there are fewer negative reactions," Djuric said. "People see that the gay clubs are more friendly, that these are the places where there are no fights and you can have fun."

Visitors from abroad said they've come specifically because they've heard the situation for gays in Serbia was bad.

"I wouldn't go on a gay pride march in Brussels," a man from Italy who identified himself only as Lorenzzo. "But we've been having a great time here."