Veteran human rights activist discusses slow progress in regional LGBTI rights, defying borders and adapting activism to the internet age.
A human rights activist for over two decades, Goran Miletic has become known as one of the region’s most prominent figures that calls for equality. At the beginning of the 1990s, when he started his law studies in Belgrade, he joined Arkadija, the first LGBT organization in Serbia. Together with other activists from the organization he became involved in antiwar and anti-Milosevic activism.
“I started to deal with human rights at the same time like many others — when I witnessed the injustice happening in front of me. At that time I didn’t know exactly what human rights meant, but I knew enough that during my law studies I chose the route that involved subjects from this field,” Miletic said in a 2014 interview on his his activism roots.
After his engagement and work at different distinguished human rights organizations, such as the Humanitarian Law Center, he joined Civil Rights Defenders in 2004. Today he is program director for the Western Balkans. During his journey as an activist, he remained an important voice for LGBT rights and one of the organizers of Serbia’s Pride parade.
Ahead of the first LGBTI official Pride in Kosovo, K2.0 caught up with Miletic to discuss the evolution of LGBTI rights in the region, the relationship of institutions with the community and obstacles that LGBTI persons face.
K2.0: You have been involved in human rights and LGBTI activism in the Western Balkans for many years now. How has LGBTI activism evolved in the region?
Goran Miletic: It is extremely hard being an LGBTI activist in the region. Societies are very small and social exclusion from the rest of society is quite high when you decide to be visible in the media as an activist. However we have some brave people, mainly from the human rights movement, who are now openly fighting for the human rights of the LGBT community.
Many young activists grew up when homosexuality was legal and they don’t remember when police were allowed to arrest you if you were gay. Consequently they are more ready to engage and I think that the internet was an important stage in this evolution. You can connect to like-minded people, connect with activists outside of the region, organize any event and many more things. Moreover, LGBT+ activists in each country and the region are well connected with each other. However we are still not that good at motivating local communities outside of the internet.
Photo: Courtesy of Goran Miletic.
Who are the local communities outside the internet? Older LGBTI persons and persons in general that live in more isolated or rural areas? What kind of efforts and interventions need to be made by LGBTI activists in order to spread activism among these communities outside of the internet?
Actually, I believe that citizens in rural areas are now spending much more time on the internet. Simply, they have no choice, like people in capital cities. Similarly LGBT+ communities in small cities and rural areas are on the internet much more. Being an older LGBT person in the West is nice and you have many choices, a social circle, while in the Balkans that part of the LGBT community is almost invisible.
When it comes to spreading activism outside of the internet, I think that this is the million dollar question. Initially, people are afraid of the consequences if they are visible or if they attend any LGBT-related event. In cases when they are out and not thinking [or] concerned about the consequences, they are afraid of the impact that their visibility in the public space might have on their parents and family, especially if they still live in smaller cities.
Every year before Belgrade Pride we have calls from groups of activists that would like to come from smaller cities and they ask us to guarantee that they will not be on TV, since they don’t want to create problems for their parents, aunts, etc. I think that the time factor is important, and that we will have desirable change in the coming future.
Compared with years ago, there are an increased number of voices saying that the region has seen progress regarding LGBTI rights. Would you agree with this?
There is some progress but things that have been done in 10 years could have been done in six months or so. We have laws against discrimination in every country in the region, sexual orientation is mentioned in many other laws, while public events, Pride and similar [events] are becoming a reality. The human rights of LGBT+ are on the agenda.
"A lot of activists are well connected with their colleagues from the region and Europe ... 20 human rights activists from Kosovo attended the 2017 Belgrade Pride."
That is not enough, and we are far from being in a satisfactory position. But compared to 10 or 20 years ago, we can see progress. However we are far away from the majority of EU countries, despite the fact that we have registered partnerships in neighboring countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Greece. In terms of visibility, we have progress, while acceptance is still limited.
Do you think there is also more of a global connection today among human rights activities?
Along with other things, the internet plays a crucial role in global connection. It is easy to share knowledge, experience, ideas and organize anything if you have the internet and social media. Moreover, transportation is not as costly as [it was] decades ago and global human rights events are happening quite often. I became an activist when we had no internet [or] mobile phones and when we wrote letters on a typing machine in order to get some support and solidarity from abroad.
After three public marches, the first Pride parade is being organized in Kosovo. How do you assess this, given that you are familiar with activism overall in the country?
Any public event by the LGBT+ community in the region is extremely important. We can agree or disagree with some elements, but having everything fully visible to the public is important for decreasing the level of homophobia and transphobia in that society. Kosovo’s activists are very brave and I know how complicated it is to organize anything public in such an environment.
I hope that parades will have more participants in the future since a lot of activists are well connected with their colleagues from the region and Europe. For example, 20 human rights activists from Kosovo attended the 2017 Belgrade Pride. I am sure that parades in Kosovo will also contribute to the improvement of human rights for the LGBT+ community in Kosovo in the long run.
Photo: Courtesy of Goran Miletic.
Serbia’s first openly gay prime minister attended this year’s Pride Parade in Belgrade, becoming the first head of the Serbian government to participate in the event. She is reported to have said: “Serbia respects differences. That is my message today, that the Serbian government is here for all citizens and that it will respect the rights of all the citizens.” Do you think that the government of Serbia indeed respects the rights of all citizens, including LGBTI rights?
Despite international standards, membership in the Council of Europe, the Constitution and the Anti-discrimination Law, Serbia still has a big problem with discrimination. According to research, the three groups with the biggest social distance from citizens of Serbia are Roma, LGBT+ and Albanians, and these groups are the most discriminated against.
I believe that political will exists at some point, but the implementation of standards is low, while access to justice for groups that are the most discriminated against is the exception rather than the rule. When you are a member of some minority group, you will not be treated equally in the majority of cases. PM Brnabic has good intentions, but reforms are still very slow.
An openly gray prime minister in Serbia gives the perception that Serbian society is open toward the LGBTI community. In fact Aleksander Vucic, the most popular politician in the country, was the one to appoint Brnabic as prime minister. What was the public reaction after she took the highest position in the government? Do you believe that this decision will have a direct influence on Serbian society to be more open toward the LGBTI community?
If there was any surprise or shock it was when Vucic proposed her as Minister of Public Administration and Local Self-Government [in 2016]. He mentioned that she is lesbian and since the media are fully controlled by the government, no one reacted negatively. I think that the public was shocked a bit but everyone forgot it after several days.
After that, she was mentioned as a key candidate for PM for a couple of months and in the end [there was] no surprise when Vucic proposed her for prime minister. All the media underlined that she is “the first female PM of Serbia” and not that she is lesbian.
"Politicians often agree to adopt some legislation, while thinking that they will avoid implementation."
I think that her election will not improve the human rights of the LGBT+ community directly, since she is not a member of any ruling party. However, seeing an openly LGBT+ person in one of the key positions will have an influence on public opinion in the long run. This change will not happen overnight, and it will depend on many other factors.
There is a widespread perception that politicians in the Western Balkans have been using double standards. On one hand their claims of supporting LGBTI rights are seen as just a performance in front of the international community, while on the other hand institutions are repeatedly accused by LGBTI rights activists of neglecting the rights and needs of LGBTI persons. How do you see this?
The majority of politicians in the Western Balkans do not see diversity as a desirable feature of their society. The most common justification is that something is “not according to tradition” or that “citizens don’t want that.” Even when they are giving supportive statements toward some vulnerable group, we are always in doubt as to how honest they are.
The international community is quite patient and reacts too little,bearing in mind that stability is a key aim for the region, but performances without results and changes will not be possible after some time. Sooner or later, politicians will be pressed to deliver concrete results. From my perspective, it is much more expensive for them and for citizens if they continue to postpone reforms and the implementation of international standards.
Most countries in the Western Balkans have progressive legislation when it comes to LGBTI rights. Do you think that the strict implementation of these laws could have an impact upon changing the general mindset in the long term when it comes to the acceptance and respect of LGBTI persons?
Absolutely, but we are extremely far away from acceptable implementation. Politicians often agree to adopt some legislation, while thinking that they will avoid implementation, or that they will blame a lack of capacity within the administration, or the mentality of citizens for problems of implementation. Impunity is widespread and officials often think that they are not responsible for that. Consequently, when perpetrators or citizens see that laws are not valid for one group that is discriminated against, they will think that such a group is not important, equal or desirable in society.
What else must be done in societies across the region to contribute toward the changing of mindsets?
Experts are always mentioning education, both through the media and the education system. I fully agree, but it is extremely dangerous to say that nothing can be done without education. We must adopt relevant legislation and fully implement it as a first step. Education is a long process and schools must be open to diversity. Today when you mention sexuality or sexual orientation in the context of education you will be marked as a pedophile. Fear of sexual education is so high in the Balkans.
"Each society in the Balkans has its own taboos. However two taboos exist everywhere. The first one is war crimes... The second taboo is the LGBT+ community."
Sex was always an important part of life in all Balkan communities and discussion about it with friends over coffee is not something uncommon. However talking seriously about sexuality and talking in public, for example in the media or in schools, is still a big taboo. There is a common belief that talking about sexuality is something amoral, that this will contribute to some “unnatural behavior” and that discussions about sexuality are not in line with tradition. Consequently, teaching about sexuality is something that authorities avoid, despite the judgements of the European Court.
Photo: Courtesy of Goran Miletic.
In one interview you stated that journalists and human rights activists deal with a lot of pressure when they want to cover war crimes and the LGBTI community. Can you elaborate further on this.
Each society in the Balkans has its own taboos. However, two taboos exist everywhere. The first one is war crimes committed by “our forces” when “they” are the victims. According to research, each nation in the Balkans wants to be the “biggest” victim. It is a big taboo when you advocate establishing the truth about concrete human rights violation in the ’90s — who, when, how. Of course, neglecting responsibility for human rights abuses is particularly strong in Serbia and dealing with the recent past is at an extremely low level.
The second taboo is the LGBT+ community and even when some people become “tolerant,” they still believe that homosexuality is an illness. When you are an open supporter of the LGBT+ community, people will most probably think that you are gay or lesbian.
Apart from that, there are a lot of “small taboos” in each society. For example, in Serbia you should not question and debate about Cyrillic, ties with Russia, Novak Djokovic, Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence or the Serbian Orthodox Church. However LGBT+ and war crimes committed by Serbian forces are the top taboos.
Given the recent complicated history in the region and visible walls between different ethnicities and communities, would you consider that LGBTI activism is something that transcends borders and ethnic lines? It seems that only during LGBTI marches and parades do we see activists from different countries marching and protesting together, while there is hardly any other cause that gathers people of different ethnic groups together.
It is true that LGBT+ activists in the region cooperate quite well. However all other human rights activists are doing that as well. All regional events are well attended, cross-border projects are something quite common and activists have strong personal ties. I think that such cooperation exists for all topics and issues: LGBT+, the media, prison monitoring, anti-discrimination, dealing with the past, etc.
Civil Rights Defenders is supporting many of those initiatives and the problems [that they experience in the organization of such initiatives] are mostly related to some other issues, for example the visa regime between Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am absolutely sure that LGBT+ activists can cooperate not only during parades but also in their monitoring and advocacy activities.K