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article imagePride walk with Serbia's gay PM, but activists want bolder talk

By Rachel O'BRIEN, Jovan MATIC (AFP)     Sep 15, 2017 in World

Serbia's lesbian prime minister is set to join rainbow-clad revellers at Belgrade's Pride parade on Sunday, a dramatic turn of events for the conservative country, where previous marches have erupted in homophobic violence.

Ana Brnabic's appointment in June made her one of the few openly gay government leaders in the world, but Serbian gay activists are reluctant to celebrate her premiership as a collective victory.

"At the legal level, nothing has changed," said Predrag Azdejkovic, head of the Gay and Lesbian Info Centre, an NGO.

"Some countries are really trying to fight homophobia, but Serbia is hesitant."

Brnabic, a technocrat with a business background who entered politics last year as public administration minister, did not win her post in a national vote.

The 41-year-old was appointed by her predecessor, Aleksandar Vucic, after he was elected president. Parliament then endorsed his choice, which made international headlines.

But sceptics in Serbia suspected an attempt at "pinkwashing", with Brnabic simply a puppet being used by Vucic to bolster the country's liberal credentials as it campaigns for European Union membership.

Brnabic hit back at such accusations at a conference on hate speech in Belgrade on Friday.

"I don't know what's bigger nonsense," she said.

"When I hear that because of a different sexual orientation I am not fit to lead the government, or to the contrary -- that I have been placed in that position, to lead the government, for that reason alone."

- 'Violence and discrimination' -

Belgrade's first Pride march, in 2001, ended with police firing in the air to disperse anti-gay nationalists and skinheads who stoned and beat participants.

Nearly a decade later in 2010, another parade was allowed to go ahead but again descended into violence between anti-gay protesters and police, prompting a three-year ban on the event.

For the past three years it has been held under a massive security presence and never with a prime minister taking part.

Brnabic told Britain's Guardian newspaper in July that she did not wish to be branded "Serbia's gay PM" and did not intend to push legal reforms for the gay and transgender community at this stage.

"I don't think Serbia is that homophobic," she said.

But local activists disagree.

"It's a very homophobic society," said Goran Miletic, who is organising Belgrade Pride.

"Violence and discrimination are two crucial problems."

In a survey conducted in 2015 by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, nearly half of Serbian respondents said they would try to find a "cure" if their child were homosexual.

Nearly half also said that they definitely would not vote for a party that wanted to promote LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) rights.

And among the LGBTI people surveyed, 72 percent said they had faced psychological abuse due to their sexual orientation or gender identity -- an increase of 15 percentage points from 2014.

- Shifting attitudes -

"There's a general impression that the state is fantastic but in reality it's not," said Jelena Vasiljevic from the lesbian rights group Labris, referring to the various legal acts addressing gender identity and anti-gay discrimination.

"We have it on paper but the implementation sucks," she said.

Labris is campaigning for the adoption of a law on the registration of same-sex partnerships, for which it hopes to win support from Brnabic.

Despite their frustrations, activists say that Brnabic's prominent position in itself may help them to win acceptance.

Her appointment and visibility show gay and transgender people "even in smaller cities and rural areas" that "you can be successful", Vasiljevic said.

And there are other signs of shifting attitudes: This year, for the first time, a Pride "information centre" has been opened in central Belgrade under a rainbow-coloured shop front.

Miletic said that 2,000 police officers would be deployed for Sunday's march -- a sharp decrease from the 4,500 last year and the 7,000 on duty in 2014.

Though he would like to see Brnabic do more, he said her attendance at the Pride celebration would be "symbolic".

"She's showing that she's there and supporting much more than prime ministers before her."

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