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Serbia’s prime minister is a gay woman so why is the country still homophobic?

Is Brnabic shying away from her responsibilities as an openly gay leader?

When we think of LGBT rights, do any of us think of Serbia? Perhaps we should, because it’s going through something extraordinary at the moment and hardly anyone in the West seems to have noticed. While the UK is divided over Brexit and pulling itself to pieces working out how to abandon the EU, Serbia is challenging itself to change its very culture so that it can join. And, as the traditionally progressive US comes to terms with its decision to elect Trump instead of its first woman president, Serbia has not only voted in its first woman Prime Minister, she also happens to be gay.

Hillary Clinton failed in her attempt to break through the glass ceiling, Ana Brnabic shattered two. Yet despite having a gay prime minster, is Serbia – an orthodox country to the bone – truly on track for a shift in attitudes towards LGBT people?

Last weekend, Ana Brnabic joined crowds in Belgrade, as they marched through the streets during the Pride festival in the Serbian capital. It was a pertinent moment for the country’s LGBT history, given the violence that ensued during 2010’s Pride parade. Pride marches were subsequently banned for several years after; however, the country’s first gay PM stepping out for Pride may be the turning point that is vitally needed for a shift in attitudes.

So is Brnabic’s sexuality an important factor? She says not. In an interview following her appointment, she told a reporter she didn’t want to be “branded as Serbia’s gay PM”. Although Brnabic may not feel that her sexual orientation is relevant, she is Prime Minister of a country with a woeful track record on LGBT rights, where Pride parades restarted in 2014 under the security of Special Forces and armoured cars; where virulent homophobia is an everyday occurrence for the gay men and women living in the country. Perhaps now is the time for Brnabic to become more vocal about the revolution she embodies.

It is unquestionable that LGBT visibility is key in order to influence societal change. Ana Brnabic finds herself in an ideal position to attempt to break down the archaic views held by so many in Serbia – a country that is still heavily influenced by the Orthodox Church. That being said, Brnabic seems to believe that other issues, such as employment, would take precedence over any LGBT legal reform.

As of today meanwhile, there is still no recognition of same-sex relationships, same-sex couples are unable to adopt and the 2006 constitutional ban of same-sex marriage remains in place.

While other issues may be more pressing for Serbians at the moment, is Brnabic shying away from her responsibilities as an openly gay leader of a country that still carries the scars of homophobia?

Only two years ago, a survey of police officers in Belgrade found that almost half of them thought homosexuality was an illness and “should be cured”. Brnabic maintains that Serbia is not a homophobic place but it’s clear that key aspects of her society and the State absolutely are.

The European Union does not agree with Brnabic’s interpretation of LGBT rights in Serbia. It has asked the candidate member state to improve minority rights, including those for LGBT people. Will the EU’s demands be enough to persuade Brnabic that her government must act on these issues?

It’s understandable that Ana Brnabic doesn’t want to attach the label of “gay PM” to her lapel – she is a prime minster who is also gay. She may wish to concentrate on pressing issues for Serbians today, yet she leaves herself open to criticism by denying the homophobia that remains rife within her country. For there to be a true shift in attitudes, Brnabic must take a more prominent stance on LGBT issues and implement LGBT legal reform. Perhaps by stepping out at Pride this year, she is hinting that she will become more vocal on these issues in time.

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