10/09/2012 05:39 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Gays and 'Decent People' in Serbia

Years ago, during the reign of Milošević in Serbia, I wrote an essay called "Decent People." It was about that 80 percent of Serbian people, the classic silent majority, who lived in denial of the genocide in Srebrenica, the snipers in Sarajevo, and the shelling in Dubrovnik. These so-called "decent people" could not grasp cruel political and military reality. Eventually, the damage to daily life made it impossible; the "decent people" could no longer go through with their charade of normality as postmen, engineers, and dentists. On Oct. 5, 2000, a million people took to the streets in Belgrade and physically deposed the tyrant.

However, time stopped then in Serbia. An Oct. 6 never dawned for a bewildered Serbia, not even 12 years later, on the anniversary. Milošević died behind the bars in the Hague, my Yugoslav-era parents are deceased, and my postman is on pension, but the inhabitants of the Serbian parliament today are the next generation of those "decent people." No painful truths were admitted and confronted; there was a rebellion of the decent, but not a thorough change in the society.

In typical fashion, a few days ago the newly elected premier of Serbia forbade the annual Pride parade. He claimed that 80 percent of the Serbian population is against gay manifestations and warned against the risky and inevitable gay bashing that would follow in the streets. This new premier is an old member of the deposed Milošević' s party. Crushing the aspirations of Serbian gays has become routine, and he has already handled the "trouble" successfully before.

There's only been one public, open Pride parade, in 2010, held with heavy police escort and, yes, violent incidents involving right-wing hooligans. These populists are well-rehearsed agitators whose extremism is easy to predict, but the "decent people" are in many ways worse. In 2001 we held a street event for gays, and everyday citizens yelled obscenities, spat on us, and pushed us around. I vividly remember a middle-aged man, his face distorted by hate and righteous anger, trailing our pro-gay banners and yelling insults. I thought he was a deranged stalker, but the next day I met him in the local green market, along with his wife and a small kid. He was polite, neighborly, saying "hello." He was a respectable patriarch of a small family, shopping in public as all "decent people" do on Sundays, except when society fails so utterly that there's no money left and nothing in the shops. As for spitting on me, he was proud of it and considered it a civic duty.

The Serbian Pride parade was held indoors this year, more a protest than a parade. There was still a lot of fuss made by the police, who treated the press center as if it were a besieged fortress, emptying downtown Belgrade and isolating the gays. The activists inside the four walls were promising one another a better future, but many avoided the farcical non-parade.

This has become an opportunity for foreign friends and supporters to write letters of support. Western countries are perfectly aware that the Serbian right wing has made gay existence a wedge issue, and for their part, the West makes gay rights a litmus test for its own attitudes toward the new reign in Serbia. The big picture is grimmer. In Russia and Ukraine there are serious attempts at re-criminalizing homosexuality, and the Serbian government is quite encouraged by these Slavic examples of a weird, new, autocratic, KGB-Orthodox-fundamentalist alliance.

My friends in Italy recently successfully performed gay parades, plus a gay marriage in public, with all the witty joy of commedia dell'arte, in the land of the pope! However, in Italy, too, the "decent people" shy away en masse from the specter of gay marriages and legalized gay couples. The Italians were trying to console me with the universality of homophobia.

But Italian society, riddled with the sexual nightmares of priestly abuse and Berlusconi's harems, can't possibly be so densely solid in denialist ignorance as Serbia's "decent people." For centuries the Serbs have been defending their heretical, unorthodox Orthodoxy from attacks from east, west, north, south, and center. The rigor and the pressure had a fossilizing effect.

In Italy you will be casually ripped off as a tourist; everyday Italian "decent people" will cheerfully defraud foreigners, disgracefully cheating them for a couple of euros. In Serbia the hospitable "decent people" would feed a guest with their last crumbs of bread and salt but then put the guest's severed head on a pike if he offended their code of honor. The very strong Orthodox church, which aggressively dictates the new/old codes of Christian fundamentalist expansion, is in open alliance with the new/old political regime, the government that was heavily involved in wars and war profiteering.

However, there are fits of disturbance, as well. During Pride week in Belgrade, a show appeared, titled "Ecce Homo," by Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin. It deliberately and rather hilariously depicted Christ and his disciples as gay leather boys. This rampantly blasphemous show was protected by 2,000 policemen while a rally of so-called "family" people seized the opportunity to push the right-wing agenda around the corner. Belgrade, which is, after all, the hometown of Marina Abramović (even though it never acknowledged the work of the world-famous artist), attracted some activists and art fans to enjoy and appreciate the show.

Homophobia, nationalism, racism, clericalism, fundamentalism -- all have the same root: the fear of the "other." They also have the same aim: the homogenization of all differences. If you're gay, at least you have the joy of knowing that your struggle is shared worldwide, but the planet's "decent people," wrapped in political deceit and faith-based superstition, seem to be shutting themselves into a planet-wide series of ever narrower, ever more stifling closets.