Yugoslavia – Homophobia as a Weapon of War

PETER TATCHELL looks at the effect of the Balkan bloodbath on the lives of queers in Serbia and Kosovo. This article appeared under the title “Queer Serbia! Queer Kosovo!” in “QX Magazine”, 26-May-1999.

Imagine being cruised by the guy of your dreams and going back to his place to shag senseless. Just as you are about to cum, he notices that your cock is circumcised and suddenly goes beserk. Grabbing a gun from under the bed, he puts it to your head and blows out your brains.

Such are the perils of gay sex in the fratricidal strife of the former Yugoslavia. In a land where Kosovo Muslims are circumcised and Serbs are not, picking up the wrong guy can have deadly consequences.

Gay life in Serbia and Kosovo is not as we know it in Britain. In the ex-Yugoslav states, guns are more common than condoms. Lovers can turn out to be military torturers. Cruising is a minefield of ethnic hatred and violence. Sex often has little to do with pleasure; just as frequently, getting your rocks off is an escapist refuge from the torments of conflict.

On the battlefields of Kosovo (and previously Bosnia) homo-sadism is a weapon of war. Male prisoners are raped and forced at gunpoint to fuck each other. Boys are made to fellate their fathers, and fathers to suck their son’s dicks. These are the rarely-reported ritual humiliations of the terror in the Balkans.

For queers in Britain, such experiences are almost unimaginable. Apart from the war in the north of Ireland, all the post-1945 conflicts involving the British have been relatively small-scale operations in far away places like Malaya, Kenya, Aden, the Falklands and Iraq. Consequently, few British lesbians and gay men under 70 have any comprehension of what it is like to live and love in wartime.

Queers in the former Yugoslavia have, in contrast, known little else but war in recent years — first the butchery in Bosnia, and now the bloody conflict in Kosovo.

Since the NATO bombing raids spread the war to Serbia, lesbians and gay men in Belgrade have, like everyone else in that city, been hard hit by the supposedly “humanitarian” air war. Forced to spend long periods in air-raid shelters with often homophobic neighbours, many feel isolated. A lot of queers are cut off from their usual social support networks, being too frightened to venture out to visit friends and gay bars in case they get caught in the NATO bombardments. This fear has been compounded by the West’s sometimes inaccurate, indiscriminate cruise missile attacks.

The Belgrade-based gay rights movements, Arkadia and the Campaign Against Homophobia, protest that while the Allies claim the war is being directed against the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the reality is that bombs are hitting ordinary people, including gays and lesbians. This, they say, is playing into the hands of the Milosevic dictatorship.

The NATO bombing is fuelling Serbian nationalism, with its strong streak of homophobic machismo. There is no place for queers in the new nationalist iconography: the virile, masculine Serbian soldier defending his family and homeland. Serbia’s main TV channel, Palma Television, has condemned homosexuality as a “perversion” and “disorder”. Linking gayness with alien western influences, its programmes accuse gays of undermining national defence. This propaganda incites queer-bashing attacks.

According to the 23-year-old Belgrade gay activist, Dusan Maljkovic: “Anyone that does not fit the standard model of the strong man defending his native land until the last drop of blood is a possible victim of discrimination, ranging from verbal insults to physical violence and even murder”.

Gay fears are well founded. President Milosevic is manipulating NATO intervention as a justification for wartime “national security” measures, including a crackdown on dissent of all kinds. Critical voices on any issue are pilloried as unpatriotic, and are at risk of vigilante violence from ultra-nationalists. The Campaign Against Homophobia has had western donations blocked, and the doors of its offices have been sealed. Leading activists are in hiding, fearful for their safety. Efforts to promote acceptance and equality for homosexuals have ended. The NATO bombing has made sure of that. The war has now become the one and only issue of public debate in Serbia.

A rare glimpse, from a queer perspective, into the horrors of the Balkan nightmare is offered by the gay Belgrade university lecturer, Boris Davidovich. His book, Serbian Diaries, published in 1996, covers the period of the Bosnia war. Although predating the spread of ethnic cleansing to Kosovo, many of the book’s grim revelations also apply to the current bloodfest.

Chronicling his own personal experiences, Davidovich shows how the terrors of war have intruded into the lives of gay men who have never been near the battlefield. Some have made the sudden, shocking discovery that the kind, handsome man who tenderly caresses their body at night is, by day, a military torturer who sadistically mutilates the bodies of young enemy soldiers.

Davidovich himself had this unnerving experience. A man he met in the street turned out to be a member of the Bosnian Serb special forces who boasted of slitting a young Croat’s throat, forcing captured Muslim boys to suck their father’s cocks, and tying a Bosnian prisoner to a tree and cutting his head open with a welding torch. Yet this same man, who Davidovich describes as a “monster” and “the embodiment of cosmic evil”, made love to him with glorious tenderness and passion.

These are just some of the ghastly stories retold in Serbian Diaries, Davidovich’s seven-year record of cruising and sex in the Balkan killing fields. He offers perceptive insights on the complexities and dilemmas of gay relationships in a time of war. Is cruising in a forest littered with unexploded bombs worth the risk? Do you sleep with the enemy? What is the point of safe sex to a soldier who could be killed tomorrow?

Serbian Diaries also sketches a depressing picture of deepseated homophobia in the ex-Yugoslavia, including queerbashing, police harassment, media censorship and the political manipulation of homosexuality.

Most factions in the conflict use allegations of gayness to discredit their political opponents. Anti-war students denounce President Milosevic with the chant “Slobo is a faggot”. The rightist leader, ‘Duke’ Seselj, gets pilloried by left-wingers as the “Serbian Ernst Röhm” (a reference to the gay Nazi chief). Croation fascists cite homosexuality as evidence of cultural decline, linking queerness with subversion and foreign interference.

It all sounds depressingly familiar. But there are, nevertheless, some notable differences between gay life in Britain and the lives of queers in Serbia and Kosovo. One difference is that we don’t have to worry about land mines when copping off on Hampstead Heath.

Serbian Diaries, Boris L. Davidovich (GMP, £9.95)