Across the battle lines: Meeting a gay Serb online
By John Aravosis
April 12, 1999
Washington, D.C.--Dusan Maljkovic, a 23-year-old openly gay student and human rights advocate in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, thinks NATO's attack on his country is "madness." I'm a 35-year-old Internet consultant and civil rights advocate in Washington, D.C., who stands by the troops.
Yet in the last week, while bombs literally flew over Maljkovic's Belgrade apartment, we met on the Internet and became fast friends. I started the dialogue by sending E-mail to Maljkovic after finding his name on a press release. I thought it would be interesting to see how a Serb felt about the bombing. And since Dusan and I both advocate gay rights, I was curious if maybe we had something in common, in spite of the war.
The first time we chatted, we couldn't have disagreed more. Dusan's a Communist, and I have worked for a Republican U.S. senator. He would accuse us of attacking civilians, and I would remind him of the 2 million Kosovars under siege. But as the days passed, we slowly found we shared interests.
Maljkovic is on the executive committee of the Campaign Against Homophobia, an organization whose mission is to collect data on antigay hate crimes and human rights violations in Yugoslavia. I ran an online campaign for a sailor discharged because he's gay. Maljkovic told me that gay Serbians routinely face employment discrimination.
"People can be fired because it is found out that they are gay, usually with some other explanation," Maljkovic wrote. Although legislation outlawing homosexual acts was repealed in 1994, much of Serbia still remains highly homophobic.
Maljkovic believes there are few openly gay Serbians because "gay people here are discriminated [against] on all levels of society." He explains that discrimination starts "with the families, who usually do not support gay and lesbian identity." Employment discrimination is also a paramount concern: "People can be fired because it is found out that they are gay, usually with some other explanation."
According to a report issued by the Campaign Against Homophobia, Serbian police stations "hold files on gays and lesbians, with their photographs and fingerprints," and often use "illegal methods such as phone tapping, interceptance of mail," and so forth to compile lists of suspected homosexuals. Maljkovic also notes that in contrast to much of the West, Serbia officially considers homosexuality an illness. "Serbian psychiatry still finds homosexuality a disease, and 'treatment' for that is sometimes electroshocks," he says.
Maljkovic explained that Serbians also face discrimination if they are HIV-positive. "Recently, a man died of AIDS outside the hospital, just because the ambulance team refused to treat him upon learning of the nature of his illness… [and a] 7-year-old boy was unable to attend classes in a Belgrade primary school because of protests by his fellow pupils' parents, who learned that the boy was HIV-positive," Maljkovic wrote to me in an E-mail.
While things were already tough for gay Yugoslavs, Maljkovic says things only got worse once the bombs started falling.
First, the Campaign Against Homophobia had to close its doors last week because of a lack of funding. "Since our government stopped all diplomatic relations with [the United States], among other NATO countries, all main funders left, and thus we don't have financial support. We cannot work without it," Maljkovic says.
Second, Maljkovic and a friend were hoping to soon launch Serbia's first gay-oriented radio show on B92, the independent radio station that has long been at odds with the government of Serbian president Milosevic. Milosevic last week used the war to justify closing the station, something he has been unsuccessful in doing for ten years now.
Third, the Serbian media is now reportedly demonizing gay people at unprecedented levels. "The Serbian media, especially Palma Television, accused the leaders of the West to be gay or lesbian, and presented it as 'sexual perversion' and 'mental disorder,' so all our efforts to change the opinion of Serbian population toward accepting homosexuality as a normal aspect of sexuality are now destroyed," Maljkovic says.
Reportedly, the Serbian government often uses the "gay card" to slur political opponents. "In the propaganda war among the republics of the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian side used homosexuality for making fun of 'the Western republics' of former Yugoslavia. For example, stories on the alleged homosexuality of Slovenian prime minister Janez Drnovsek were published very often," Maljkovic notes.
Maljkovic worries that gays and lesbians are now in more danger than ever as a result of the war. "Since the most radical national homogenization of Serbia is taking place, anyone who doesn't fit the standard model of the strong man defending his native land, determined to fight for it until the last drop of blood, is a possible victim of discrimination, ranging from verbal insults to physical violence and even murder," he says.
He fears that things will only get worse. "We expect a greater discrimination after the war, and banning all gay activism as well as NGO [nongovernmental organization] structures in general." In spite of the circumstances, Maljkovic maintains his wry sense of humor.
Recently, as he was chatting online with me, a missile flew over his Belgrade apartment, exploding nearby. Maljkovic was asked how things were going. He replied "bombastically!"
I'm still an ardent supporter of NATO's intervention, but getting to know Maljkovic has affected my view of the war. I still support dropping the bombs till the Kosovars are free, but now I don't just worry about our troops, I worry about Dusan as well. The Internet gave my enemy a human face.
John Aravosis heads Wired Strategies, an Internet political consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in the use of the Internet for public policy and advocacy.
©1999 John Aravosis
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