The last fortnight has been one of historical significance for Croatia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The small country with a population of 4.5 million people has two LGBT Pride events – in Split and in its capital Zagreb.
The conservative coastal town of Split held its first Pride this month, while the one in Zagreb celebrated its tenth anniversary.
The two events could not have been more different. Split’s Pride on June 11 was marred by violence and verbal abuse, which made headlines internationally, while the one in Zagreb exceeded the organisers wildest expectations. Some 4000 people joined the march last week, well above the average 300 at previous marches. They included many public figures and heterosexuals saying "no" to homophobia and supporting the rights of their fellow LGBT citizens.
We talked to LGBT rights campaigner Mima Simic, who participated in both events.
At Zagreb Pride last Saturday you were named “LGBT person of the decade” in Croatia. Did you expect that?
Hmmm... yes and no. No, because I usually operate on the margins of everything including activism so I'm not used to awards of any kind. And yes, because I actually do feel I contributed a lot to lesbian visibility in Croatia, using quiz shows, talk shows and cooking shows, as well as the literary and music scene as platforms for guerrilla outings (of myself as gay). I'm glad the LGBT community recognised this strategy as useful and award-worthy. Now I have to find a boyfriend to regain my place on the margin!
You were one of the hosts of Pride in Split, and a week later you participated in the Zagreb parade, too. How do you interpret the very different public reactions?
Unfortunately, I don't think that, underneath it all, there is that much difference between Split and Zagreb - it's just that after the Split fascist outburst of homophobic hatred - endorsed by the church, local government, the media and the lack of proper police protection - two important things happened. First there was a call for monitoring of Croatia coming from the EU, which was a warning sign for the police and the government to do the job properly in Zagreb, to pass the test of "Europeanness". And second, far more importantly, the Split violence mobilised the so-called silent majority; people who don't necessarily fight for, or even think about, LGBT rights, but who don't want to be represented by hooligans and neo-fascists. Hundreds of these quiet political people of all sexual preferences came to support Pride, making it the biggest one in history.
Just a day before the violence in Split, Croatia received the green light to join the European Union. In relation to LGBT rights – do you think Croatia is ready?
Croatia is not too big on human rights in general, and its dangerous liaison with the Catholic Church makes it more difficult to push for LGBT rights. Right now we have only a few laws that protect us - those on hate speech/crime and discrimination - and a very pathetic same-sex partnership law. And, of course, there is a huge black hole in sex education that totally disregards the existence of non-heterosexual people. So, no, I don't think Croatia is right now very progressive in this respect, but things are slowly changing, I believe - mostly due to the government's ambition to join the EU, rather than any actual social mental or ethical progress. It would perhaps even be unrealistic to expect such a change to take place in 10 years of LGBT political visibility anyway.
Will Croatia’s accession to the EU improve the status of LGBT people in the country?
Hopefully, but not necessarily. Poland is a very frightening example that the EU guarantees nothing in this respect.
Zagreb celebrated its tenth anniversary Pride this Saturday. How is the situation regarding LGBT rights compared to 10 years ago?
Ten years is such a tiny slice of time, yet I feel things have changed a lot; first, thanks to the Prides now there's no silence surrounding the topic of homosexuality - and it is recognised as a relevant political issue. There are far more people who are out today than 10 years ago, although but a handful in the so-called public sphere - culture, entertainment, politics etc. There is more diversity in the activist scene too... So, compared to the age of silence in which I grew up 20 plus years ago, in the picturesque little coastal town called Zadar with no language to describe myself, and compared to the first Zagreb Pride which turned Zagreb into a war zone much like Split a few weeks ago - things have changed a lot. And it's such an encouraging thing, to notice changes during your own lifetime, to actually smell and even taste the fruits of your struggle.
How did Pride contribute to changing people’s awareness and attitude towards LGBT people?
It opened the space for discussion and education. It brought the topic into the light and although it also brought out the most violent in the nation, it gave a human face to the abstract ideas of the “monstruous homosexual”. I remember the first Pride in Zagreb in 2002 - as we marched down the street two young women came out of a beauty parlor to look at the freak show. I heard one of them say to the other: "But... they look totally normal". Pride here as elsewhere has been and continues to be a long march from visibility to equality.