LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey
Article 21 of the Serbian Constitution states that “everyone shall have the rights to equal legal protection, without discrimination”.
Article 62 of the new Serbian Constitution, adopted in November 2006, explicitly defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. However, other forms of recognition, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships, are not explicitly mentioned nor prohibited.
First legal criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity in Serbian history is recorded in 1860 with the adoption of the first post-mediaeval criminal code named Law of Penalties. By that code, sexual intercourse “against the order of nature” between males became punishable by 6 months to 4 years imprisonment. Like other legal documents of most countries of the time, lesbian sexuality was ignored by legislation.
In 1918, when Serbia became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia different laws applied to different territories. Eventually, the new Yugoslav Criminal Code of 1929 banned “lewdness against the order of nature” (anal intercourse) between human beings (heterosexual and homosexual). The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia later restricted the offense in 1959 to only apply to homosexual anal intercourse but with maximum sentence reduced from 2 to 1 year imprisonment.
First decriminalisation of homosexuality in Serbia happened in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Vojvodina while same-sex sexual intercourse remained illegal in the rest of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, including Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo. In 1990, Vojvodina was reincorporated into the legal system of Serbia and male homosexuality once again became a criminal offense.
Serbia, as part of Yugoslavia, decriminalised homosexuality in 1994. The whole term and criminal act called “unnatural fornication” was removed in 2006.
The age of consent in Serbia is 18 years old for anal intercourse between males and 14 for other sexual practices. An equal age of consent was later introduced on 1 January 2006, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
By 2009 the Serbian Parliament adopted four laws, which specifically ban discrimination based on sexual orientation: Labour Law, Law on Higher Education, two media laws, Law on Public Information and Law on Broadcasting.
In March 2009, the Serbian Parliament finally adopted a comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law and Article 21 of the law specifically bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and allows the right to privacy, as well as free expression of sexual orientation.
While the law includes strong affirmative statements about sexual orientation there is no similarly affirmative language about gender identity. However, Article 20 presents language that may be interpreted to prohibit discrimination against trans individuals: “it is forbidden to deny rights or to grant privileges… pertaining to gender or gender change.”
While the law clearly reflects a marked improvement in the legal status of LGBT individuals, it has been criticized for allowing overly-broad exceptions and the government has been slow in implementing the law and responding to complaints. For instance, the law condones discriminatory attitudes from religious leaders. Article 18 exempts “behaviour of priests and religious officials which is consistent with… religious doctrine; [religious] beliefs… shall not be considered discriminatory, in accordance with the law governing freedom of religion and the status of churches and religious communities.”
On 5 July 2011, Parliament adopted a Youth Law, prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
On 28 July 2011, Parliament approved a change in Health Insurance Law, based on which sex change surgeries will be fully subsidised by the State, beginning in 2012.
The 2009 the Law for Protection from Discrimination established also a Commissioner for Equality. The Commissioner is elected by the Assembly. All candidates must meet minimum requirements, including at least ten years of experience working with human rights law.
Current Commissioner for Equality is Brankica Jankovic. She assumed the position in 2015. Before her, for the first 5 years the position was held by Nevena Petrusic, a law school dean with a background in women’s rights. LGBT Organisations have criticised her performance as Commissioner. In the early years, lesbian organisation Labris, filed three complaints to the Commissioner, all related to homophobic, discriminatory statements made by public figures. The Commissioner seemed to stall all proceeding, stating that one of the complaints had not been responded due to her inability to find the address of the perpetrator. However, on two other occasions Petrusic responded affirmatively to two of Labris’s complaints, recommending that perpetrators publicly apologise for their discriminatory statement. These have been the first positively resolved complaints by the Commissioner for human rights violations based on sexual orientation.
As of 2016, institutions such as the Commissioner for Equality, Ombudsman and ministries are more open to cooperation with LGBTI organisations, however the cooperation is not structural and most of it depends on individual civil servants.
In 2014, Serbia adopted a strategy (2014-2018) to combat discrimination against LGBTI people which was followed in 2015 by the adoptions of a National Action Plan (NAP). The NAP has been considered a good step forward by LGBTI organisations however according to them quality of implementation is poor. There seems to be a focus on quantity of activities and not their quality. For instance, the plan includes trainings for local institutions which are carried out by state institutions themselves with little cooperation and involvement of NGO’s and people with high expertise on LGBTI issues. Also, responsibilities for implementation of the NAP are not clearly defined, and institutions use this as a way to avoid responsibilities and assign them to each other.
It is clear that one of the biggest issues related to non-discrimination in Serbia is the poor practical implementation of legislation.
LGBTI people face discrimination and harassment in Serbia. Large numbers of the population continue to have strong negative attitudes against homosexuality and trans identities. There have been numerous instances of violent gay-bashing, the most extreme during the first Belgrade Pride in 2001. Several planned Pride events have had to be cancelled, mainly due to lack of support from public authorities. Main cited reason has been inability to guarantee security of participants. The 2009 Belgrade Pride was also cancelled on same grounds. Second Belgrade Pride Parade went ahead on 10 October 2010, with the participation of around 1000 people. However, it was met with violent reaction and riots attended by 6,000 anti-gay protesters and extreme nationalist group members.
Political will to adequately address LGBT rights has remained low over the years despite progress made in legislation in some policy. For example, in 2010, despite the fact that opinion polls demonstrate a high degree of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights drafted a human rights report which failed to mention LGBT Serbians as a group that experiences discrimination.
In May 2014, Amnesty International identified Serbia as one of the several countries where there is a marked lack of will to tackle homophobia and transphobia, noting in particular that since 2011 authorities have banned Pride marches on grounds of violent threats from homophobic groups. This changed only by September 2014 when the pride was not banned and took place under heavy police protection.
Activists in Serbia assert that the country cultivates “a fiercely homophobic culture that begins with the anti-gay teachings of the Serbian Orthodox Church, further legitimised by major political figures and enforced by a violent street culture of nationalist thugs and soccer hooligans.
Public surveys conducted on the subject in Serbia in the last decade show that general public maintains negative attitudes towards LGBTI people, however those perceptions change year by year.
For example, a public survey in March 2008 showed that 70 percent of those interviewed considered homosexuality a sickness. Only 11 percent of respondents held positive views toward LGBT individuals. The same survey indicated that Serbians do not deny the presence of LGBT individuals (67 percent) rather, they are opposed to public expressions of LGBT identity, with 75 percent of respondents opposing gay parades.
A research carried out by Commissioner for Protection of Equality in 2012 showed that 48% of Serbs believe that homosexuality is an illness.
Perceptions within the community reveal that LGBTI face discrimination, harassment and violence. An opinion poll carried out by NDI in 2015 revealed that 51% of LGBTI people in Serbia have been personally discriminated because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Meanwhile 48% of the general public said that they would try to help their son or daughter find a cure if they found out that their child was not heterosexual.
As of 2016, Article 62 of the Serbian Constitution defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman whereas the 2000 Constitution did not mention gender in Article 29 of its marriage provision.
Households, headed by same-sex couples are not eligible for the same legal protections available for opposite-sex couples.
Political discussions have begun in 2015 on the possibility of registered partnership for same-sex couples. Until now no law has been passed in Parliament to that regard.
Discussions on registered partnership have taken place since 2 July 2015 and lasted until summer 2016. In November 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic, said that she was personally against equal marriage but did not see any problem with discussing the issue. Minister for Social Policy, Aleksandar Vulin, said that he opposed marriage equality and that, as the responsible minister, he would never sign such a law.
Not allowed for same-sex couples.
Commercial surrogacy for gays is banned by law. It is prohibited for heterosexual couples as well.
In July 2006, Serbia’s new Constitution defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Civil unions or domestic partnerships are neither mentioned nor prohibited.
On 26 March 2009 Parliament approved a unified Anti-Discrimination Law, which prohibits, among other things, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status in all areas.
Article 387 of the Serbian Criminal Code provides a framework for prosecuting those who threaten organisations and individuals due to their commitment to the “equality of people”.
On 24 December 2012, the Serbian parliament approved changes to the Criminal Code to introduce the concept of “hate crime”, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity”.
One of the main issues in Serbia is the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation as well as poor reporting records of homophobic and transphobic discrimination. Pervasive homophobia in society leads to disproportionate violence and discrimination. Right wing groups, religious organisations, and the media perpetuate hostility against the LGBT community through discriminatory and hateful public speech.
According to research two thirds of LGB people have suffered some kind of violence based on their sexual orientation.
Examples of hate speech from high ranking officials and public personalities are many. On September 2009, Amfilohije Radovic, a leading bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church, equated Pride parades with “Sodom and Gomorrah”. The Serbian Orthodox Church also forcefully opposed the promulgation of the anti-discrimination law and the bill was initially withdrawn from the National Assembly due to pressure from religious discrimination.
In November 2010 a member of the Democratic Party of Serbia described homosexuality as an “illness, perversion, deviance and aberration, and a social problem which caused a confrontation between the representatives of a healthy, heterosexual Serbia”. Often public officials fail to take public stance on these statements.
In May 2015, Alexander Martinovic, MP from Serbian Progressive Party - centre right - made several negative remarks about the LGBTI community and affiliated NGOs. Martinovic said that while LGBTI people should have legal rights, he could not understand the need for pride parades and that such events were against moral norms. In September 2015, proceedings against Martinovic were dropped as the MP had been speaking under parliamentary privilege.
In other notable cases perpetrators of hate speech have been prosecuted by law enforcement authorities. For example, Mladen Obradovic, leader of far-right Obraz organization, got jailed for making violent and threatening statements ahead of a planned Pride in March 2009. On a positive note by June 2012 the Constitutional Court banned far-right organisation, Obraz, which became notorious for its attacks on first Belgrade Pride.
An opinion call carried out by NDI in 2015 revealed that 72% of LGBTI Serbians had been verbally harassed or abused because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
One contradicting factor is that while more than half of Serbians say they oppose violence against homosexuals, more than two thirds believe homosexuality is a disease. As such, many citizens are very little aware of the fact that their homophobia and discrimination has direct consequences for the safety and wellbeing of Serbian LGBTI people
Negative attitudes against LGBTI people often lead to physical violence. A 2006 study by Labris found that, only 10% of victims of crimes based on SOGI report the crime to the police. Examples of hate crimes are also varied often leading to the extreme. In October 2011 a youngster stabbed a 26-year-old woman wearing and LGBT T-shirt at 4 am in the centre of Belgrade. In September 2013 a group of students beat up a math professor in Novi Sad, assuming he was gay. In July 2014 a German activist was beaten up in down-town Belgrade. He was visiting the capital to attend an international conference organized by Labris. On September 2015 a group of lesbian women were attacked at a café in Belgrade at the indifference of on-lookers. Three of the women were injured. One of the women attacked, Dragoslava Barzut, called the police. Before assistance arrived, another man joined and attempted to harm the women; they hid in the café’s toilet until police arrived at the scene. Two of the women were treated in hospital for their injuries. Speaking at a press conference after the attack, Dragoslava Barzut said that she felt a “...moral responsibility to condemn the lesbophobic attack on my friends and me...”. A complaint was led under the country’s hate crime legislation. The attack was also publicly condemned by several MEPs. At the end of the year, the case was pending before the state prosecutor’s office.
Protection of LGBT people in Serbia from hate crimes and violence is further complicated by the existence of various nationalist and neo-Nazi associations which are supported by some right-wing political parties. These groups have, on several occasions, made threats to LGBT people in media and other public forums, though the media and the police are increasingly reacting to deter such threats publicly.
Negative attitudes of police officers and other law enforcement officials often prevail. For example, in 2010 an activist was taunted with homophobic slurs by police officers and was ultimately thrown out of the station as he was complaining for homophobic graffiti and harassment against him in his neighbourhood.
Problems in implementation exist and even when public authorities prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes or violence they fail to make recourse of specific articles or laws such as Article 387 of the Criminal Code or the Anti-Discrimination Law.
An opinion poll carried out by NDI in 2015 revealed that 23% of LGBTI people surveyed in Serbia had suffered physical violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Since 2015, the https://dasezna.lgbt portal collects cases of hate crimes reported directly by the community and follow each case with legal advice, psycho-emotional support, advocacy and awareness raising work.
As of 2016, in the judicial chain police remains the strongest link, as they have received most trainings. Prosecution remains the weakest links as cases of hate crime or discrimination are not being properly prosecuted.
The situation of transgender people in Serbia is quite complicated. On the one hand, Serbia has probably the best doctors and expert team in the entire region – gender reassignment surgeries have taken place in the country since 1989 - but on the other hand legislation on the gender issues is lagging behind.
Since January 2012 following a change in the law, Serbian citizens can change their sex in a state hospital and the state is obliged to cover a part of the bill. However, there is no legal protection for marital and parental rights of trans individuals.
Due to ignorance and prejudice, transgender people continue to remain very vulnerable to discrimination: hate and violence against them has resulted several times in murder.
Due to lack of legislation, transsexual persons depend on the good-will of officials who are responsible for changing documents in Serbian municipalities. One obstacle is related to the fact that people from all around the country must go to one particular municipality in Belgrade since it is the only place in Serbia where they can change their documents after gender reassignment treatment.
Vulnerability of trans people was also exposed in 2015 when an army officer was forced to retire when they began to transition.
In July 2005 the Labour Law of Serbia was changed to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment.
As of 2016 there are no public records of any prosecutions being made on this issue.
In 2005, the Parliament of Serbia approved a Law on Higher education, which guarantees equal rights regardless of sexual orientation in those institutions.
Official medical textbooks that classify homosexuality under “Sexual Deviations and Disorders are still in circulation and widely used. After several requests to do so, the Serbian Medical Society has finally stated that same-sex orientation is not a disease in an official letter to Labris in 2008.
In August 2015 in a response to lesbian organisation Labris, the Serbian Institute for the Advancement of Education confirmed that all text books aged 20 years or older will be revised in line with current legal frameworks. The Ministry of Education assured that all books released in 2016/2017 curriculum will be free from any SOGI based discrimination.
Men who have sex with me (MSM) are allowed to donate blood under a six month deferral period.
Pride Parades and other LGBTI related public events in Serbia have been a difficult and hot topic for many years. In July 2001, a few days after Slobodan Milosevic was sent to stand in trial in the Hague, ultra-nationalists focused their rage on a small group of activists who gathered in Belgrade’s first Pride march. The group disrupted the march and beat up the participants.
In February 2009 the refusal of Belgrade’s Sava Centar to allow a Serbian gay rights group to hold a press conference on the movie “Milk” sparked a public debate on sexual minorities.
In September 2009, citing an inability to maintain security at the event, Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic advised organisers of the Pride to move the planned march from the streets of central Belgrade to Usce Park, a venue traditionally used for rock concerts. The organisers of the parade called this unacceptable and cancelled the event.
In October 2010, the Pride Parade took place, but around 6000 thousand young people, mostly football fans and members of right-wing organisations, caused mayhem on the capital’s streets, throwing stones and missiles, injuring police officers and setting buildings and vehicles on fire.
However, in October 2011, following the bad experience with the previous year, authorities decided to ban the Pride on security grounds. Around 200 LGBT activists held an unofficial mini-Pride parade chanting “this is Serbia” and “we have pride”.
In June 2012 about 40 LGBTI activists threw rainbow coloured balloons into the air and held what they called a mini pride parade in Belgrade. Also in September 2012, LGBT activists staged a brief flash-mob performance in which two brides called Faith and Hope got married and kissed each-other on Belgrade’s main pedestrian street Knez Mihailova.
In October 2012 authorities banned the pride march, citing concerns of violent clashes. However, “a parade within four walls” went ahead as part of Pride week ending in front of the heavily guarded Media Centre in Belgrade. By December 2012 on Human Rights Day, activists released a report citing the banning of Belgrade Pride as the government’s biggest failure. On September 2013 authorities banned the pride march scheduled for the next day, citing again security threats. In the same month around 200 LGBT activists gathered in front of the government building for an unofficial pride parade.
The first successful pride parade, which was not banned and was protected by authorities took place in September 2014. Consecutive prides in 2015 and 2016 have taken place peacefully amid high security measures by the police.
Additionally, in April 2015 the country’s first Lesbian march took place. In September 2015 parallel to Belgrade Pride the first trans pride took place in Belgrade. Organisation Gayten organised in October 2015 the first evet trans, intersex and queer conference.
According to the 2015 NDI poll, 59% of LGBTI people surveyed in Serbia felt that pride parades have improved the position of LGBTI people in society.
In the last 10 years there have been both positive and negative experiences when it comes to political statements on LGBTI rights and inclusion of the topic in political party programs or political participation of LGBTI people. Many political parties for instance made endorsing statements for Belgrade Pride while others abstained. Many more called for restraint from violence against LGBTI individuals during the parade. Back in 2010 Prime Minister Boris Tadic openly supported the pride and many other agencies responded in kind. However, following the violence of the 2010 Parade, many leaders failed to address the problem adequately asking organizers to hold the event on the city suburbs and not the city centre.
On December 2010 gay rights activist Boris Milicevic got elected to the Board of the Socialist Party of Serbia. He called this as great progress for the political landscape.
In March 2014 the organisation Gay Straight Alliance launched a campaign entitled “your voice, your tomorrow” calling on LGBTI people to vote for parties which endorse LGBT rights.
In August 2016, Ana Brnabić was elected as Minister of Public Administration and Local State Governments and she is the first openly gay minister.
In the last two Prides, several members of parliament and politicians have attended and made statements of support.
Also, in 2015, NGO Gay Straight Alliance announced that the 2015 recipient of the “Rainbow Award” was Jadranka Joksimovic. The minister without portfolio with responsibility for European integration was chosen for her unequivocal support for the rights of LGBT people and the good working relationship with LGBTI movement.
The 2015 NDI found out that 47% of the general population would not vote for a political party that championed the rights of LGBTI people.
Over the years, Serbian media has experienced some positive changes with regards to covering SOGI issues. Due to increased visibility of the topic, LGBTI topic has transitioned from the “entertainment” section to “politics” and “society” pages.
On July 2002 the Parliament of Serbia approved Broadcasting Law (Article 21) which obliges the Broadcasting Agency to prevent the spread of information encouraging discrimination, hate and violence based – among other categories – on sexual orientation.
The same prohibition formed part of the “Radio Emitters Law” adopted in 2002. However, it was never effectively observed, with the Radio Emitters Agency (an independent government agency) having failed to take any action against offenders. More widely, the Anti-Discrimination Law of 2009 prohibits hate speech on the basis of sexual orientation across wider Serbian society.
Despite these laws, hate speech remains a problem in Serbian media. For example, in 2006 and 2007, Labris reported the TV station “PINK” to the Republican Broadcasting Agency (RBA) due to homophobic and sexist statements made on its programs. When the RBA failed to respond within a year, Labris compelled the Ombudsperson to intervene and the RBA subsequently dismissed Labris’s complaints, stating that “Pink” did not espouse hate speech. On a positive note, in 2010 the RBA found that TV program Crazy House, on the station “Kosava” had disseminated hate speech against transsexuals.
On October 2011 the comic drama “Parada” by Serbian director Srdjan Dragojevic hit the cinemas. It sparked yet another public debate on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly for LGBTI people in Serbia.
As the LGBTI movement is quite strong and present in Serbia’s biggest cities. Some organisations, such as Labris, have been active for more than 20 years. LGBTI communities in other parts of the country do not have the same opportunities. Often, LGBTI groups make efforts to organise in smaller cities and towns but a majority of them close before even starting activities due to lack of funding and other resources. What is lacking is also support from authorities – local and national – as well as ability of activists to get large funding such as those from the EU. Moreover, most grants are currently aiming for large advocacy and campaign projects, leaving community building efforts at the free will and initiative of organisations.
To make matters more complicated is also a poor relation between Government and civil society sector in general. Government does not see civil society as partners and experts with whom to further build and strengthen democracy but as obstacles and as damaging their reputation and ability to control public opinion. In a recent statement Serbia’s president publicly called civil society as “enemy of the state” and published the names of 500 organisations which receive funding from the United States.
By 2012 a network of LGBTI organisations and activists made several public demands towards public authorities. The demands included: appointment of contact persons in every police department of Serbia’s 24 main cities to work on problems faced by LGBT people; to criminalise hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity; for parliament to adopt a declaration against homophobia and a national strategy against violence; to legally recognize sex and gender changes; to bring before justice all those individuals who have made threats and calls for violence against Belgrade Pride 2011.
Below is a list of organisations sorted by founding date:
It is estimated that Serbia’s ambition to join the EU has been vital in legal change and policy implementation such as the NAP. Serbia formally applied to join the EU in 2009 and began negotiations in 2014. However, what remains an issue – not only for Serbia but for most of the region – is that changes are mostly on paper. It is estimated that while these changes are good when it comes to passing new laws or amending new ones, it is not so effective when it comes to their implementation or policy. So far, the Police is the only institution with clear progress in terms of policy and practice leaving Ministries and other state agencies far behind.
In its reports the European Commission has noted a divergence between the comprehensive 2009 anti-discrimination law and its application in practice. The reports note that LGBTI people are amongst the most vulnerable groups to discrimination. Hate crimes against LGBTI people still need to be investigated properly. The Commission also stresses the need for more political commitment in promoting equality across society and introducing changes for marginalised groups such as trans people.
Serbia is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both of which prohibit discrimination under the law. Serbia is bound by its commitments to both covenants by taking affirmative steps to protect the rights of LGBT individuals in law and in practice.
A 2010 UNHRC shadow report found that Serbia is in violation of ICCPR Articles 2(1), 7, 14, 16, 17, 21, 23 and 26 and the practices observed by the report deprive LGBT individuals in Serbia on a range of rights, including the right to be free from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, the right to be free from cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, the right to a fair trial; the right to recognition before the law and the right to freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, or home; the right to freedom of assembly; and the right to freely-chosen family life.
ILGA-Europe 2016 Annual Rainbow Index shows Serbia has achieved 32 percent out of 100 in terms of legal and policy reform. Meanwhile the index does not reflect social and cultural situation of LGBTI people.The index measures legal and policy standards in the areas of equality and non-discrimination, family rights, hate crime and hate speech, legal gender recognition and bodily integrity, freedom of assembly, association and expression and asylum.
Last update: 15 November 2016