Human Rights Are LGBTI Rights: One Story of Overcoming Adversity in Serbia

Milutin Pantelic was forced to leave his home  --  a village near Sabac in Western Serbia  --  due to family shame associated with his LGBTI status. He even suffered beatings from his brother.

Feeling depressed and isolated, Milutin tried to commit suicide. Instead, he ended up in a mental health institution, where doctors recognized that he did not belong. A doctor at the institution told Milutin about Moonrise Hostel, a social enterprise that employs members of the LGBTI population who have suffered violence or discrimination.

In 2014, Milutin left the institution and spent eight months working at Moonrise, doing everything from cleaning and laundry to engaging with the guests. Noting that some at the hostel were open about their sexuality changed how Milutin saw himself. “I was the happiest person in the world when I realized there were other people like me who were living normal lives and had professions,” he said.

Continued LGBTI Discrimination and Stigma

Unfortunately, Milutin reflects a typical story of LGBTI people living in Serbia, a country that has very negative public views on LGBTI individuals. Serbia decriminalized homosexuality in 1994  --  however, the Serbian Health Society considered homosexuality an illness until 2008. Since then, Serbia has continued to make significant progress in support of LGBTI rights  -- as demonstrated by the last three largely peaceful Belgrade Pride Parades. In previous years, the parade was canceled due to the threat of violence.

Serbian society though is still characterized by a high degree of resistance to conferring equal rights and opportunities based on sexual orientation and gender identify. A June 2015 LGBTI public opinion poll, found that 72 percent of LGBTI individuals in Serbia said they have been verbally harassed or abused because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of that total, 23 percent suffered physical violence and 51 percent had experienced discrimination, although the general population perceives these numbers to be much less.

Establishing New Hope

In 2014, the Rainbow Association partnered with USAID to establish the Moonrise Hostel, and collaborative efforts have improved the visibility of the LGBTI community throughout Serbia. LGBTI individuals who have worked at Moonrise Hostel have found not only shelter, but also love, compassion, appreciation, jobs and a chance to start a new life after leaving the hostel.

With matching funds from USAID, Moonrise refurbished the hostel to ensure the space is welcoming and pleasant for all guests, and was able to pay the rent until 2029. Any profits from the hostel can now be used to buy HIV tests, provide counseling and maintain outreach efforts.

Balancing the protection of human right and LGBTI rights with economic independence, Aleksandar Prica, director of Rainbow, said the goal of the hostel is for employees to feel safe, be aware of their rights and find regular jobs. “When people are independent and self-confident, they can fight for their position on their own,” he said.

As the only civil society organization focused on HIV prevention and testing in Serbia, the Rainbow Association has provided psychological and legal support to around 3,200 LGBTI individuals and HIV/AIDS testing for 1,100 people each year. Additionally, Rainbow has trained almost 1,000 staff from social welfare centers to work with the LGBTI population and their families, and collaborated with the local police to establish local emergency phone lines for LGBTI individuals and their families.

While the fight for LGBTI rights in Serbia is ongoing, and continues to face many obstacles, it has proven to not be hopeless. Individuals such as Milutin and Aleksandar, and the Moonrise and Rainbow staff have all contributed to the progress that is slowly changing the perspectives of the LGBTI community in Serbia and throughout the Balkans.

About the Author: Jelena Popovic is a Development Outreach and Communications Assistant/Translator at USAID’s mission in Serbia.

Editor's Notes: This entry originally appeared in the USAID's 2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in this Generation publication on Medium.com.

For more information:

Milutin Pantelic spent eight months working in the Moonrise Hostel, located in the Kamicak area of Sabac, Serbia. [Jelena Popovic, USAID Serbia]
Posted by Jelena Popovic
November 18, 2016

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