October 30th, 2010

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On opposing homophobia in Serbia

Serbia, as some of you may know, doesn't have the best reputation insofar as respect for minority populations goes. slow-motion liberalization, starting from laws against male-male sexual relationships that weren't applied, through legalization in autonomous Vojvodina in 1978 and eventual explicit nation-wide legalization in 1994. Serbia was part of a Yugoslavia that was fairly liberalized and Westernized, but the collapse of Yugoslavia and the beginning of Milosevic's autarchy complicated things still further. As Eric Gordy wrote in his The Culture of Power in Serbia, the Milosevic regime's power came from its ability to close down options--to denounce urbanites as decadent, cosmopolitans as contaminated, et cetera. Gay rights remain limited, with constitutional provisions against same-sex marriage and a generally conservative population. Sometimes, it breaks forth into violence; the recent rioting by skinheads in Belgrade, a scandal with huge numbers of arrests and injuries, is a case in point.

The musical genre of turbo-folk emerged in response to Yugoslavia's cosmopolitanism, a fusion of folk music with an Eastern-styled pop that replaced the Yugorock scene. Turbo-folk was closely linked to the ideology of closed options, sometimes quite literally as evidenced by the marriage of turbo-folk star Ceca to the gangster and ethnic cleanser Arkan. Things are changing there, though. My thanks to Zlatko for pointing out this article at KurirJby star elena Karleusa, talking about the ridiculousness of homophobia. (Don't you find Google Translate's becoming increasingly successful at idiom? I've hacked things a bit for idiom; I can make no claims about accuracy, but it should not be wildly off.)

How long will the millions of Serbs will do a handful of shit that will make us look like savages and fools? HMM? HMM? How long will scum be free to be loud and clear, leaving we are dumb people? How long shall hooligans smash the city and attack those who promote human rights by marching? How long will our police smash heads? I

[. . .]

Hey, it's okay that many of you do not like gays and do not support Gay Pride. But it is not okay, just let me tell you. Why do not you like gays? It's like saying you do not like blacks, or Muslims, or Buddhist monks, just because they are different from you! Maybe you do not like polar bears? But, that's your thing. If you are racists, chauvinists, homophobes, idiots, you are find, but keep it to myself. Or consider that it's time to change things. Man is born black and yellow and white and gay and straight. It's true. It is time that many of you have heard around that homosexuality is not a disease -- and proved so, officially and unofficially.

[. . .]

In Serbia it is normal that a child watches as dad beats him lightly, but it is not normal for two adult men to prefer each other. In Serbia it is normal for someone who killed more than 100 people of another religion to be called a national hero by every one, but not normal to walk around the city of those who advocated love, peace, freedom, tolerance!


[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On Prince Edward Island's normative homophobia, and its slow change

It took a firebombing and two attempted murders to start a dialogue on homophobia on Prince Edward Island. This says something about the province.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 18, a gay couple in Little Pond awoke to the sound of their window being smashed and a fire erupting inside their home. They escaped without injury.

The fire is the subject of a criminal investigation.

"This is two guys who were sleeping in their beds and an incendiary device came through the window in the early hours of the morning and they had to escape out the window, not knowing what was on the other side," [one neighbour] told CBC News.

"That's attempted murder."

Maureen Campbell-Hanley, a friend of the couple, said she is devastated by what happened to her friends. (CBC)Since the two men moved from British Columbia to the small community in eastern P.E.I. five years ago, their home has been broken into, their mailbox destroyed, and now, their house has been burned to the ground.

The couple have not spoken publicly about the incident. Their friends said the emotional damage is severe and the men are afraid for their lives.

The community is rallying around the couple, as you'd expect any community to do. The arson seems to be the culmination of a pattern of escalating violence.

Days before they fled their home, the men told police that women's underwear had been planted in their clothes dryer -- evidence, their friends say, that the couple was targeted because of their sexuality.

The underwear may have been part of an escalation in crime at the men's now-destroyed home on Route 310, where their mailbox was torched on Oct. 12.

"To me, somebody was trying to make a point with the underwear," said Harvey Francis, a friend of the couple who worked with one of the men last year.

"This was not a one-off," Ms. Campbell echoed.

RMCP Corporal Dan MacInnis said police are "not convinced" the fire was a hate crime. He confirmed that they were notified of the underwear, but said there was no sign of break and enter. "There's nothing conclusive to tell me someone physically went in and put [the underwear] there," he said.


A local United Church minister, Beth Johnston, gave a sermon calling for tolerance, saying that hate was not an Island value. Her parishoners' reaction was interesting.

Reverend Beth Johnston, speaking from the pulpit at Dundas United Church last Sunday, urged tolerance and support for the men. Nobody clapped, but nobody left, she said.

With such overwhelming support from the community, I wonder why this couple is so ready to leave.

Eastern Kings is a region where hate is normative, although I will certainly grant that since the region integrated its school system in the 1980s things have become much better. Letting Protestants and Catholics befriend each other, maybe even become romantically interested in each other as scandalous as that might be for the older generation, is a step forward. Reach for that rainbow, guys!

And hate is a Prince Edward Island value. How could it not be? The province of my birth is a place that's largely rural, ethnically quite homogeneous (95% native-born, 95% Anglophone or mostly so, overwhelmingly British and Acadian in background), with little history of immigration, a tendency towards social conformity, and (leaving homophobia aside) a long history of ethnic, racial, and sectarian bigotry that simply hasn't been talked about. African-Canadians early in the 20th century either tried to pass for white or left; in the 1950s, Jews visiting the North Shore tourist areas found hotels were filled; in the mid-1980s, future premier Joseph Ghiz was called a "black boy" by someone in a session of the provincial legislature. (Islanders, can you tell me if this incident was recorded in Hansard?) The Island's emphasis on familial connections, meanwhile, is rather heteronormative. Don't forget the public ideology, proferred in tourist campaigns and largely internalized, that presents an image of the Island as ideal, a pastoral society with few problems in the past, none now, and few foreseeable, an attitude that doesn't lead to much collective self-reflection. It would be surprising if the Island wasn't homophobic. The reverend's sermon was more prescriptive than descriptive.

Did I experience much homophobia myself? I couldn't tell you. The isolating, crippling depression I suffered on the Island had any number of negative consequences, but one positive consequence that it did have was that it kept me from recognizing any homophobia that might have been directed towards me. I do remember nasty jokes about out queers as a teenager and young adult, and a fair amount of mockery of Pride parades. In the otherwise friendly English department lounge at UPEI, I do remember jibes tossed at a flamboyant queer (by people who've since proven their gay-friendliness, it's important to add). Things certainly could have been worse.

But. In the summer of 1999, while I was working for the provincial tourism department as an information counsellor, part of the time I was stationed at the Charlottetown airport. While I was there, sitting in the kiosk waiting for disembarking passengers, there was one young man who kept trying to engage me in conversation. His was a lost cause; even leaving aside my tendency to shut down conversations, there was something about his approaches, a certain confusing energy, that made me uncomfortable. In winter of that year, I learned that he was the young man who had drowned himself in Charlottetown harbour. I only realized what may have happened, queasy sense of horror included, several years later. I don't know for certain that he was trying to reach out; it's been too long, and I could easily have misjudged it. The incident has never stopped bothering me, not least because I'm never going to know what was going on. I really wish that I hadn't had that experience.

Things are changing. Prince Edward Island's population is less than 5% of Toronto's--the size of a couple of neighbourhoods--and well under one percent of Canada's. The Island is a very peripheral society, fairly well assimilated to central Canadian norms. Thankfully, secularism Canadian-style has caught on in the province; Canada's distinctive quasi-monopoly religious market has saved everyone from American evangelical Christianity. Conformity is still a factor, but it's less important than before.

Prince Edward Island has gotten better, much better, since the 1980s; it's gotten better since I left. There was, as a video shows, a 2009 Pride parade, for instance. I know queers of my generation who lead perfectly happy, unharassed, lives. Rural areas like Eastern Kings are still problematic, but they are declining relative to the influence of a fairly cosmopolitan Charlottetown, a provincial capital and a university town that's such a help to the province. Open homophobia just isn't seen as cool by Islanders, especially by the younger generation of Islanders. Critically, given tourism's importance to the economy--the Island's government is trying to promote the Island as a queer tourist destination, as awkward as the effort may be. I know other people who had to leave, in less pleasant times. Me, I'm still glad that I left, and I was eager to go; only a year and a half passed between the time I realized my sexual orientation and the time I moved away. I'm still happy that, more than before, people don't have to leave.

I said at the beginning of the post that the fact of the firebombing starting a dialogue on homophobia says a lot about the province. It does say any number of negative things--one's letter-writer's speculation that rural Prince Edward Island is still homophobic isn't easy to argue against--but it does say positive things. Islanders took in gay rights in a way befitting their status as a periphery of Canada, absorbing them while perhaps not being as critical of itself as it should have been. Coming up against the personalized reality that a toxic homophobia does still exist on Prince Edward Island, that this homophobia did result in attempted murders in a society where violence is fundamentally wrong and where people really do try to be friendly and good with a fair amount of success, will be a good thing. Homogeneous societies can be stagnant, yes, but they can shift rapidly.

I would like to think of this incident as the equivalent to the belated realization, by the mainstream media, that queer teenagers suffer from a terribly elevated risk of suicide; belated recognition, yes, but recognition nonetheless. And you?