A picture of the Serbian prime minister and her Luxembourg counterpart went viral earlier this month. The two gay heads of government were pictured alongside their partners, demonstrating the huge strides made in equality for LGBT people across Europe, as well as the barriers the pair broke down to reach such an important position of leadership in their respective countries.
On the surface, the picture should be praised, but digging a little deeper into the LGBT policies of each country, it is little wonder that not all LGBT Serbs are getting out the bunting for Ana Brnabić. The leader has previously been subjected to criticism for her lack of reform on rights for LGBT people in her deeply conservative Balkan state. It leaves some wondering if she should be doing less posing for the cameras and more to protect the civil rights of her fellow LGBT citizens.
These two European heads of government have very different track records when it comes to LGBT rights. Xavier Bettel was elected leader of the Luxembourg’s Democratic Party in 2013, taking up the post of prime minister of Luxembourg towards the end of that year. He was re-elected for a second term, making him the first gay head of government to do so in the world. During his time in office, same-sex marriage was legalised in Luxembourg with Bettel marrying his partner the same year that the law was passed. The country is ranked third out of 49 European countries by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), a testament to the strides the country has made when it comes to equal rights and protection against discrimination for LGBT citizens.
Brnabić broke through two glass ceilings when she took up office as prime minister of Serbia – the first woman to hold this position as well as the first gay person. She was appointed in 2017, against a backdrop of conservative societal views and hostility towards the LGBT community, with the country currently sitting at 30th place on the ILGA ranking. To say that her appointment was met with controversy might be somewhat of an understatement. Yet the LGBT community initially responded positively, their cheers as she marched in a Pride parade following her appointment in Belgrade, drowning out the voices of critics.
The praise was short-lived, however, after Brnabić suggested that she would prioritise other policy reforms over equal rights for LGBT people. In fact, the prime minister found herself being ‘not wanted’ at the subsequent Belgrade Pride, such was the anger amongst human rights activists. I think it is understandable that Brnabić does not wish to be defined by her sexuality, and it is a sentiment that is shared amongst others from marginalised groups. A movement towards greater equality and diversity at all levels at society can sometimes be used as a weapon towards those from a minority group being appointed to a position of leadership; the implication being that they have only reached said position by “playing the equality card” rather than on their own merit.
However, I can appreciate the outcry from LGBT citizens over her comments about prioritising other policy reforms, coupled with the lack of same-sex marriage and adoption laws. To see this progress stalling must be disappointing for LGBT citizens, many of whom face discrimination in their workplace, are unable to start a family or marry the person they love. What’s more, the fact that Brnabić is living with her partner, who recently gave birth to their child, does little to refute the argument that politicians are detached from the lives of people they serve.
It seems to me that Brnabić is speaking from a place of privilege when she puts LGBT rights on the backburner, as it is her position as prime minister that has enable her to acquire quasi-equality for her and her family.
When it comes to the European Union, Brnabić and Bettel posing in a picture together may also be significant. Serbia is one of five candidate countries for future membership of the European Union, alongside Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Turkey. Given Serbia’s relatively slow progress when it comes to various political issues, including human rights, it could be argued that Brnabić also used this photo opportunity as a PR stunt to implicitly quell any concerns from Brussels about the country’s shortcomings. Any attempted smokescreen produced by the meeting was quickly dispersed when news broke that Belgrade police were required to protect those marching in the Serbian capital’s Pride parade from far-right protestors. It seems as though society still has a long road to travel.
I think it is important to acknowledge the importance of having heads of government from various backgrounds in society in order to better represent the citizens they serve. The fact that Bettel and Brnabić are only two of three current heads of government who are gay (Leo Varadkar of Ireland being the third) suggests that we still have a long way to go in politics before LGBT people are allowed a seat at the table.
The challenges that Brnabić must have overcome to fill her current role are unimaginable, especially in a country that continues to be heavily influenced by a conservative Orthodox Church. That being said, I think Brnabić is doing the LGBT people of Serbia a disservice if she does not advocate for greater social reforms to establish parity for all citizens. By her inaction, she is sending a message that these rights do not even matter to her. If Brnabić, a prime minister who is also gay, will not make changes to improve equality for LGBT people, then who in the Serbian government will?
- Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist.
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