“Most people think we can be ourselves, as long as we do it behind closed doors.”
BELGIUM/SERBIA - A quick kiss from your lover, a fast cuddle or just walking hand in hand. It's all so obvious, but what if people looked at you strangely. When it comes to same-sex couples that is often the case. In Belgium and in Serbia there are many different opinions about affectioned same-sex couples. But the question for members of the LGBTQ+ community stays the same: ‘If straight couples can show affection in public and be comfortable; why shouldn’t gay people be allowed to do the same?’
Johanna Toth, a psychology student who identifies as gay, talks about her personal experience: “I saw a lot of different reactions, and I would order them in 2 different groups. The first one is the acceptive group, those people behave naturally, act normally and handle our existence the same way they do with heterosexuals. The second one is the strictly patriarchal group of people, who literally threaten homosexual couples by wanting to kill them for ‘not being normal’.”
Even though Belgium and Serbia have a different national view on the matter, both Belgian and Serbian members of the LGBTQ+ experience acceptance and hatred. Luna Vanhaezebrouck, Belgian digital art and entertainment student who identifies as a lesbian, finds it difficult to show affection in public places or around people she doesn’t know: “People look at you like you are very weird when you are kissing your loved one in public. They either think it is disgusting or erotic and that creeps me out.”
National acceptance in numbers
Belgian SCV data, from 2017, tell us that 91 percent of the Flemish people think that homosexuals 'should be able to live their lives the way they want to'. Yet 36 percent indicate that 'homosexuals should not exaggerate’. “If I apply those figures to my life, that seems to be true. Most people think that we can be ourselves, but as long as it stays behind closed doors”, explains Vanhaezebrouck.
According to data acquired from the Equal Rights Association, from 2018, 38 percent of the Serbian population believe that homosexuality is a disease and 26 percent of the country's population would cease contact with a person if they learned that person was LGBT+. So that makes the acceptance rate in Serbia significantly lower than in Belgium. And next to that issue, Serbian gay people also have fewer official rights than Belgian ones. According to Bata Dorian, a Serbian history student, this has an explanation: “We should highlight the fact that the culture of this country deeply respects the religious traditions. If we go back in history after the Turkish’s tried to destroy everything that was “ours” (books, traditions, language) the only thing we had left is our belief in the orthodox religion. Serbians even now, in the 21st century really do look up at their religious leader, who strictly disapprove every form of homosexuality, so it’s not surprising that it’s harder for them to accept the changes.”
Even though the situation in each country is not perfect. Toth is hopeful for the future: “Finally I’m able to look at things a little bit more positive now that I live in Novi Sad, I’m finally able to make real friends, and I almost every day get surprised that this situation keeps getting better.”
Getting out of the pigeonholing of yesteryear
UPDATED SOCIETY – In touch with your feminine side
Gucci men’s, fall 2020. ©Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times
BELGIUM/ SERBIA - Men who are in touch with their feminine side are more widespread today. Even fashion brands like Gucci release collections with men in dresses. “It’s about being who you want to be and not who you have to be”, says Joppe De Campeneere in ‘De Zevende Dag’, a current affairs program on Belgian national television.
Our society evolves day by day. Today, the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Nieuwsblad’ reported that young people went to school in a skirt. As a statement, because everyone has to be who they want to be. Yesterday, Pope Francis expressed his support for homosexuals for the first time. And the daily image on the street is also evolving. Pigeonholing is disappearing, even though it is a long-term project.
Unisex collection and men in dresses
According to Joppe De Campeneere, content creator for ‘Wel Jong, Niet Hetero’, dresses have not been put on the market in recent years as a dress meant for a woman, but as a dress meant for everyone. The Italian fashion brand Gucci presented its collection by men clothed in dresses. As inspiration, they used the 'grunge looks of the 90s'. Gucci's goal: "To combat the toxic stereotypes that shape male gender identity.”
Other fashion brands are also jumping on the same wagon as Gucci. Under the motto "Gender fluid fashion", fashion brands such as Luis Vuitton, H&M, and Lacoste are launching a unisex collection on the market. The unisex collection is exploring the individuality and diversity of the new generations.
According to Johanna Toth, a 20-year-old Serbian psychology student, there is still a big taboo around the theme of 'boys in touch with their feminine side'. “Maybe that’s the biggest problem in our society, maybe that’s what is judged the most. Everyone has a right to look the way they want to if they don’t hurt anyone around them with that (and obviously they don’t). My rights are not offended if a guy sitting next to me on the bus or train wears heels, pink, or nail polish. But some people here in Serbia have a totally different opinion about this. If I read the comment sections under Facebook posts related to this topic, sometimes I could cry, because I can’t believe how much negativity and hate lives inside some people.”
Dorian Bata, a 22-year-old Serbian history student has a different view on the topic: “We finally learned to accept the fact that a woman can be an equivalent part of our community as a man, women dressing up manly doesn’t upset us anymore, women having short hair, and wearing pants is nothing new these days, so it would be logical to give men the same rights. I think by nature people have an expectation that the male should be the stronger one, so it’s probably a harder pill to swallow that male can have a weaker side too.”
However, for many homosexuals in Serbia, there is a strong fear of expressing themselves publicly, as Davor Kadar, a 29-year-old medical student, testifies: "Gay couples are still afraid to go out for dinner or go to the cinema together because they will surely get a lot of negative comments, which can be really painful. So, the fear of appearing with a feminine man is even bigger, which creates even stronger discrimination against them. Men in touch with their feminine side is an even less-accepted option than men kissing in public in Serbia. Men dressed up like that could probably get attacked (and get abused much worse) even more easily. The most saddening part is that even people from the LGBTQ population discriminate feminine men because everyone is afraid to appear with them.”
Men and nail polish
Men who wear nail polish, it used to be a trend to express support for child abuse. Nowadays it is a trend. Yet this tendency is not as new as we might think. In ancient times, the color of nails meant which class and family you belonged to. Also, in the Renaissance nail polish was a way to show your status.
For Jonathan Metdepenninghen, a 20-year old Flemish journalism student, there is no problem with nail polish in men. "I first came up with the idea to varnish my nails with the song: 'Daughters of the Soho Riots' by The National. I walked around with that idea for a long time, until after a while I really decided to do it. It was my sister who asked me to paint my nails. I expect people to comment on that, but it’s the same as if I were asking why you wear that t-shirt and not another one. That's how I wear nail polish and someone else doesn't."
Nevertheless, Serbian student Dorian Bata remains cautious about the reaction of the society: "I think we must be patient because people are not really used to changes. That's why it can turn against them and would discriminate against them. We have to move forward in small steps because I consider ourselves as a conservative community."
“Frequently homosexual parents value their children more than heterosexuals”
UPDATED SOCIETY – Growing up with LGTBQ parents
BELGIUM/ SERBIA - Same-sex parenting has been a reality in Belgium for quite a while. Children raised by LGTBQ people are now adults. One of which is Benno Sameyn, a 27year old cartoonist and artist from Kortrijk. Together with his brother was he raised by a lesbian couple. In Serbia meanwhile, this is unthinkable. LGTBQ people are often discriminated against. The 20-year-old psychology student Johanna Toth talks about her experience as a lesbian woman in Serbia.
How is it to be raised by two mothers?
Benno: I think I had a good upbringing. My parents gave me a lot of love and warmth. They accept me who I am and give me all the chances I need. My mothers were never strict or angry. If I did something wrong, I would of course be punished, but never too harshly. Of course, it isn’t all rosy. I know it is a cliché but mostly it is the mothers who nag a lot. And my moms sure like to say everything twice to me. They also can be a bit overprotective. They often worry about me when I go out. I also think LGTBQ parents tend to be more accepting than hetero parents. For example, a friend of mine is a transwoman and her parents disinherited her. When I hear stories like that, I’m really glad to have my parents. Honestly, when I compare them to hetero parents, I think they are much better.
Johanna: I can’t speak for myself of course but in a lot of cases homosexual parents value their children much more than heterosexuals because they only can become parents if they really want to. And here in Serbia, it’s still a long and hard way for them to be able to adopt. Meanwhile, heterosexual couples often have accidental pregnancies. It’s really common. So sometimes they don’t even want that child in the first place.
It should be a normal, existing option for homosexual couples to be able to adopt a child. Sadly, a lot of kids today live in unbearable circumstances, with aggressive, abusive parents, divorced, depressive parents, so I don’t really see the problem with homosexual couples being parents as long as they can provide a healthy and safe home for their adopted kids.
Did you ever have the feeling you missed a father figure?
Benno: To be honest, not really. But I do often look up to men. For example, I had a teacher in high school who I respected a lot and regarded as something of a father figure. But I never missed someone during my childhood.
Why do you think some people don’t accept LGTBQ parents?
Johanna: Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe it is because they think gay parents will “project” their sexuality on their children. This isn’t true of course. I personally grew up with heterosexual parents, watching their heterosexual friends, having heterosexual friends, and somehow, I still didn’t turn out to be hetero. So, the sexual identity of the parents doesn’t affect the sexual identity of their kids.
Were you ever bullied because you had two mothers or because you are a lesbian?
Benno: Sometimes yes. In high school, there was someone who said I had a fridge father. But most people either didn’t care or were very accepting. However, a lot of people would often ask me who was the “man” in my parents’ relationship. But that isn’t how it works. You have two unique women with different strengths and weaknesses.
Johanna: The situation here in Novi Sad is definitely better than it is in my hometown Subotica. A lot of people there said I looked like a 12 years old boy, so I had a lot of awful experiences. A group of boys had been chasing me on the streets a few times, shouting that they’re going to kill me, so growing up wasn’t easy for me.”
Do you think Belgium is a tolerant country for same-sex parents and LGTBQ people?
Benno: That is a difficult question, to be honest. People tolerate my parents and me when I’m speaking with them, but you never know what they say about you behind your back. It sometimes happens that people who don’t tolerate LGTBQ people just quietly leave my life. However, some of my transgender friends are sometimes harassed on the street. Twenty years ago, something similar happened to my parents. They were leaving a pride parade when a group of teenagers was taunting them. They stalked my parents and even threw stones at them. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays I think most people are accepting of LGTBQ parents.
Johanna: People in Serbia have a totally different opinion about this, even today we can hear people beating gays to death just because they saw him on the street looking more feminine than the average. If I read the comment sections under Facebook posts related to this topic, sometimes I could cry, because I can’t believe how much negativity and hate lives inside some people. I think people look at homosexuals like they are a carrier of a virus, so they’re keeping the distance.”
What could be improved in Belgium for same-sex parents and LGTBQ people?
Benno: There are still people who get aggressive or yell at you. If you really have a problem with LGTBQ parents then you should have a civil conversation without name-calling. I much rather hear from someone that they disagree with me about LGTBQ rights.
Johanna: Honestly it is really difficult to change something in Serbia for LGTBQ people. In 2017 we’ve got a new prime minister, Ana Brnabić, who is also lesbian, and while she tried to liberalize the LGBTQ question in Serbia, she got attacked with awful words: A politician from the opposition asked her to leave and/or stop her actions, because if she can’t even decide if she is a male or female, how could she handle the ‘bigger’ problems of our country.
Online Project Journalism is a collaboration between Howest University, Belgium, and the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. In non-corona times the students of Howest work together with the students in Novi Sad during an annual study trip. This year it was an online project, making sure the intercultural added value of working together to create a journalistic product is not lost.
Students of Novi Sad created journalism products together with students of Howest. This project connects Serbia and Belgium every year. The products are proof of cooperation between students.
The starting point for the journalistic product was the uprise and growing visibility and influence of the Black lives matter movement. BLM is exemplary of a growing awareness of identity and thus becomes more of an issue on the political agenda, in the cultural sector, and in people's personal lives. In this way, it was possible to work on various themes, such as the human race, sexual identity, living with a disability, political preference, etc.
This is the seventh product that is published from the workshop.