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Guest bloggers in Croatia’s first Gay Pride

Happy Pride! Thanks to the internet, advice we’ve recently befriended another traveling lesbian couple, ampoule Leanne and Leah of Our Travel Experiment. On the road since January, these ladies have been giving us great advice as we prepare for our trip. Their experience of Croatia’s first Pride reminds us of the struggle for gay rights outside of America.

Today marked Split’s first gay pride, our first pride out of the United States, our first time hearing hundreds of angry men shout “kill the fags,” first time feeling the burn of tear gas and the first time I actually felt appreciation towards all the “less angry” anti-gay mobs that I’ve experienced back home who simply hold anti-gay cardboard signs. Just a few of our many firsts today.

Today June 11, 2011 was Split’s first pride, an event that took over a year of preparation for this small gay community. We arrived in Split on Thursday and immediately noticed the numerous anti-gay and anti-gay parade graffiti on Split’s beautiful and historical walls. As we saw graffiti after graffiti, Leah and I knew we were not in Kansas anymore (AKA San Francisco or Chicago).

VIDEO: Watch Leanne and Leah’s experience.

We began our day meeting Marta Drury for coffee. Marta is an inspiring woman: a fellow National Center for Lesbian Rights supporter, and founder of the Heart and Hand Fund, which supports women and LGBTI initiatives in the United States and the Balkans. She began the Heart and Hand Fund in 1999 after speaking to a friend at 2am in Pristina, Kosova who told her that the Serbian army was going door to door in their neighborhood and herding people onto boxcars. She has been active helping lesbian community in Eastern Europe ever since.

After coffee we headed to the Domine offices; a feminist organization that generously donated their space to Split’s LGBT pride group. There, we met Pride organizers from Kontra and the International LGBTI Association (ILGA) to finish up the crucial last minute details that make every gay pride great, blowing up the right amount of balloons and putting the finishing touches to the elaborate signs.

As soon as we started walking towards the parade’s starting point, we were surprised to see helicopter above us, but even more surprised to see around 200 or so police officers surrounding the parade route, protecting the marchers. As the march began, we were literally surrounded by more and more police: in front of us, clearing the way; alongside us, blocking the anti-gay mob from the route; everywhere. You could tell just by looking at the police force that they took their job seriously (minus the ones with hand held cameras) but we couldn’t help but think about what some of the organizers told us: that given the mood of the country, the police were probably more sympathetic to the views of the anti-gay mob, which was growing in number all around us.

As we continued on the parade route, we came upon groups of angry men and boys, all aged 18-35ish. They were yelling and flipping off the parade, and chanting something in Croatian that we didn’t understand. We found out later that they were chanting, “Kill the Gays”. We also saw angry women also flipping off the parade. For some reason the 25-year-old looking women flipping off the parade disturbed me more than the angry mob of men. My expectations for women are simply higher.

As veterans of many gay pride parades in San Francisco and Chicago, we’re used to anti-gay protesters. Usually these are misguided bible-beaters with signs bearing Biblical verses. Annoying, but fairly harmless. We’re not used to the absolute hatred that we saw in today’s anti-gay mob. These people had burning anger in their eyes, as they shouted “Kill The Gays,” raised their arms in the unmistakable Nazi salute, threw glass ash trays into the crowd, and pushed up against the police barricades.

Later tonight on the news, it was reported that there were over 10,000 protestors, 137 people were detained and many others were injured after the anti-gay mob attacked participants with rocks, bottles and firecrackers.

We approached the main part of the parade, where the narrow streets open up onto a seaside promenade. As we got closer we saw an even larger group of men yelling and with their fists raised. The tension rose, and the constant piercing sound of the marchers’ pink whistles got even louder. Then we heard three loud booms as bombs went off. The crowd started to run in the opposite direction. We were running through a slight fog, and the sour-smelling air burned our eyes and lungs. We recognized this as tear gas, and we kept running to get away. We passed a few allays and saw the gas pour out of its canister, and we followed the people in front of us. We kept going, and I yelled at Leah to cover her mouth with her shirt (that’s what all the locals were doing). We’re still not sure who actually detonated the tear gas (the police or the mob), but we decided to head back to the safe part of the promenade, away from the trouble.

Even in the safe part, we saw violence. Where the mob and the marchers met, we saw that planters had been broken and plants scattered, and what looked like a pile of poo was thrown into the parade. From a distance we saw someone throw something into the crowd and immediately we saw an undercover cop arrest him. We watched three more arrests just like the first and finally made it back to the entrance only to find the police would not let us or anymore in with the Gay Pride group. We watched from the sidelines slightly disappointed, but mostly appreciative of the police officer’s determination to keep the Gay Pride group safe.

Later, after we reflected on today’s events, we felt truly grateful. Despite the political ups and downs in the U.S., our situation at home is so much better than here. Granted, we realize that it’s taken years to get to where we are, and that gay pride marches of the past were as violent as this one. And we realize that in San Francisco and Chicago we enjoy an acceptance and freedom that many gays and lesbians in less enlightened cities have yet to experience. But we’re grateful that we’ve come so far. After seeing this, we resolve not to take for granted the freedom and safety we enjoy.

As we were marching, seeing the gay flag waving around us gave me the chills, and I don’t even particularly care for the rainbow flag. The organizers and gay Croatians were so proud and extremely confident that I almost forgot about the all the people who don’t want us there.

I want to thank all of the organizers, people who marched in today’s parade and the police officers who protected them.

Please consider making a donation to the Heart and Hand fund, 100% of your donation goes towards the LGBTI community groups here in the Balkan region.

To learn more about LGBTI issues in Croatia click here. And to learn more about LGBTI issues in Europe click here.

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