BELGRADE (AFP) - When Andjela dropped to her knees and proposed to the love of her life two years ago, she thought that officially tying the knot with her partner Sanja was just a fantasy.
But the couple is now planning their wedding at home in their Balkan country, with the promise of a new law that will recognise same-sex partnerships marking an important victory for the LGBT community that faces widespread homophobia.
"At first, we thought it would be a small, intimate wedding, but when we realised how many people we need to invite, it turned out it will be a gala ceremony", Andjela Stojanovic, a 27-year-old postal worker, said with a laugh next to her partner Sanja Markovic, 30, who works in graphic design.
Despite being one of few nations to have an openly gay prime minister, Serbia's machismo-heavy culture leaves many LGBT people living in fear. Holding hands in public remains a taboo for same-sex couples in a country where almost 60 per cent of LGBT people have reported physical or emotional abuse in the course of a year, according to a survey by human rights organisations IDEAS and GLIC published in 2020.
"To all those who oppose the law, I can only say - if you don't like same-sex partnerships, don't live in one," Minister of Human and Minority Rights Gordana Comic, who has championed the law, told AFP. Yet even among the new generation of high schoolers, only 24 percent of those surveyed expressed support for LGBT rights such as adoption, according to a study by the Helsinki Committee.
Sonja, a 17-year-old high school student who declined to give her surname, told AFP that she doesn't know anyone her age who is openly gay, while those who show support for LGBT rights get "ridiculed or attacked". "Most of my class believes it's fashionable to hate gay people, especially boys", she lamented.
Expected to be passed this spring, the legislation would grant LGBT couples legal benefits such as joint healthcare and inheritance rights - but not the option to adopt children.
"It's far from equality, but is a step forward", LGBT activist Vladan Djukanovic told AFP. Elsewhere in the Western Balkans, only Croatia and Montenegro have passed similar laws. While the bill has not stirred up significant protests in Serbia, in recent history violence has trailed every inch of progress for the LGBT community, from hooligan attacks on Belgrade's Pride parade a decade ago to tense stand-offs with the police over an art exhibit in 2012 that presented images of Jesus among transgender people.
The influential Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) has historically played a key role in shaping public opinion, such as branding the annual Belgrade Pride march "a parade of shame".
However, the tide seems to be turning inside the conservative institution too. The church's new leader, Patriarch Porfirije, has shifted away from the usual discriminatory rhetoric by stating that, while the Church does not consider same-sex unions as marriages, he sympathises with the frustrations the community faces.
"I can understand people with that kind of sexual orientation, their countless administrative problems, challenges and pressures, and their need to regulate their status", Porfirije recently told public broadcaster RTS.
Having an openly gay Prime Minister for the past four years may have also made an impact, although Ana Brnabic has been criticised for failing to be a more vocal advocate of expanding LGBT rights. Brnabic has previously underlined that her mission is not to be a "gay prime minister", but a leader of a country. Yet some accuse the 45-year-old of failing to use her position of power to help the rest of the community.
While the prime minister's female partner gave birth to a baby boy in 2019, months later artificial insemination was banned in Serbia for couples who have "recent history of homosexual relations". "Serbia remains a country in which the prime minister, despite receiving congratulations, still can't be listed as a parent of her son, cannot enrol him in kindergarten, take him on a vacation abroad, nor visit him in hospital as member of the family", Labris, a lesbian human rights organisation, said at the time.
Some gay activists also see the new law as the government's latest form of "pinkwashing" - the practise of promoting some progressive ideas in order to overshadow other illiberal ones. Serbia's government has come under heavy criticism in recent years for cracking down on political critics and independent media.
"It's a practise to allow certain rights for the LGBT community, in order to mask general deterioration of human rights in the country", activist Djukanovic said. Minority rights minister Comic rejected the notion, saying that "human rights are not a distraction". The "hardest task is to actually bring them to life", she added.
For now, Stojanovic and Markovic, who is in a wheelchair, plan on building a family in Serbia after undertaking artificial insemination that will have to be conducted abroad. "I think (our children) will be in high school before their status is regulated", Markovic told AFP. "The children will be ours in every sense, apart in the eyes of the law."