Homophobia: “Anthropologists should be aware of their responsibility”

When the first Pride Parade in Montenegro’s capital turned into a battlefield, early ethnographic accounts about traditional manliness may have had a part to play in the tensions, according to anthropologist Branko Banovic.

Logo of Pride Parade: a moustache

The moustache is one of the most important symbols representing “traditional manliness”. The moustache as the logo of the Pride Parade was more than enough to trigger a cultural war.

“Early Montenegrin ethnology produced many scientific and popular myths regarding traditional manliness. Contemporary ethnology/anthropology has done little to deconstruct them”, Banovic said at the international workshop of the Overheating project about Identity and Accelerated Change.

The researcher from the University of Belgrade was one of several speakers who chose a critical focus on how anthropologists have approached issues of identity.

In his presentation he showed how some of the responsibility for homophobia in Montenegro lies in early Montenegrin ethnology and anthropology. During the Pride Parade, for example, 2,000 police were needed to guard just 150 participants.

As an effort to bolster its application to join the EU, Montenegro organized its first Pride Parade in 2013. Never before have lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people (LGBT) celebrated their sexual identity in this way in the region.

A cultural war about the moustache

But the attempt of Montenegro to show its commitment to human rights seemed to have backfired. Although the Pride Parade was staged under heavy police presence, aggressive counter-protesters quickly turned the event into a battlefield.

Montenegrin men = heroic, moustache wearing warriors? "Who is supposed to deconstruct those popular myths about the traditional manliness, if not anthropologists?", said Branko Banovic. Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

The protesters were especially angry about the logo of the Pride Parade: a moustache, one of the most important symbols commonly representing “traditional manliness”. The moustache as the logo of the Pride Parade was more than enough to trigger a cultural war.

“I was shocked when I heard that the moustache would be the logo of the Pride Parade. The moustache is a mark of humanity, morality and every virtue. Montenegrin people are heroic and talking about the moustache as the logo of the Parade is shameful, because our greatest men wore moustaches", one man said.

He got so angry that he decided to shave his moustache after wearing it for 57 years.

Inconsistent with Montenegrin culture?

The connection of the event to Montenegro’s ambitions to join the EU triggered fierce reactions as well. It especially fostered the idea that homosexuality is a European import that threatens Montenegrin culture:

“You want to be a NATO member? Okay, but you first need to go to Afghanistan. You want to be a member of the EU? Okay, but you first need to organize the Pride Parade. You want to be a part of Western civilisation? Okay, but you first need to give up your identity”, one Pride Parade opponent said.

Although controversies over the moustache were specifically Montenegrin, they were structured on the basis of a pattern with well-documented main elements, Banovic commented: the centrality dichotomies of normal/abnormal, natural/unnatural, and moral/immoral; homosexuality regarded as an illness; religious institutions and officers that play an important role in the public debate on homosexuality; LGBT people who attack the core of national values; and the battle between the police and the right-wing groups. The conceptual connection of homosexuality and West/Europe, he said, is also well documented in other countries.

A distorted picture of manliness

But, as he showed, when Montenegrins talk about traditional manliness and consider homosexuality as inconsistent with their culture, they refer to a distorted image of Montenegrin culture. They refer to myths about Montenegro that early ethnographic literature helped to create.

Banovic analysed the most influential anthropogeographic and ethnological research of the Balkans at the beginning of 20th century. These are accounts, Banovic stressed, that belong to the traditionally defined domain of ethnology or ethnography. Although the majority of travellers did not view themselves as professional ethnographers, they often considered their accounts ethnographic.

Montenegrin men are, according to these studies, exceptional in Europe regarding their heroism and fearlessness. They are described as patriotic, moustache-wearing patriarchs and warriors, who feel greater sorrow for unsuccessful revenge than for the death of a relative. They operate with strict borders between masculine and feminine activities, and reject everything “womanly”, such as craftswork, merchant work, or comforting children. They suppress their emotions and master their erotic feelings by denying them completely.

Where are the data about real men?

Banovic describes these characteristics as myths because the ethnographic data do not contain data about real men. These early ethnographers did not study Montenegrin masculinity by observing and analysing the behavior of men in their daily life. Instead, they just asked men about how men ought to be. The data are based on expectations, norms or models, and not on particular individuals who may or may not fulfil the socially prescribed gender roles.

“Between the model and reality there was a large gap, and the interlocutor was providing the ethnographer with the model, rather than reality”, Banovic said.

“This means that if we start by researching traditional Montenegrin masculinity from the standpoint of narratives about traditional Montenegro, the result of our research will necessarily be a model. This model will contain a very large number of imputations and interpretations, and will significantly deviate from real past life”.

These early ethnographic records about men in traditional Montenegro, although they were theoretically and methodologically insufficient, have become instruments in protecting ‘traditional values’ and “one more argument against homosexuals”.

Of course, he said, ethnology and anthropology are not the only ones to blame. Aggressive counter-protesters have played integral parts in other Pride Parades in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, he insists, anthropologists should be aware of their own portion of the responsibility for creating this context:

“If ethnographies were more about reality instead of normative ideals, if we had data about different traditional (less heroic and less macho) masculinities instead of the model of traditional masculinity, would the Montenegrin tradition today be one more argument in the homophobic arsenal? Who was supposed to deconstruct those popular scientific myths about the traditional manliness, if not ethnologists/anthropologists?”

By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published Jan. 19, 2015 11:52 AM - Last modified Feb. 13, 2015 10:38 AM