Anticipating June, when cities around the United States will hold LGBTQ Pride events, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a blanket authorization allowing U.S. embassies to fly the Pride flag. That’s a signal — one of several from the Biden administration — that U.S. foreign policy is shifting from the Trump era’s hostility toward international LGBTQ rights, including a failure to recognize Pride month and a ban on flying rainbow flags at diplomatic outposts.
But how effective are Pride celebrations, rainbow flags and other such symbols in promoting LGBTQ rights in socially conservative nations? Our research in Bosnia finds both promise and challenges. As Bosnia’s successful first Pride illustrates, activists may do best if they choose strategies, methods and timing carefully, understanding that any change will be incremental.
LGBTQ rights advocacy in conservative societies
Pride events have been held since 1970 to commemorate LGBTQ resistance after, in June 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Since then, LGBTQ communities worldwide have held Pride gatherings or adopted rainbow-colored flags.
In societies where LGBTQ communities have already been accepted into the mainstream, Pride events may push citizens to become more open and accepting of LGBTQ people. But do they achieve this in deeply conservative societies?
For most of the world’s population, LGBTQ rights and protections are limited. Some might expect that visible, flag-waving Pride marchers could boost social tolerance; the “contact hypothesis” posits that direct or indirect interactions with outgroups can encourage more favorable attitudes toward those groups.
But LGBTQ symbols originating in the West, such as Pride and rainbow flags, have backfired in many places, such as Uganda and Russia, where nationalists and conservatives argue they are symbols of foreign degeneracy, antithetical to local mores. Societies that are strongly anti-gay and anti-trans can respond to LGBTQ visibility with backlash and violence.
The first Pride event in Bosnia
To understand how visible LGBTQ advocacy affects conservative communities, we fielded public opinion surveys before and after the first Pride event in Bosnia. The survey firm Ipsos conducted nationally representative face-to-face surveys of 2,000 adult respondents in July and November 2019, and a separate sample of 258 online surveys of the same adult respondents in Sarajevo twice, during the weeks before and after Pride.
Bosnia is a socially conservative, post-conflict country, often divided by religion and ethnicity among the Muslim Bosniak, Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat communities. According to recent surveys, 82 percent of Bosnians say homosexuality is never justifiable. It is not surprising that Bosnia was slower than some European countries to hold a Pride event.
About 3,000 participants marched in Sarajevo’s city center on Sept. 8, 2019, protected by police and by the country’s anti-discrimination laws. Local organizers viewed the event as important for building tolerance and were encouraged and supported by allies in the international community. For example, Eric Nelson, the openly gay U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, marched in the Pride parade.
Yet given the history of backlash against such events in some countries, local organizers emphasized that the Sarajevo Pride was a local event, not an international one. International allies understood the activists’ position, and a representative of the Sarajevo Open Center told us: “We didn’t want [embassy representatives] in the first line … nor want [solo international] statements to journalists. [International supporters] were super helpful and we issued statements jointly.”
Pride most strongly affected the attitudes of people living in the city where it occurred
Analyzing our 2019 survey, we found that the Pride event did boost support for LGBTQ activism in Sarajevo. Before the event, only 43 percent supported having a Pride march; that grew to 52 percent after the event. These positive effects were limited to Sarajevo, where the celebration took place. Organizers told us that this grew from greater visibility and contact between Pride marchers and the local community. The route disrupted ordinary foot and car traffic, compelling Sarajevans to engage with it, whether by waving at marchers or talking about it at the dinner table. The Pride event prompted discussion in the city.
Outside Sarajevo, opinions remained largely unchanged after Pride, with opposition to the event remaining strong, at more than 86 percent. Hence, our results suggest that activists are best able to utilize Pride to build support in the communities where the event takes place, where there have been more robust discourses about LGBTQ rights, and where people can see participants as local and authentically native.
We also asked respondents whether they think LGBTQ people should be “free to live as they wish.” Our findings confirm large gaps in tolerance. Within Sarajevo, a majority of people already agreed, at 60 percent. That increased by nearly 10 percent after Pride. Outside Sarajevo, majorities were far less tolerant, with 60 percent opposing that statement, and Pride did not shift those views.
Key takeaways for activists
Pride events have the potential to transform society. When LGBTQ communities are visible in a local, political demonstration, they can help prompt more acceptance. But many LGBTQ people remain at risk of intolerance, rejection and even violence, especially if they live outside more tolerant cities. Thus, a Pride event has limited effects on societal attitudes beyond that urban environment. For the marchers and the LGBTQ community itself, the effects are more far reaching, leading to empowerment and a sense of belonging.
Local movements must determine for themselves whether and when to be visible. As sociologist Ashley Currier’s work in Namibia and South Africa shows, movements often pivot to invisibility strategies for safety when opposition mounts or internal crises emerge. Although visibility can enhance the salience and credibility of movement goals, it can bring serious repercussions. For example, when President Barack Obama spoke up for gay rights in Kenya, where homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison time, opposition mobilized in protest. Sometimes invisibility is necessary for a movement’s survival.
Local organizers are best equipped to decide when to be visible, as they are acutely aware of the contexts in which they operate. Thus, Blinken’s acknowledgment that local embassies should decide whether and when to fly the rainbow flag is important. Local LGBTQ advocates will be best situated to advise.
Phillip M. Ayoub (@Phillip_Ayoub) is an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College and author of “When States Come Out: Europe’s Sexual Minorities and the Politics of Visibility” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).