PODGORICA — The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro has given a quiet and seemingly grudging nod to change this week with the baptism of a 19-year-old transgender man.
It appears to be a landmark first for the dominant religious institution in the tiny, conservative Balkan nation of some 600,000 people.
“For me, religion is love,” the man, who was christened under his adopted name of Vuk Adzic at the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Podgorica on November 3, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
Adzic said his “secret” covenant with the church followed years of faith that was tested most recently by a brutal late-night beating at the hands of intruders at his family’s mountain cottage, hinting at the violent disdain that some Montenegrins show for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
“After the attack on me outside the threshold of the family home, I definitely feel that church is my only safe harbor, where I know I can always come and be accepted as a man,” said Adzic, who grew up in the capital but spent summers with his late father and other family members in Matesevo, about 40 kilometers from Podgorica.
The rite provided a notable, if hushed, deviation from the anti-LGBT language that has consistently emanated from the most senior ranks of the country’s foremost Orthodox institution, the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral.
A November 7 church statement reinforced perceptions that Adzic’s baptism was intended as a blessing in disguise.
‘Mindless Gender Ideology’
In it, the top Serbian Orthodox authority in Montenegro downplayed the case as unexceptional and cited “medical justification” rather than any embrace of “modernism” or “liberalism.”
Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic said the medical rationale distinguished the baptism from “the propaganda and justification of same-sex relationships, a mindless gender ideology that we have witnessed in recent decades and which are, without any doubt, a sin.”
But the head of one of Montenegro’s leading LGBT rights groups has already hailed the ceremony a historic and “incredibly progressive step in accepting and confirming the identities of those most vulnerable among us.”
Bojana Jokic, board president at one of Montenegro’s two main LGBT-rights groups, LGBT Forum Progres, also told the local Dnevne Novine that the “symbolic step” could serve as a powerful antidote to public perceptions of “the retrograde and backwardness of religious institutions.”
Public acceptance of the LGBT community’s rights and freedoms is generally seen as higher in Montenegro than in a number of other countries aspiring for European Union membership. But targeted harassment remains a problem despite a handful of Montenegrin Pride events in recent years coming off without the kind of threats and violence that marred a 2013 rally and still stain similar events elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.
Montenegrin law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and punishes hate speech and hate crimes against LGBT people, earning it a middling rating among European states from one prominent rights index.
But same-sex relationships remain unprotected and legal recognition of gender change is conditioned on sex-reassignment surgery and other medical and legal steps.
Adzic’s official identification documents still show his gender as female and use suffixes that denote the holder as a girl or woman.
He reportedly used his chosen spelling of his name in the baptismal register, however, sealing the church’s break with past practice.
For days, the Orthodox Church remained silent on Adzic’s case despite RFE/RL and other media requests for confirmation of the baptism or any details of the ceremony, an event that even in more routine cases the church regards as private.
Metropolitan Amfilohije’s eventual statement cited a precedent laid out by the former head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, in 1986 for conferring baptism, communion, or other “gifts of the Church of Christ” on people who have changed their sex for medical reasons.
It added, however, that such participation is contingent on “informing the priest in good time and submitting a valid medical certificate [and] documentation.”
For years, the 81-year-old Amfilohije has been among the most vocal of the LGBT community’s critics, insisting he is “no homophobe but rather a ‘sin-phobe.'”
A decade ago, Amfilohije described a gay-pride event as “a parade of Sodom and Gomorrah” and made a reference to “the tree that does not bear fruit.”
Last year, he hurled more insults ahead of an LGBT parade in Podgorica, saying “the unnatural sin of LGBT pederasty” was being “propagated as pride.” He accused “the enlightened West” of “legitimizing the sin of sodomy [along with suicide and the murder of children]” and warned of “the self-destruction of humanity.”
In this week’s interview with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, Adzic credited Amfilohije with “giving me the blessing of being able to be baptized” and contrasted media reports about Amfilohije with “what he is: a good man with compassion.”
Adzic has also praised the quick work of police who apprehended three suspects in the attack on him in Matesevo, as well as the subsequent efforts of the judicial system.
All three men are currently awaiting trial on hate-crime and other charges in connection with the August 28 attack, which happened days after he had gone public with his situation being transgender “as a tool to educate people.”
In the article, which was accompanied by a photo, Adzic said that “discrimination, hatred, and violence are major problems” and LGBT members of society “are second-class citizens, trapped, invisible to the system when it comes to education and health, for example.”
Adzic, who is unemployed, has relied since the attack on a Podgorica NGO for shelter.
He said his late father was always supportive of his situation, as is his sister, but avoids questions about his mother and brother.
“It’s very difficult when you come to a place where you [used to] spend three months with your dad, playing with your friends and having a nice childhood and memories, and all of a sudden three men show up in the middle of the night and attack you for ‘hijacking my sexual orientation’ or because they read somewhere that I was a trans guy,” Adzic told RFE/RL.
Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Predrag Tomovic in Podgorica