September 14, 2016 / 5:22 PM / 4 years ago

Serbian transgender army veteran celebrates new beginnings

More than a year after she was sacked from Serbia’s army for coming out as transgender, Helena Vukovic has finally received identity documents stating her new sex - a small but important step forward for a deeply conservative country.

Vukovic became a cause celebre last year when she came out as the Balkan country’s first transgender army officer. In January 2015, the defense ministry forced the major out after two decades of service, saying her “psychiatric diagnosis” could harm the reputation of the military.

Helena has since undergone a series of operations to change her sex and has become a vocal advocate of the rights of sexual minorities in Serbia, an Orthodox Christian country where many are still reluctant to come out.

Vukovic still remembers the crowning moment when she received a new birth certificate after years of struggle.

“The mailman was ringing at the door, and I am sorry no one was there to film that, that emotion, at that moment. You know, when you take the envelope, the big, pink one they make, you put it on the table, you approach it and you would and would not open it. You are circling it like a cat. When I opened it, I saw it was written Helena, tears started flowing. I was crying out of joy so much perhaps only after I left the hospital. These tears, they were priceless. The state recognized you as a real woman.” Vukovic told Reuters between beers in her favorite downtown Belgrade microbrewery.

Serbia, which aspires to join the European Union, is under pressure to promote greater tolerance for minorities.

Helena says that she will remain active in advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Serbia. Transgender people face particular difficulties, she said.

“The biggest problem of transgender persons in Serbia is with the documents, from the moment one completes the transition, documents can be changed. But what about people who are undergoing transition between two and four years? Some never reach surgery, because from 100 percent of transgender persons, 80 percent never goes to the end.” she said.

A 2014 Pride march held in Belgrade for the first time in 2014 after a four-year break walked through streets emptied of traffic and pedestrians by a massive security operation involving thousands of riot police with armored vehicles, water cannon, horses and shields.

The streets leading to the site of the short march from the government headquarters to parliament were sealed off to prevent a repeat of running battles with hardline nationalists and football hooligans that took place in 2010.

Homophobia is widespread in Serbia and other conservative societies in the Balkans; the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church last week compared homosexuality to paedophilia and incest.

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