LGBTI in Bulgaria – Rising Hope and New Threats

LGBTI in Bulgaria – Rising Hope and New Threats

On the 18th of June Bulgaria’s annual Sofia Pride parade celebrated it’s 15th anniversary. Since it first took place in 2008 there had regularly been attacks on the parade’s participants. With an estimated 15.000 attendants this years’ march for acceptance and equal rights was the biggest in the country’s history and it went down completely peaceful. In light of this landmark achievement it seems a fitting time to take a look at the struggles of the Bulgarian LGBTI community, which are far from over.

The History

Globally speaking the acceptance of non-heteronormative sexualities and gender-identities is still not a given. Rather the opposite is the case with the vast majority of Earth’s population living in countries where LGBTI people are denied equal rights. To understand why Bulgaria is more reluctant to open up to LGBTI people than more progressive countries like for example Norway let’s start with an excursion into history.

At the time when LGBTI issues became part of the intellectual and later on political discourse in the West Bulgaria like most of eastern Europe was sealed off behind the iron curtain. Radoslav Stoyanov from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee traces the root of the problem back even further.

The Iron curtain was not merely an economic or freedom of movement obstacle, it was a wall against ideas and ‘harmful Western influence’. There is a deep Occidentalism at play here, fuelled to a huge extent by how the ‘Collective West’ (I deliberately use the latest Russian official’s lexicon in the context of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine) saw and treated small nations and ethnicities in Eastern Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially around the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as around the wars of the time. So, from one side when the Iron Curtain dropped there was already a slight scepticism of the social progressivism of the West, and on the other side, that predisposition was cleverly exploited by the Eastern Block totalitarian regimes. If the plural is even possible here; it was really Kremlin’s totalitarian block.

Once the Iron curtain fell, achievements of Western thought, technological or philosophical, were not so much available. People didn’t have the freedom to protest or organize in civil society organizations. The press was under party control. There was nothing capable of bringing any change.

There was one little source of light and that was the field of science, where Eastern Europe psychiatrists and sexologists were able to access some of their Western colleagues’ work and through it bring some change. This is how, for example, Bulgaria dropped sexual contact between consensual adults of the same gender from the current Criminal Code in 1968. However, gay people, mostly men, continued to be prosecuted under other provisions or pretexts. So, this change, just like party-mandated gender equality, was defective and not brought by any social acceptance. On top of that people were not talking about sex. It was against “socialist morals,” although there is nothing socialist in that idea, honestly. In other words, despite branding themselves as “socialist” many of those totalitarian regimes were in many ways conservative. Paths to knowledge about sexuality were scarce.”

The State of Society

Now it’s been more than 30 years and a lot has changed since the fall of the socialist system in Bulgaria. For a long time the situation slowly but steadily improved. Only more recently, surrounding political campaigns peaking in 2018, there has been a new rise in intolerance, hate-speech and hate-crimes. To provide further insight four members of the Bulgarian LGBTI community tell about their experiences. 

Galya Petkova, co-founder and co-owner of the lesbian bar Bar Essence

Gloriya Filipova, project coordinator at the Bilitis Foundation, an LGBTI organization focused on women’s needs and rights and the official organizer of the Sofia Pride

Simeon Vasilev, Chairman of the GLAS (Gays and Lesbians Accepted in Society) Foundation

Vitamen Dee, a bisexual stand-up comedian, 

At first they answered general questions about their experience as LGBTI people in Bulgaria.

Q: How do you feel in general about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTI people in Bulgarian society?

Galya Petkova: People don‘t understand, actually don‘t want to understand, I think. Every time June comes, because it‘s pride month, politcians start to use us as a weapon. They start hate speech and try to keep people angry towards us. They use us, they are trying to seperate the people, tell them we are crazy, stuff like that.

It gets better. Three years ago there were let‘s say 3000 or 4000 at the Pride. Last year 10k. People are changing, the young ones are more understanding, the old ones not.

Vitamen Dee: My experience is that people are severely biased and strongly homophobic. There‘s been a rise of right-wing parties

promoting traditional family values and pledging to combat perversion. Which is very strange to me. There is truly no widespread acceptance or display of different sexualities in Bulgaria outside the capital. So it puzzles me that people seem to be pre-emptively seeing a problem that hasn‘t even occured yet. The traditional family is not under fire, at least not by LGBTI people. There‘s more a disintegration of heterosexual relationships themselves.

On the upside I‘ve been noticing a lot more people, especially girls in same-sex relationships be more open in public. Interacting, kissing in public. So I hope the younger generation is braver.

Q: Why do you think Bulgaria has a harder time opening up to LGBTI people than more liberal western countries?

Gloriya Filipova: It’s an issue not only for Bulgaria but for the whole of eastern Europe. Improval of LGBTI or generally human rights is not a priority. Bulgaria is economically unstable. Because of poverty and unemployment people say ‘we have too many other issues, you have to wait, then maybe some day it will be your turn’.

Generally people are not very politicised. They are used to being told what to do. [Under the socialist regime] you had to vote for one party, couldn’t really choose what to work, where to live. In the early democratic years all politics were ruled by the mafia, which still continues to be the case in Bulgaria. Politics is a dirty word. Everyone who does [engage in politics] is considered a toy of the mafia. So even when it comes to general human rights the majority remains passive.

Simeon Vasilev: If you had asked me five years ago the answer would have been different but these days I‘m blaming more and more the Russian propaganda. Because Bulgaria has been very objected to Russian propaganda. This Russian influence is dividing the population and playing with the prejudice of people.

The other factor is that in the last 10-12 years we had a government supported by far-right political parties. Also some of them sponsored by the Russian state – or by evangelistic American organisations.

It accumulated in 2018 when the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which was ratified a year earlier by the government, then all of a sudden became the central news for half a year. For half a year in the media and the public there was strong propaganda against the „genders“ – this new slang that appeared for f*****s or people of the third gender or whatever. And for half a year these far-right parties and the media created really a buzz around it. They scapegoated the LGBTI community.

I really ask myself what happened there. Because in the 90s, 91, 92 there was less homophobia, transphobia for sure. There was gay clubs and everything. Things started to open in the 90s.

Q: Where do you see the sources of homo-/bi-/transphobia, intolerance and hate-speech?

Galya Petkova: Most of [the parties] are talking [against LGBTI people]. Some are not taking a side. But if you’re not taking a side you’re also taking a side.

Gloriya Filipova: Right-wing parties for sure. Then there are many right-wing NGOs, conservatives, the orthodox church. And evangelical churches were very active during these campaigns [mentioned above]. The organisations and parties behind them are very well organised and funded. They all have a similar agenda, the messages and even logos are pretty much the same. A little family, father, mother, two children. They present themselves as concerned citizens but if you look them up you find they have been involved in right-wing or conservative politics for years. They get funding from Russia, the USA, but also European countries like Spain. You can’t really track the money as it’s mostly from private donors or churches, but there is really good research by Opendemocracy about the funding of the anti-gender movement. 

Vitamin Dee: Some parties that have traditionally been the classical right-wing reactionaries. We have „Attack“, now we have „Revival“ who are classic anti-mask, anti-vax, pro-traditional family. I try to stay away from politics but as this point I realized I can‘t. I just see more and more of these parties.

Q: What was it like growing up, discovering your sexuality? Did you find any education?

Galya Petkova: It was hard. I was born in a small town. I hadn’t come out yet but everyone was talking behind my back. People make jokes, they laugh at you. It was hard.

I didn‘t find education. We didn‘t have any. I just accepted myself, I didn‘t have a choice. I said it is what it is, I can not hide myself. Of course I felt guilt. In the beginning everyone feels guilt. I tried to hide myself. I was 18 when I came out. Before that I just hadn‘t talked about it, was scared about it. Nowadays you can search, google, find information, it‘s normal. 30 years ago it wasn‘t.

My mother said if you can change this… If you can go normal stay here, if you can‘t just go to a bigger town, so you‘ll be free. She didn’t take a side I’d say.

Vitamin Dee: I didn‘t find anything. I kept it under wraps mostly because I was afraid of the backlash. I grew up in the 90s, early 2000s which was a very difficult time for Bulgaria overall. People were hungry, We were transitioning to market economy, trying to get into Europe. Overall it was violent and impoverished. People were not focused on educating their children to be tolerant and accepting their sexuality. I never had a talk about it in school with anyone, Actually when I was in sixth grade we had a discussion in one of our extracurricular activities, literature I think it was. We had a discussion about homosexual men and homosexuality in general. And my best friend said that she thought homosexuality was a disease. All these people should be round up and just kept on an island somewhere. Guarded, so they don‘t disturb the children. I was horrified. She‘s a good person but she was 12 and she said this majorly fucked up thing. It just made me feel that I should hide even more that my best friend said that. It‘s troubling to have people close to you that feel this way. I think every person in the LGBTI community here can point to a person that is or was close to them and said such a thing at a point.

Q: What common stereotypes and prejudices do LGBTI people face in Bulgaria?

Gloriya Filipova: People imagine [the Sofia Pride] as a really scary place, where naked people walk around and want to assault children. The media image of LGBTI people is not the best in Bulgaria. I believe this is where most of the prejudice comes from.

Also this propaganda the past few years has affected public the opinion. Afte the Istanbul Convention campaign, there was another campaign against the national document that was about child protection. The national child protection strategy. Some of the messages behind it was that NGOs want to steal Bulgarian children, literally take them from their families, and to give them for adoption in Norway to same-sex couples. Who are black. I was surprised that people trusted these campaigns. For example in one case someone called the parents of the kids in a school and told them that after school there will be a Bus waiting for the kids to take them to Norway. And parents were running around town, going to the school to pick up their children so they‘re not taken to Norway.

Simeon Vasilev: There’s so many, I don’t know where to start. Of course that we want to make all the kids gay. That we are disturbing their sexuality. That we are showing off. That we want special rights. That we want to molest children. That we want to adopt children to molest them. That we are against the traditional Bulgarian family. Which is ridiculous because at the end of the day we’re fighting for the right to have a family. That we are financed by international or American organisations, trying to disturb society.

Vitamin Dee: There’s this perception of the ‘radical gays’, which are discussed online sometimes. (Interviewer: Radical gays?) Exactly, that‘s the whole joke. I am als not sure what these people mean, when they are afraid of the radical gays. I was like „who are those radical gay people“? I wasn‘t getting it also. I think a lot of the people who are afraid also don‘t know what they‘re afraid of. That someone will make their kid watch gay porn?

Q: With the government change of 2021 a lot of Bulgarians have regained hope that change is possible. Do you feel this also applies to the LGBTI community?

Galya Petkova: We don‘t have anything else, right? We just have hope. It is what it is and we hope it will get better. But we‘ll see.

Glorya Filipova: Yes, absolutely. First because the other far-right parties are not in parliament. There are now more LGBTI friendly MPs in parliament. Generally the ruling party is [LGBTI] friendlier than the previous one. Not perfect, but at least they’re not against us. Also the new minister of justice is doing a great job. She was there at the event for the opening of the Sofia Pride program. I talked to her about hate-crime legislation, she said they’re working on it. It was the first time we had ministers present at this event. So we’re hopeful.

Simeon Vasilef: Yes, we have high expectations. We hope they [the new governing coalition] a bit a bit longer or at least a full four year term. There are already signs of improvemen. We met the minister of justice. Lastly on the international day against homo-/bi-/transphobia we did a reception at the UK’s ambassador’s residence. There we had not only the minister of justice but the vice prime minister, the minister of environment, the minister of health, the minister of innovation, plus the major of Sofia. So at least they‘re present, they‘re ready to hear us, which is already a major change from the previous government.

Q: What changes would you like to see?

Galya Petkova: One of the things would be a law for people attacking gay people [hate crimes]. Now if someone hits a gay person in Bulgaria they will charge him like a hooligan [vandalism].

Also we don‘t have the right to get married, to get [adopt] children. We don‘t have the same rights but pay the same taxes as straight people.

Glorya Filipova: Hate crime legislation might be the first that is possible to achieve. Because of the minister [of justice] and also because of the attacks last year [see below] it became a visible topic.

Some form of recognition of LGBTI families, like partnership or marriage. We‘re pushing more for partnership because people here aren‘t ready for calling it marriage.

Legal gender recognition procedure. Something that we don‘t have also.

Ban surgery on intersex children.

Basically every field. The only protection we have is protection against discrimination.

Simeon Vasilev: We [the GLAS Foundation] have three main objectives.

The change of the legal code so that hate crimes based on homo/bi/transphobic ground are included in the criminal code.

Some kind of legal recognition of same-sex families. Whether civil union or another form.

Adoption rights for same-sex couples.

A fourth thing would be the recognition of same-sex marriages done in other states being recognized in Bulgaria and all member-states.

I‘m always saying we don‘t want tolerance we want acceptance. This is a big mind change, a big thing forward. Often people are saying „I‘m tolerant, I just don‘t want you to parade or to see you on TV“. And that‘s not tolerance, so I want people to be more accepting. We are seeing this already insofar as there are lots of things happening throughout the year whereas ten years ago it was only Sofia Pride.

Missing throughout all these years is the coming out of celebrities. That might never happen actually. So many journalists, actors, musicians, doctors you name it who are gay. And everybody knows but they‘re not coming out. If it doesn‘t happen it makes what we do way more difficult. Because you don‘t see gay people.

Even in the broader public opinion they‘re quite obviously gay but still they‘re not coming out. Lots of them are getting married, having kids just to stop the gossip.

The Violent Attacks

There are obvious common denominators among those wishes for change, one of them being the proper law against hate-crimes. As a matter of fact two of the interviewees, Galya Petkova and Glorya Filipova, have been the victims of violent hate crimes.

Three years ago a guy on the street called me a f****t”, Galya recalls, “I didn’t react so he ran after me. He attacked me from behind actually, said ‘I don’t want to see you in this neighbourhood’, then ran away. He punched out four teeth.” In the aftermath she had to go to a dentist for more than two years and went to see a therapist many times. When Galya went to the police they looked for the culprit but she isn’t sure how hard they tried. “Actually there was a camera there. But they didn’t find him. If I was a straight women… I don’t know.”

Glorya was attacked less than a year ago, on October 30th 2021. She was actually able to identify the attacker, who led a mob in a raid on the Rainbow Hub, Sofia’s LGBTI community centre. “Last year we had a trans-community meeting at the office, which is also the community centre. A group of eleven entered the place and destroyed it. Everything, sprayed the walls, paintings, broke shelves, everything. I was punched by their leader. Who was running for president at the time. It was part of his presidential campaign.” The man in question is Boyan Rasate, back then the leader of the far-right Bulgarian National Union (BNS), who had already been sentenced for violating public order during the first Sofia Pride in 2008. “This is how far-right parties campaign. Last year we had three governmental and one presidential election. Around each round of election there were a lot of attacks.”

While the attack on the Rainbow Hub caused an outcry among Bulgarian as well as international politicians and Boyan Rasate is on trial at the time of this article’s publication the prospect for proper persecution is again dire. “Because there is no hate-crime law the persecution filed the case as hooliganism. But it doesn’t fit the law’s definition of hooliganism. The last hearing is on June 24th but our lawyer believes [the verdict] will be not guilty because it was wrongly classified. Lack of legislation is a huge issue. Most hate-crimes are classified as hooliganism and then the court says not guilty.”

Media and Representation

In Bulgaria the council for electronic media, the CEM, reviews the activities of electronic media supervisors for content that is unconstitutional or otherwise against the rules and regulations, guided by the interests of society, freedom and pluralism of speech and information. According to Vitamin Dee they neglect homophobia. “On numerous occasions people said outrageously homophobic stuff but didn’t get fined. They [the CEM] would be required to take action, but there’s no one there to make them. It would take a citizen to call and file a complaint. Then they are obliged to investigate and give you an official reply, but they are not obliged to sanction the TV station.” There is a new codex for the CEM being worked on but “it doesn’t protect sexuality in any way. It mentions discrimination based on sex, religion, ethnicity et cetera but not sexual orientation. And when they say ‘sex’ the legislation is very, very grey if it includes the western understanding of gender”.

As far as representation goes Vitamin Dee says: “We have a few public figures that are I’d say queer. Or at least they look genderbending, carry themselves like from a different sex, challenge gender norms. I think mostly men do that. They’re mostly public figures. I don’t see them as fighters for any cause.”

As mentioned before there are people in Bulgarian public life that are at least assumed to be LGBTI but they usually stay in the closet. Even Vitamin Dee says that she would probably not make her sexuality public should she become more famous. “I might at some point, but at this point I‘d rather say no because I don‘t want to be pidgeonholed, I don‘t want to be boxed up as this and this comedian. Like the expat comedian or the queer comedian. I don‘t want to be stereotyped and forced to do comedy that is very involved with me being foreign or me being bisexual or me being a woman. Unfortunately this happens a lot in stand-up. Also I have this somewhat schematic experience of having to prove myself, which really discourages me from sharing about my sexuality. As a bisexual women people don‘t take you seriously.“

The (Peaceful) Fight Back

Besides the attacks, misrepresentation and discrimination there are also people fighting for the rights of the Bulgarian LGBTI community. Or in some cases just for their ability to go about their business undisturbed.

18 years ago Galya Petkova founded the lesbian bar Bar Essence with her back then girlfriend. She had worked as waitress, bartender and manager in other bars and concluded that Sofia needed a place where lesbians can feel safe. Creating this safe space took a bit more than just opening a bar. “If you want to go inside you need to push a button so I can open the door from the inside. It’s so nobody can come and make trouble for the girls. We’re just girls there. Seven, eight years ago we didn’t have the button. Guys came to watch, look, makes jokes et cetera… We needed to kick them out, which wasn’t easy. The button made it easier.”

Meanwhile Simeon Vasilev and Glorya Filipova work with their respective organisations to achieve change on political and institutional level. The Bilitis and the GLAS foundation have initiated or are involved in a wide range of projects to stop discrimination, raise visibility and awareness and complete inclusion of LGBTI people in different sectors of society.

One project by the GLAS goes under the slogan “Mom, I have to tell you something” and is aimed at parents who face difficulties accepting their children’s LGBTI identity. The idea is to provide the parents with professionals to talk to and help them get over their prejudices through the means of education. Simeon explains: “Some of the parents are very homophobic, very prejudiced. There are parents who want to treat their kids, take them to a psychiatrist. They feel ashamed, feel that this is shameful. ‘What are the neighbours gonna say’. They‘re not gonna have grandchildren. It‘s a mixture of fear and prejudice and stigma. There is this thing that most prejudiced parents are afraid to reach out in the first place. A few are coming themselves, growing numbers over the years. Those that don’t, I hope they’re at least reaching out to our online resources”.

In 2021 GLAS and Bilitis in cooperation with the Association of European Journalists Bulgaria and Oslo Pride have launched the Community Voices project. The goal is to overcome negative stereotypes about vulnerable groups in society which are victims of hate-speech.

Simeon tells us: “This project is very importantl. We‘re training journalists on how to cover the LGBT movement and life. And LGBT-community leaders to be prepared, how to have debates on national television and so on.” The results so far seem to be mixed but also displaying the tendency of things slowly getting better. “It‘s a process I would say. In the last six years that I‘ve been involved in activism I‘ve seen a change. When I go to TV-stations/shows I notice that the hosts are quite different now. Not only the hosts but sometimes the director, producer, the camera guy. So there is a change but it‘s a long way. There are of course these yellow media that are just trying to have a scandal. So I should say that we‘re reaching out to the journalists that at least want to be educated. If there was a way to reach out to those who don‘t want to come to these meetings that would be beneficial.” As the reasons why some don’t want to come he states partly the process, them having to sign up, take the time and so on but also that some just “don’t want to work on the subject, the matter”.

Next to this the Bilitis Foundation works among others on projects aimed at education teachers, social and healthcare professionals, and the police.

According to Glorya the majority of the teachers and social and healthcare professionals are very responsive. “Most that come are already open minded or interested in the topic. If it‘s organized by the school some might be more conservative. In general with all the professionals, they‘re already LGBTI friendly, just don‘t know the terminology, maybe biology.”

Police officers are a different matter that Glorya describes as “very difficult”. “It is the macho culture among the forces. They’re a bit ashamed to even talk about LGBTI issues. We partner with the interior ministry so they are literally forced to come to trainings. They’re not very happy about it. But you can see by the end of the training they start to change their mind, stop being so afraid to talk about gender and sexuality.”

Although the past years brought setbacks in regards to society and politics Glorya believes at least the community is on the right track: “More people are out and open about their identity. They‘e coming to Sofia Pride. Last year we had 10000, this year we expect maybe 15000, a lot for a small country. Community wise we‘re growing and getting stronger and that‘s what you need to achieve change.”

Simeon shares this optimism: “In the last four years we‘ve managed to secure the Rainbow Hub. There is an entertainment queer venue called the Steps, there are more and more people reaching out for legal advice, fighting, protesting, filing suits against the municipality, or just doing something for the community. Four years ago when we started we were looking for LGBTI people to star in a video and couldn‘t find more than three. Last year for something similar there were more than thirty.”

At the end of the interview, when asked if he had anything to add, he says: “We always need cooperation. For people who are going to read this there should be a call to action. We need to reach out to people willing to support us, or to just come to the Sofia Pride because it’s a nice event. Instead of just going to Amsterdam Pride, which is fantastic and beautiful, you can come to a Pride where it really matters. It really matters much more if you are there and every number counts.”

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