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What is it like to be LGBTI in…Bulgaria?

What is it like to be LGBTI in…Bulgaria?

Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people in Bulgaria are invisible.

A common mantra in the country is people have nothing against homosexuals, as long as they remain as discreet as possible, voiceless and hidden.

As a Bulgarian myself, I have seen for years how crucial problems of society are being swept like dust under the carpet.

And because no one talks about it, the fight for the LGBTI community to get any rights is slow, and often silent.

But people are trying to change it. Last September, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of the capital Sofia for LGBTI rights.

The annual festival Pride in Sofia has been organised for a fifth year despite the calls for violence from some members of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Father Evgeni Yanakiev, in response, has urged ‘society must in every possible way oppose the gay parade that is being planned’.

‘Throwing stones is an appropriate way,’ he believes.

What is the situation for people in Bulgaria legally?

Male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in the country but same-sex couples and households are not eligible for the same legal protections available to opposite-sex couples.

In 2003 the Protection Against Discrimination Act prohibited discrimination and hate speech on the basis of sexual orientation in all areas. Hate crimes against LGBT people have also been criminalised in a revision of the Criminal Code.

What legal changes are taking place in the country?

Last year, the leader of the ultra-nationalist party Ataka Volen Siderov proposed amendments to Bulgaria’s Penalty Code.

They would have imposed fines up to 10,000 Bulgarian leva ($7000, €5000) and jail for ‘public manifestation of homosexuality’ such as taking part in gay parades. The National Assembly rejected it in a vote on 30 January 2014.

Are there any LGBTI people in the media? Are they good role models?

One of Bulgaria’s most controversial figures is the pop singer Azis.

In 2005, he ran as an openly gay candidate for the Bulgarian Parliament. As an iconic figure for the LGBTI society, many discuss the morals behind his music and videos, as they usually involve him bathing naked in a sauna with other men and dancing provocatively in skirts and high heels.

A scandalous billboard of him and his ‘husband’ kissing shirtless caused a scandal back in 2007 when Sofia’s ex-mayor took it down. However, the city tolerated much more sexual and revealing heterosexual ads in the past.

To learn more, we spoke to Bulgarian LGBTI and human rights activist Radoslav Stoyanov, an analysis and communication expert for the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

What do you think is the environment for LGBTI people in Bulgaria now?

‘It’s not very good but the situation isn’t as bad or even comparable to countries such as Russia or Uganda.

However, you can’t compare it to many of the countries of Western Europe as well, where it is better.

As a whole, the LGBTI society in Bulgaria isn’t as organized as it should be and this can be viewed as a self-sabotage at some level. I think this could be an obstacle on the way of making a change for the LGBTI society on different levels – for example political, in terms of laws or social services.’

Earlier this year, the political party Ataka proposed a change in the Penalty Code that would have brought in a strict Russian-style law that would have banned ‘public manifestations of homosexuality’. What do you know about it?

‘The named proposition in the Penalty Code was rejected but as a response Ataka drafted the new Amendment to the Law of Gatherings, Meetings and Manifestation which is going to be seen soon. I feel like the political parties in Bulgaria use the LGBTI society as a political instrument for their personal causes.’

Would you elaborate on this?

‘It is very obvious that Ataka is a populist, euro-sceptical and noticeably more Russian-oriented party. In general, it is the fact there are propositions like this one for changes in the law going to the Parliament that is very worrying. This is not good at all.’

‘I’m not even going to talk about the rights of the families of same-sex couples, I’ll concentrate more on the fact that everyone deserves to have the opportunity to be heard, which is of a more fundamental meaning in my opinion.’

What is the future for LGBTI people in Bulgaria?

‘Although, I feel a bit sceptical the newly proposed changes won’t be accepted, what worries me personally more is the way they were treated in the parliament and in the society.

‘Overall, there were many against but their reasons and votes were concentrated around how the proposition violates international and European laws, how it’s not European of us to accept it.’

‘What was missing was the crystal clear argument this is a pure form of discrimination because it is treating a group of the society worse than it treats the rest of the people in the country.

‘The people from the LGBTI society need to have this visibility and publicity so they can communicate and discuss with the rest of the society their problems, so they can be aware of them.’

Do you believe there is no room in Bulgaria to discuss LGBTI discrimination?

‘I absolutely agree there isn’t and this is really bad. I feel like the only time the LGBT people receive some form of media attention it is in a very twisted way and not concentrated on the actual problems.’

Come back next Sunday (27 April) when we will ask what is it like to be LGBTI in Norway?