Out and Proud? LGBT+ in Bulgaria
Written by Denitsa Dimitrova, edited by Scott Green, photo by Pixabay
In the early hours of 28 June 1969 a police raid of the Stonewall Inn gay bar in New York became a riot of the local LGBT+ community that lasted six days and kicked off what we now know as the modern gay rights movement. The following year demonstrations were organized in June to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riot, not just in New York but also Los Angeles and San Francisco. From there the movement grew and spilled across North America and Europe, where demonstrations were held every year. This was the beginning of Gay Pride, and since 1978 the rainbow flag has been associated with the movement; representing the diversity of the LGBT+ community. In 2019 the Stonewall Riot celebrated its 50th anniversary and yet its meaning and importance seem to be lost on the general public. With Sofia Pride coming on 12 June 2021 (link here), the ‘burning question’ needs to be answered – why is the Gay Pride Parade important?
Gloriya: Yes, this is a very important question and we have responded to it many times, but somehow the answers get lost in the whole blizzard of sexualization and stigmatization of the LGBTI community. I think that ever since the Stonewall riots, Pride parades bring positive change on various levels. Many people say that there is no need to “parade” on the streets because we have our rights, but this is far from the truth. LGBTI people in Bulgaria are still not protected from homophobic and transphobic hate crimes; trans people still don’t have access to an accessible legal gender recognition procedure, nor to proper healthcare; intersex children are still being an object of harmful and unnecessary medical interventions; and, of course, the rights of LGBTI families and their children are still not recognized. A recent legal analysis showed that the lack of legal recognition of LGBTI families deprives them of over 300 rights that are guaranteed for married heterosexual couples. This is why we march on the streets and demand our rights be protected. Sofia Pride brings the public focus to these issues and gives us an opportunity to communicate to the public, in the media, and with the institutions about what needs to be done in order to guarantee LGBTI people’s rights.
Sofia Pride is also a great platform for bringing people together and building bridges. Every year it is accompanied by a month-long Pride program, which includes many events – discussions, movie screenings, art events, and sports events that aim to open the floor to conversation. People are afraid of the unknown and I believe that the more we meet and have real and honest conversations, the sooner we will overcome the stigma and be able to live in solidarity with one another. Another crucial role of the Pride events is to show LGBTI people that they are not alone. Seeing thousands of people marching in the streets of Sofia in support of your rights and your existence is a huge message of support for the LGBTI community and especially young LGBTI people. I remember when I was a teenager I didn’t know any other LGBTI people and I was feeling really alone and afraid, and seeing the first Sofia Pride happening really gave me hope and showed me that I’m not alone.
Chris: I don’t really like using the word ‘parade’ when it comes to Sofia Pride. Conservative people in Bulgaria have found a way to weaponize that word and use it as just another way to discriminate against us and tell us that we should not be out in the open and should hide ourselves. I prefer the word ‘March’. It’s true that most people in Bulgarian society don’t know anything about the history of the gay liberation movement and the significance of the Pride March. I think what’s most important is to remind people that the first pride marches were protests against police violence and discrimination against LGBT+ people. As things have gone better in some parts of the world the Pride March has turned into a celebratory event. In countries like Bulgaria, the protest roots of the Pride are still being quite evident because we continue to fight for our rights and we are still facing homophobia and transphobia on a daily basis. Pride is especially important in countries like ours because it’s a way to show our political powers that we exist, we have a voice and we deserve to be treated with respect just as all other citizens. In addition, the Pride March is a great way for LGBT+ people to come together, feel empowered, and spend a great time amongst other people who are facing the same challenges in life.
Simeon: I think fear is at the core of intolerance. It’s fear that the world is changing so rapidly, that you’re going to lose your ground and what you believe in, that this is something that is against your little order in the world. I hope people will be overcoming their fears by coming to Pride.
We’ve grown from 80 people in the first Sofia Pride to 7000 people in the last one, in only 13-14 years. And we are overwhelmed and astonished with the numbers we are getting. More and more people are coming, but there’s been this lack of understanding of what Pride is about and people have been listening to the media and seeing this disrupted reality of what Pride is – that we are parading to show our sexuality on the streets. On the other hand, Pride has grown to be the largest event when it comes to the support of human rights in Bulgaria. It is attracting the support of businesses and celebrities – just coming to see it or perform in it. More and more people are asking us if it’s safe to come to Pride, they probably remember the early years when they saw on TV that it’s quite a dangerous event. In the past, on the route of the Pride, there were people, once or twice, throwing bibles at us and shouting. The last time we had Pride was in 2019, before the Covid crisis, and I remember it made a very strong impression on me, people were cheering us and clapping, dancing on their balconies as we went by. Pride is a safe event and a welcoming event so feel free to come – it’s happening on 12 June this year in front of the Soviet Army Monument and everyone is welcome. I’m so happy that there are many people coming with their kids, so it’s becoming a family-friendly event.
Also, there will be an open call coming soon for volunteers to help navigate the parade and help out with all sorts of activities. It will be amazing if people want to volunteer at the Pride Parade but not just then. We are always in need of volunteers for our events and the different initiatives that we have – you can find GLAS Foundation on Facebook and the other social media channels, you can donate on our Patreon page. It is a very heartwarming moment when someone says that they like what you do and they want to be a part of it.
Kosta: We are still fighting for a paradigm shift so that Bulgarians understand that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. Being openly queer is about taking away the stigma so that we get to focus on being our authentic selves. So often, queer artists and activists are forced to bring their sexuality to the forefront of their identity not by choice but as a reaction to the oppression we experience. When you see a queer person being themselves, remember it’s not about you and your comfort.
Bulgarians are taught that it’s a bad thing to stand out and be noticed, so they don’t see LGBTQ+ equality as something inclusive, but something divisive and “special”. In this context, Pride is extremely important because it shows the whole country that we exist and we want to be part of society without hiding our identity every time we walk out the door. I just wish more people would come and experience it with their own eyes rather than trusting traditional media coverage.