Am I Invisible, or Just Gay?
The truth about being LGBT+ in Bulgaria
The two ends of the spectrum of LGBT equality across the world are quite clear. On one hand, we have the Western eurocentric giants - the UK, the USA, etc. - where same-sex partners can (for the most part) hold hands in public without fear. And on the other hand are 73 nations which criminalize same-sex sexual activity, 12 of which may punish it by death.
But what about the countries in between? We don’t hear much about the quiet, hidden oppression manifesting itself in a million different forms. My home country, Bulgaria, is a country where the progression of LGBT+ rights is characterized by one painful word - silence.
How can silence be harmful? As a Bulgarian gay man, I would like to shed light on the fight for equality in a nation where both homophobia, and its abolition, are dealt with by looking the other way.
You might be surprised to know, under the 500-year Ottoman rule, homosexuality was legal as of 1878 - the same year as the liberation of Ottoman Bulgaria. However, a year after the liberation, Bulgaria adopted a new constitution, recriminalizing homosexuality. Between 1878 and 1986 the Penal Code (enacted in 1896 and first updated in 1951) punished homosexual acts with up to 3 years of incarceration. Further revisions removed sections outlawing homosexuality, on the grounds that gay people are ill and should not be punished further.
However, the fight for LGBT rights was far from over. Instead, the situation progressed from legally oppressing LGBT+ individuals to socially oppressing them, minimizing their struggles, and refusing to acknowledge their existence. In a predominantly Orthodox Christian society, this ignorance cuts deep for many people like me and defines the experience of LGBT people nationwide.
The split narrative of Bulgarian society sees a mismatch between public attitudes and official legislation. When looked at on paper, Bulgaria has some clear and relatively progressive laws to protect people of non-heterosexual orientations.
For example, since the 2006 Protection Against Discrimination Act, sexual orientation is one of the protected categories against discrimination in the same way as gender, race, nationality, and others, as per all means stated within the Act. The Act also specifies prohibitions on discriminatory behavior in key fields such as education, employment, and healthcare. In fact, the category “sexual orientation” is included in seven Bulgarian laws as prohibited grounds for discrimination, and the latest draft for the Criminal Code in 2012 finally includes sexual orientation as a protected category against hate crime - for the first time.
However, while no identity within the LGBT+ community is criminalized, present legislation still falters when it comes to protecting certain members of our community. For instance, transgender people are not protected from discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression, as no such category exists in national law. While changing legal gender is allowed with gender reassignment surgery as a strict prerequisite (except for a small number of cases in the last 4 years), discriminating against someone who has undergone this process is not illegal, and being trans is still considered a disease of libido dysfunction by medical professionals.
Furthermore, the presence of progressive laws does not, in any way, mean that public officials enforce these laws effectively, with public opinion infecting the law enforcement system. Law enforcement officials are highly biased when it comes to hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2008, law student Mihail Stoyanov was killed by two men in one of the capital’s parks, however, they were released from house arrest in 2012. When Pride marchers have been beaten to the ground in public, police say investigating it is not a priority, while violence against trans people is also not investigated when reported.
So why not take action?
Just like the law enforcement system can turn a blind eye on LGBT struggles, so can the Bulgarian government and society. In fact, the silence of Bulgaria on a national and international scale is frightening.
The national census doesn’t collect data on sexual orientation, there is no governmental research or monitoring relating to LGBT+ issues, domestic LGBT+ research is non-existent and there is no interest in its funding, and the 2006 Act has only acted to prove existing discrimination. As such, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint exact and reliable information about the situation for the LGBT community in Bulgaria, making the fight for equality very hard - influential agents seem to be turning a blind eye on the lack of public policies and measures to combat discrimination - because there is no real evidence of it on paper. The data is deemed unreliable due to irrelevance and inconsistency.
Some international action has been brewing, as there have been numerous instances of Bulgaria being urged to improve the situation for their LGBT+ population. For instance, even as early as in 1998 the European Parliament adopted a resolution, targeting Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, and Lithuania, expressing its refusal to “give its consent to the accession of any country that, through its legislation or policies, violates the human rights of lesbians and gay men.' There have been multiple occasions within the UNHCR, such as the Universal Periodic Review of Bulgaria, where the attention of the UNHCR has been drawn to human rights concerns in Bulgaria.
However, with the lack of research, public policy and funding, LGBT+ organizations in the country, as well as international agents, can get little done. Only when the country stops ignoring the silent oppression of members of its population, can substantial action take place. Until then, it is all just invisible.
I think that my personal experience with being gay in Bulgarian society is reflected best by one thing: every time I go back to my home country, I must leave behind a big part of my wardrobe. I have to calculate how I talk, how I walk, and where I go. Purely because a nation that supposedly doesn’t mind me being gay, sees people like me assaulted on the streets in broad daylight.
Bulgaria has a long way to go before its LGBT+ population can proudly and safely exist within its borders. Same-sex marriage is still banned constitutionally. Bullying of students in Bulgarian schools perceived to be LGBT often crosses the line of morality. Politicians and the media freely amplify homophobic opinions, such as in 2019 when Alexander Sidi, an MP from the Bulgarian nationalist VMRO party, threatened organizers of an LGBT-themed “Balkan Pride” photo exhibition by saying “we will stop them, using all legal and, if required, illegal means,”.
What we need to do is break the silence, both nationally and internationally. Challenging the status quo of LGBT equality in Bulgaria is the first step to achieving a safe environment. I am yet to see this first step being taken.
Author - Teodor Yankov