The murder of the 25-year-old student Michail Stoyanov in Sofia’s Borissova Gradina park in 2008, by a group of young men who told police they had wanted to “cleanse the park of gays”, is the latest climax of hate crimes against members of the LGBT minority in Bulgaria. But in the country’s laws, homophobia, which is widespread, is not recognized as an aggravating factor for crimes, which means there might me more recent cases of this kind nobody knows about.
However, many gays in Bulgaria become victims of physical violence. Yet another minority, the LGBT community, does not get any support from the government or the lawmakers, or from anyone.
Imanuel Marcus spoke to Radoslav Stoyanov, who is responsible for communication, campaigns and legal programmes at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.
Foreigners & Friends Magazine (FF): Let’s get the legal part out of the way first. What about same sex marriage in Bulgaria? Or, can homosexuals at least register their partnerships officially?
Radoslav Stoyanov: Under Bulgarian law, same sex couples are not recognized in any way. Not only can they not legalize their family, but they are also deprived of protection from domestic violence, they can not inherit. All right accessible to heterosexual couples are not accessible to homosexuals.
FF: What about adoption?
Radoslav Stoyanov: One of them can adopt a child. But, under the law, two people can only adopt one child if they are married, which applies to heterosexual couples only.
FF: The Sofia Pride Parade took place a few months ago. You had a stage full of ambassadors from European countries, the United States and Israel, showing and expressing solidarity with the Bulgarian LGBT community, and demanding an end to the discrimination it is facing. But not a single Bulgarian government official was on stage. Why?
Radoslav Stoyanov: I believe this reflects a general issue with Bulgarian politicians. They generally lack understanding of the general problems the citizens of this country are facing. The second issue is that LGBT issues are not being recognized in any way, by any political parties, which is why they do not include any of those issues in their political programmes. I have never heard of any openly gay people in those parties. The few homosexuals in politics are not being promoted in their parties, due to their sexual orientation. So, LGBT issues are not being recognized by politicians. For that reasons, they are not present at the Pride. They do not see LGBT people as potential voters. Actually, to be honest, there are parties which have firm policies on the LGBT community, and those are the ultra-nationalists. They always have LGBT policies, but negative ones, of course. They are against the visibility of gays, against the legalization of same sex families, against anti-discrimination laws.
FF: In everyday life, what do people experience, who are openly gay in Bulgaria, openly lesbian or transgenders? How does everyday life work for these people?
Radoslav Stoyanov: There are different levels of being openly gay. You can be openly gay in part only. For example, you can hold your partner’s hand on the street. You can be openly gay in front of your friends, in your small circle, and create a small bubble, in which you are openly gay or transgender, while still being ín a safe environment. I believe that is the case with most openly gay or transgender people in Bulgaria. There are only very few people who are so openly gay that they would inform people all around. Unfortunately, people who are really openly gay, are often being exposed, discriminated and they become victims of hate crimes. There are many cases of gays who were attacked on the street or in bars. This is what happens.
FF: Aren’t there openly gay people in the Bulgarian show business or on television, who might be willing to fight for LGBT rights?
Radoslav Stoyanov: There used to be such a show hosted by a Chalga singer named Aziz. He is famous on an international level, and he is kind of openly gay. But, unfortunately, he has never communicated any positive messages, regarding LGBT visibility or equality. He has not made the case for being openly gay. Neither has he spoken about issues gay people face. Actually, his public messages have been the opposite. He was against the Sofia Pride Parade, he has been very reluctant to admit there is discrimination in the Bulgarian society. He says the latter was tolerant. So, the few people in Bulgaria who are openly gay or lesbian in this country, usually deny the existence of discrimination, or they avoid talking about these issues.
FF: When you look at gays on the one and Lesbians on the other hand, do you see a difference, when it comes to discrimination? Is there a difference, what the level is concerned?
Radoslav Stoyanov: The discrimination which originates from the legislation of course affects all homosexuals. At the same time, lesbians are being treated a better way that gays. This has to do with sexism in this society. Lesbian sex is a sexual fantasy of straight men, in many cases. That is the reason why, in this society, lesbians are being accepted more. Also, the porn industry utilizes sexual acts between women a lot. This is not the case with gay men. Intimacy between men is sanctioned, it is deemed disgusting, or a sin. So, the stigma is stronger, when it comes to gay men. Then we have transgenders, who are being seen as “the ultimate image of the exotic”, because this is the point at which a male body stops being male and wants to be something else, which totally goes against the understanding of gender standards in society. I believe, transgender people are the most affected, when it comes to discrimination. Then it’s gay men. And then lesbians. The latter are not really being discriminated less, but in a different way.
FF: The way we see it, you are one of the very few fighters for gay and lesbian rights in Bulgaria. What do you do, in order to fight homophobia? Have you seen any success, or do you feel you are running against a wall?
Radoslav Stoyanov: When there are very few people who do anything, it is very hard to work on the issue because there are so many things to be done. There is work in the field of legislation, in the field of health care services, there are education and social issues in this context. There are many fields which need to be worked on. There are moments when you feel you need to be like Buddah with a hundred hands, trying to do and know everything. So, you need to be an expert in everything. That is very hard and not really possible, but people expect you to do it all, because they saw you on television, talking about these issues. Personally, I have been working in the field of strategic litigation, and, more specifically, tackling hate speech in the media. Also, I have been involved in educating the community. I started my own blog, years ago, I translated many articles. I started this when I was 17 years old, from the English Wikipedia into Bulgarian, because there was not much information in our language. Later, I started my own news website. Because I believe that, if you provide information to people, about the good things happening all over the world, and the bad things, e.g. in Russia or Africa, you can raise awareness and promote their feeling of belonging into the LGBT community. And you can make them concerned about things which do happen in the global LGBT community. Also I participated in the organizing committee of the Sofia Pride Parade. On top of that, I have talked with and in the media, about LGBT. But there is a lot more to be done.
FF: Is there a specific aspect about part of the Bulgarian people which keeps them from understanding and accepting minorities, such as the LGBT minority?
Radoslav Stoyanov: I am afraid that the vast majority of people in Bulgaria, not just the LGBT, but generally, are suffering from apathy. Because, for so many years now, after the democratic changes, which means the transition from a totalitarian communist regime to a democratic society, there are so many issues, which affect the entire Bulgarian society, but which have not been tackled. Those include fundamental issues like justice, the freedom of media and so on. Many people are so tired of everything, they do not have the energy to fight. They just prefer to run away from Bulgaria. Unfortunately this also applies to the LGBT community. During the 1990s, lots of LGBT people left Bulgaria. I think they never came back. Many of them are not even interested what happens here. They just decided to forget the awful things which happened in Bulgaria in the 90s, with the mafia, the corruption and the financial crisis. And the people left here are either “in the closet”, afraid to do anything, or they have their psychological mechanisms of denial, so that they are not supportive of LGBT activities. Or, many of them create those small bubbles which I mentioned. Also there are those who see the problem, but do not feel strong enough to do anything. I always tell people, you can change things, you can do small things in your everyday life, for example by coming out in front of your friends. That is an important first step, but not enough. Then they can actively raise the topic of homosexuality and talk to their friends. They can mention, recognize and raise the visibility of the problem. And they can raise the issue with the people they vote for at the next elections. I hope those messages got through to some people, at least.
FF: All of this homophobia, not just in Bulgaria, but in this region, and in Russia, where does it come from?
Radoslav Stoyanov: I think it comes from the same place in all parts of the world. Human behaviour is not a simple thing. But what I would like to stress is this: The intolerance in Bulgaria, the profile of discrimination in this country is specific. It is marked by denial. Even though there is discrimination, not just against LGBT people, but also other minorities, there is something we want to believe about ourselves. When you ask people on the street “Is there intolerance in Bulgaria?”, maybe most of them will say “No, because Bulgaria is traditionally a tolerant society.” Many people like to believe that, because, for so many centuries, we lived with Turks, in the Ottoman Empire. And we have so many Roma, who live here. So, “Yes, we are tolerant”, but that is not actually true at all. First of all, the word tolerance bothers me, because to be tolerant means to tolerate something, without accepting it. You give it its space to exist, but still you do not accept it. I think this is the key. There is no acceptance in Bulgaria. When you rephrase the questions you ask, things change. If you ask them about specific things, like “Would you vote for an openly gay presidential candidate?” or “Would you be fine with an openly gay teacher teaching your child?”, I think the answers will rapidly change. So, this kind of denial is widespread in Bulgaria. On the one hand, many LGBT people deny the existence of discrimination, in order to tackle the issue psychologically. On the other hand, there is the general denial in the society. Because we do not like to admit that we are intolerant, after all.