“We can always call them Bulgarians,” is a quotation attributed by Wilella Waldorf to “Samuel Goldwyn or somebody” in the New York Post, September 17, 1937. (as cited in The origin of “Bulgarian” as a euphemism for sexual minorities.) The euphemism was used in American cinema and theatre when referring to gay and lesbian characters on screen and on stage starting in the first half of the 20th century. What made me think of this is my recent trip to Bulgaria.

I left Ottawa, bound for Bulgaria, on July 14th and returned on July 25th. I met up with my friend Plamen in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, and embarked on a whirlwind tour with him as my guide and interpreter. We had a great time. Bulgaria has a rich history and culture going back to antiquity and today Bulgaria is a peaceful and prosperous society. During the tour, we did not visit any gay bars or clubs in Bulgaria. This was not on the itinerary, still, in the back of my mind I wondered what life is like for gay people in Bulgaria. Do gay people live openly in Bulgarian society or do they remain closeted and if so, why?

plamen 300x168 We can always call them Bulgarians.

Dining with my friend Plamen at a restaurant in Sofia

What struck me initially as a positive development for gay people in Bulgaria was the decriminalization of homosexual sex by means of an amendment The Bulgarian Penal Code in 1968. At the same time homosexual sex was decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967 with the repeal of the Labouchere Amendment and decriminalized in Canada in 1969 with the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-69 (S.C. 1968-69, c. 38).

In short, Article 157:4 of the Bulgarian Penal Code was revoked. The article hitherto criminalized “homosexual acts in public places and homosexual acts performed in a ‘scandalous manner’ or ‘in a manner that may incite others to follow a path of perversion.” (De-centring Western sexualities: Central and Eastern European Perspectives) However, the thinking behind the decriminalization of homosexual sex in Bulgaria was that same-sex attraction is a mental illness.

Homosexuals, as Todor Bostandzhiev (a Bulgarian sexologist and advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality) noted, were viewed as “ill people, who shouldn’t be punished because of the sufferings they are already going through (due to their illness).” (as cited in Wikipedia) Thus, despite the decriminalization of homosexual sex in Bulgarian law, antipathy toward gay people in Bulgarian society prevailed. There was no groundswell of public support for gay rights behind the decriminalization of homosexual sex in 1968.

With the fall of Communism in Bulgaria in 1989 and Bulgaria’s application for membership in the European Union in 1995, life for Bulgarians, including gay Bulgarians, improved. Though the transition from the planned economy under Communist rule to a free-market economy was difficult, in the present day shops in Bulgaria are filled with consumer goods and Bulgarians drive North American, Asian and European automobiles.

One of the stipulations for the admission of Bulgaria to the European Union was that the Bulgarian law and its judicial system undergo an overhaul, bringing it in line with European Unions human rights standards. Thus, in 2003 the  Protection Against Discrimination Act was enacted by the Bulgarian Parliament.

This legislation prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and ostensibly allows for gay Bulgarians to serve openly in the military. Once again, on face value, this looks like a positive development for gay Bulgarians; however, it is tempered by the fact that culturally, the majority of Bulgarians neither accept nor tolerate homosexuality. In fact, surveys carried out by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the European Commission (Eurobarometer) and Skala (the Bulgarian sociological agency) across 2002-2015 demonstrate this.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed Bulgarians finding 37% favoured acceptance of homosexuality in 2002. By 2007, there was little change when 39% favoured acceptance of homosexuality. (Pew Global Attitudes Project) With regard to same-sex marriage, surveys carried out by the European Union in 2006 and 2015 show there is little support among Bulgarians. In 2006 support for same-sex marriage among Bulgarians was 15%, with 65% against. (Eurobarometer)

In 2015, support for same-sex marriage among Bulgarians surveyed was 17% with 68% opposed. (Eurobarometer) In addition, the survey found only 9% of Bulgarian parents would accept having a child in a same-sex relationship. (Eurobarometer) Public antipathy toward homosexuality in Bulgaria is demonstrated in a survey carried out by Skala in 2007. Among the findings were “42.4% of Bulgarians would not like having a homosexual friend or colleague. 46% answered that it would be unacceptable if their own child was gay/lesbian.” (The social situation concerning homophobia and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in Bulgaria)

There are gay rights organizations in Bulgaria, notably LGBT Action, founded in 2010 and based in Sofia (the capital city), Bilitis, founded in 2004 and LGBT Plovdiv. LGBT Action organizes pride parades in Sofia, starting in 2008. Still, gay Bulgarians are ill-advised to come out and live openly.

Radoslav Stoyanov, a gay rights activist with the Bulgarian human rights organization Helsinki Committee, knows this too well. He came out and gave interviews to Bulgarian media advocating for gay rights only to find he “lost many friends,” and “no-one wants to be with an activist who has come out in public.” (Deutsche Welle) The prevailing attitude among Bulgarians, he observed is “I’ve got nothing against homosexuals, so long as they remain invisible.

That’s how many Bulgarians think.” (Deutsche Welle) Given this reality, life for gay Bulgarians in the present is hard, to say the least. In learning what life is like for gay Bulgarians, I am reminded of what life was like for gay people in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s.

Living life in the closet with the fear or losing your job and ostracism from your family and friends if you were found was the reality in Canadian society at the time. Happily, in 2016 I live openly with Mika in Canada and while prejudice toward gay people lingers in some elements of Canadian society, we are secure in the knowledge that we have full civil rights and acceptance from our families, friends and society at large. Seeing what life is like for gay Bulgarians makes me appreciate all the more the life I lead in Canada.