At what age did you know you were gay?
The first hints of me being gay was when I was ten or eleven years old. I started thinking about boys and felt attracted to some but I wasn’t really sure if that meant that I was gay or not.
When I was fourteen, I decided to experiment with a girl, in hopes of proving to myself that I was straight. Needless to say it was a disaster and I had come to the conclusion that, indeed, I was gay and there was no reason of denying it.
Were you scared when you realised you were gay?
No, I wasn’t scared for many different reasons. Although being gay in Bulgaria is not really accepted and even frowned upon (and that’s a mild way to put it), I still knew my friends and family would support me.
My tip to anyone who is scared to lose loved ones because of their sexuality or gender identity is the following: if people don’t support you for being fully you, then they are not worthy of your time and concern. It’s much healthier to surround yourself with people who will love and embrace you for being you. Trust me, you’re not alone.
When did you come out to your parents? How did they react?
I was seventeen when I came out to my parents. By then, I had already figured out a job and a place to live for the future. My upbringing made me become independent very young so I wasn’t afraid of leaving if I had to. I had the whole plan set out just in case they disapproved.
I knew my mom was very open but I wasn’t convinced about my dad because he’s that macho type of Bulgarian guy. He is a martial arts instructor who watches sports and is surrounded by the typical heterosexual culture.
I thought that the worst that could happen was being beaten up once or twice by my dad, which is why I had my move out plan.
I came out to my parents when they were fighting. I seized the opportunity and thought I was going to make a shock scene and break the tension. I got really excited and finally found the strength to interrupt their argument, and come out.
My mother’s reaction? “We’ve always known, dear.”
To which my Dad adds: “Yeah, your mother told me.”
And they went on with their quarrel. I wasn’t expecting such indifferent responses, which unfortunately is the exact opposite of what the majority of Bulgarian kids are going through these days.
Are Bulgarian parents usually accepting of their kids being homosexual?
Family is extremely important in Bulgaria and young Bulgarians live up to a very high age with their parents. Most families are OK with their child being gay but they will pretend that nothing happened. They won’t talk about it, won’t discuss it, and tell their child not to talk about it outside of the house. They usually don’t want the family circle or friends to know, so they keep it under the rug. There are also families who would take their kids to psychiatrists or psychologists. Unfortunately psychologists in Bulgaria are split between thinking that there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality while others still say that it’s a mental illness and that they can treat it somehow with counselling and medication. Either way, it can be a traumatising experience. Some families even react aggressively either by abusing their kid to “convert them” or they will expel them from the family and pretend he or she is not their child.
Would you say there is a lot of homophobia in Bulgaria?
Bulgaria is still relatively homophobic but I try not to judge people who are ignorant or homophobic by their upbringing because I know where we came from. Even before communism we were a conservative country and communism made things worse obviously.
Nowadays the majority of Bulgarians are very religious and the Orthodox Church seems to be more conservative than the Catholic Church in regards to homosexuality which really influences the popular opinion here. They do make comments about secular matters of government which is not really right but no one tells them it’s not right. So that’s really a symptom of a society that doesn’t care about the LGBT cause. Why don’t I judge people? I judge them only if they are ignorant and decide to stay that way. If they don’t try to inform themselves, if they don’t explore what it means to know or talk to a gay person for example, that’s being ignorant by choice.
But I think it also is a matter of your upbringing and your environment. That’s why again, Sofia is much more liberal than the rest of the country.
Is it safe to come out at work?
It depends where you work. There are three or four industries in Bulgaria that have created an environment that is much more inclusive but the rest, which is 90% of the businesses in Bulgaria, don’t talk about the topic. They’re still on a level where they’re very misogynistic. What’s left for racial, ethnic or gender, sexuality, inclusion, is really far behind.
So when you work in such an environment and the opinion you’re brought up with is reinforced, how else are you going to find information to change yourself? And that’s why the majority of Bulgarians are still quite homophobic unfortunately. Some are not openly homophobic but prefer not to talk about it or talk about it in closed doors because they don’t want to feel embarrassed.
Do same-sex couples hold hands on the streets?
It’s extremely rare. Especially two boys holding hands. That would provoke aggression from other people, even in daylight. What I’ve seen is people who stare a lot. They would comment between one another but they wouldn’t yell on the street.
Are people becoming more accepting with events such as PRIDE?
Unfortunately not. There’s still a lot of evident homophobia around Pride.
In the media, journalist try to be impartial but the words they use and tone of voice is inclined to being sarcastic or condescending. They usually pick the two extremes so they will find the most extreme advocate for the LGBTQ community and they would put a member of what they call “patriots”, 2 or 3 political parties who are completely in favour of traditional families.
You volunteer at Single Step, an organisation whose mission is to support, motivate and empower LGBTI youth, their families, friends and allies in Bulgaria. What do you do for them?
At Single Step, we are an organisation that is non-profit and we provide social services to the LGBTQ community here in Bulgaria. I started out as a volunteer, providing an online chat support for young LGBT+ people around the country. The chat line is open for 3 hours per day, from 8-11pm, and people can actually come online to talk to our volunteers about anything they want. Sometimes they are contemplating the idea of coming out, or experiencing abuse in their family, their town, struggling with gender identity, or even contemplating suicidal thoughts.
Then of course we have a follow up service that provides psychological assistance. We trained eight psychologists from around the country. Usually LGBT help is provided in capitals or big cities but we want to provide help to as many people from all over the country. An LGBT person can go to one of our specialists, have three free sessions and they are sure to be helped by a specialist who will accompany and support them.
What kind of stories have you dealt with on the chat?
There are of course some more mundane stories such as people who want to talk to someone they can relate to, which can be very helpful for a person in small towns where they can’t come out in their community and have no one to talk to.
As for more shocking chats I’ve had a few with teenagers contemplating suicide. They’re always extremely tough to handle. Every person has reached that point for their own reasons and they’re struggling to talk about this to their close ones and they cannot live their life as an openly gay person. I always stress out in these situations. The conversations are tough and you have a huge responsibility. These young adults or adolescent people still live with their parents so sometimes they may be chatting with us from their phone, and their mum or dad would come in the room so they have to exit the chat. If you’re talking to a person who’s contemplating suicide, and they suddenly leave the chat, you’re panicked and imagine the worst scenarios. You start thinking: “Is that person OK? Should I contact someone?”.
We have a process that if we’re concerned about the safety of a person, whether it’s for themselves (suicidal) or mental physical abuse we can work with authorities to bring them out of that situation. However we haven’t had very good experiences so far because if you report something like, let’s say, domestic abuse between two men or two ladies, then most of the time the police will say, if a guy calls them to say his boyfriend is beating him up they’ll say ‘ok, why don’t you beat him as well?”. It’s their instinctive reaction. And they’re very dismissive when we call them although we haven’t done it very often.
What are your hopes for LGBT+ in Bulgaria?
I don’t want to brag but I feel great here. I haven’t thought of living anywhere else even if things are still tricky for LGBT+ people.
What I really wish for the upcoming years would be for more equality and rights for LGBT+ people and for us to be more accepted. It’s a long shot for adoption but that’s also something I would like for myself as well.
Whether it’s going to be better or worse in the future, I hope for better, for sure. I think based on where we are now as a country, equality might happen sooner than we expect because being part of the EU has influenced Bulgaria for the better in numerous ways.
Also in regards to LGBTQ rights, I definitely think that in the near future the country will be pressed externally to recognise equality on a legislative level. What my concern would be is what happened in Slovakia, where the government went through with legalising gay marriages and a referendum overturned that. So again a government can change the law but if society does not accept that then obviously it’s not going to work.
What can be done for people to be more accepting of LGBT+ people?
I think we need to give more positive examples of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and people with different gender identities. We need to show that we can just as boring as straight people, or just as fun, depends on your point of view. We can be just as successful, or unsuccessful. It’s important for people to relate and see beyond sexual or gender identities.
If we can just reinforce the idea that we are regular people through regular stories, I think that would be a first step towards the inclusion of LGBT+ people in Bulgarian society.