As part of a worldwide celebration of gay pride this month, the 2017 Sofia Pride parade took place on June 10th, in the midst of the surge in ignorance and hate that typically accompanies the annual event in Bulgaria. As in previous years, members of ultranationalist and neo-Nazi organizations planned a protest concurrent with Sofia Pride (and taking place mere meters from the event), under some truly disgusting and horrifying slogans such as “cleanse the plague” and “let’s clean Sofia of trash.” The Sofia Pride organizers sent a letter to the city’s Mayor, Yordanka Fundukova, requesting adequate security against the nationalist protesters and inviting the Mayor to join the parade herself. They never received a response from the Mayor’s office. Luckily, according to news reports, there was heightened police presence at the scene that prevented the nationalists from reaching the Sofia Pride parade, but did not prevent people from being harassed while accidentally passing through the nationalist crowds on the way to Sofia Pride.
In the midst of pride week, Bulgaria’s First Lady – Desislava Radeva – decided to chime in and share her views of the event in a bizarre and rambling Facebook post. The post very curiously starts with a discussion of Mrs. Radeva’s cat – more specifically, a recent visit to the vet which revealed that the cat was infected with feline AIDS. After describing the conversation with the doctor in detail, in which Mrs. Radeva requested details about treatment options (she was told there are none) and expressed concern about feline-human transmission (she learned that that’s impossible), Mrs. Radeva jumps straight to criticizing Sofia Pride. If you are curious how a post can segue from feline AIDS to a discussion of gay pride, you are not alone. I am unable to explain this myself, despite having read the post several times, and Mrs. Radeva does not lend us a hand at all. Her only transition between the topics is the following statement immediately following the feline AIDS discussion: “(s)omehow by association, I remembered the Pride (parade) and I prayed that its participants will remember, by chance, to lead an educational, with elements of prevention, campaign on HIV/AIDS, even if only through flyers.” Although I don’t pretend to be a professional interpreter, I assure you that the incoherence of the sentence above is not due to my poor translation skills – it sounds equally confusing and disjointed in Bulgarian.
Mrs. Radeva then proceeds to cite some 2016 statistics on HIV infections, without mentioning her source or the region she is referring to, before moving to the following statement, separated as its own paragraph, likely for heightened impact: “(t)he Pride (parade) will be seen by many young men, ladies and small children.” After this profound observation, the First Lady lightens the mood with a Sherlock Holmes joke, in which Dr. Watson asks about a gay-rights protest on the street and wonders whether anyone is preventing same-sex relationships. When Mr. Holmes tells him that no one is preventing anything, Watson asks: “in that case, why are these people screaming?”
Are you with me so far? I’d be surprised if you said yes (I myself felt quite exhausted trying to navigate the transitions between the vet visit and the Sherlock Holmes joke), but let’s try to power through the rest of it together!
The next section of Mrs. Radeva’s post discusses what she believes is the sole motivation of the Sofia Pride participants – the desire to show that they are different and brave. You see, Mrs. Radeva, in her own words, is not against people who are “homosexual, bisexual, transgender, and other derivatives thereof” (even when she refers to human beings as derivatives) but merely against their claim that they are different. To emphasize the point that her aversion towards the Sofia Pride community is definitely not based on the sexual orientation of many of its members, the First Lady tells us that she has “many such (gay) friends” and is on good terms with them. Please pause here if you were profoundly moved by this display of unity and support and need a second to collect yourself!
The next paragraph is filled with musings on the fact that all of us are different. Mrs. Radeva showcases some biology knowledge here and explains to us that everyone has a different DNA, so the LGBTQIA community does not need to “overdramatize” their claims of otherness. “Who has forbidden you to do anything”, she wonders, and “why don’t we have a heterosexual pride, hm?!” She then goes full circle, referring again to her brilliant HIV flyer idea and telling the Sofia Pride participants that if they want to be “truly useful to society”, they should prepare such flyers for the parade. “This is just my idea, to make it more meaningful for everyone, somehow,” Mrs. Radeva asserts.
In her concluding paragraph, the First Lady takes the motivational poster route and says that life is too short to be taken seriously, before assuming a chiding tone and saying that June 10th should have been a day of mourning for a Bulgarian army pilot who died during a military exercise accident the day before (why Mrs. Radeva thought that holding the Sofia Pride event precluded the possibility of honoring and mourning a person’s life is unclear). Radeva concludes that this is the time to be “more Bulgarians than open-minded cosmopolitans” and signs off with “(n)othing personal!”
I’d like to pause here and thank you for sticking with me through this – I know it was painful, confusing and ridiculous, even if not devoid of entertainment value. In any case, that took patience, so thanks!
Now to the question of why this nonsense matters. Normally someone’s rambling and ridiculous Facebook post would not warrant discussion or attention, but this one seems relevant, given that it is coming from a prominent social and political figure. Moreover, it is symptomatic of the highly homophobic culture in Bulgaria where calling a man gay (usually using highly offensive language to do so) is still the ultimate insult to give or receive, an insult hurled very regularly in mundane daily situations. It is coming from a country where last month a member of parliament – Veselin Mareshki – suggested that all legislators publicly disclose their sexual orientation, alongside conflicts of interest or alcohol/drug addictions, saying that “it is absolute cynicism” to have gay politicians “in positions of power.” It is coming from a country where leaders of a right-wing nationalist party currently part of the Bulgarian governing coalition suggested that Sofia Pride be criminalized, and no one in the Bulgarian government condemned the statement. It is coming from a country where Sofia Pride participants were physically assaulted during several of the previous Pride parades since the event’s inception in 2008 and where, in 2012, an Orthodox priest actually recommended violence against the participants, saying that people should “throw stones” at them. It is coming from a country where, just two weeks ago, I overheard a dinner party discussion among three men who were lamenting the very existence of gay people in Bulgaria and were brainstorming ideas of what might have “caused” the more men to “become gay in recent years” (the removal of mandatory military service emerged as a likely “culprit”). So, when taken in this context, a homophobic Facebook rant by the country’s First Lady, even one that seems like it was written by someone on an acid trip, is far from an irrelevant or isolated incident. It is symptomatic of the widespread and pervasive homophobia in Bulgarian society and among the very people tasked with governing the country and creating its laws.
This year, Sofia Pride’s organizers were excited about the record participation at the event. The first Sofia Pride in 2008 was attended by about 100 people, while the 2017 one boasted over 3000 participants. The increase is certainly a glimmer of hope in the otherwise extremely glib landscape for gay rights in the country. However, while we have a Prime Minister (Boyko Borisov) who, earlier this year was elected to lead our government for the third time in eight years, despite his boorish attitude and history of sexist and homophobic statements and despite once boasting that in his party “men are attracted to women and women are attracted to men”, a member of parliament lumping homosexuality with criminal behavior, a Sofia Mayor who refuses to even acknowledge the safety concerns of the LGBTQIA community and a first lady who proudly posts incoherent homophobic rants on social media, I have little hope about the speed of progress in the area of LGBTQIA rights in Bulgaria anytime soon.