'How many homosexual couples let go of each-other's hands when they arrive in Sofia?' Credit: PA Images / Valentina Petrova
I am in Bulgaria for the Christmas and New Year holidays again and I am in a place that is supposedly my “home”, with my homophobic family who are convinced that they love me unconditionally. Last year, around this same time, I quit my job as a programme manager of the Bulgarian LGBTI-organization Bilitis due to a major burnout. I was frustrated with living in Sofia, a city covered in swastikas, and decided it was time to stop fearing getting attacked on the street. I moved to Spain, where I could hold my partner's hand in public again. However, as soon as it was time to come “home”, the illusion we lived in suddenly faded away and the cold thought of having to face my own family’s homophobia, as well as that of the entire society I was brought up in, settled in.
Most LGBTI people in Bulgaria are forced to lead a double life, or migrate in order to express their sexual orientation “freely”. Although there are hardly any official national statistics on attitudes towards LGBTI people, the results of a European Union survey in 2015 showed that 68 percent of the population opposed same-sex marriage, which has been banned by the government since 1991. The vast majority of Bulgarians see these desires as a sickness or deviance, but never, ever, as something “natural’’ (whatever this word should mean).
I recall the Christmas of 2011, when I was kindly asked by my family, who are Orthodox Christans like most Bulgarians, to consult an imam to break the ‘’evil curse’’, which had ‘’made’’ me a lesbian, because my family saw my homosexuality as the result of black magic. Ironically, my parents could not explain to him what were they worried about, and they expected him to ‘"see’’ it somehow. It is a widely spread practice in Bulgaria to consult imams of Turkish origin when there is a doubt of being under the influence of black magic. Normally, you visit the imam at his home and you leave a donation for his work. I don't know whether he was able to “see” the “issue”, but it seems that his work didn't achieve the expected goal. Thus, the procedure had to be repeated in 2014. This time we consulted a "vrachka", a female fortune-teller who also breaks spells. She asked me why, after dating a guy for some years, I started dating girls. She thought my response wasn’t convincing, but I didn't feel the need to get her to understand.
While doing research for my master’s thesis, in which I was investigating the interconnections between societal and family homophobia in Bulgaria, I came across similar stories told by many other lesbians. I visited these "consultants" mostly out of a researcher’s curiosity, although if I hadn’t, my parents would always have seen my homosexuality as the influence of a dark spell. A psychological consultation is sadly also not the answer, as in Bulgaria, such institutions cannot guarantee a safe space due to the nature of the subject. Obviously, there are plenty of incompetent psychologists in this homophobic context who build an unethical business by reinforcing homophobia and traumatizing the young LGBTIs who end up facing the lifelong consequences. Since there are no LGBTI hotlines or any public resources to address the needs of LGBTI people in Bulgaria, we are pretty much left to deal with the processes on our own, in whatever way we can. In such circumstances (without the help of specialists), the family reaction becomes absolutely crucial to one's perception of themselves.
'Being gay is not a sickness. Beating and killing is.' Credit: Vihren Georgiev
Returning to my Christmas thoughts, it has not been a merry one. The mental exercise of suppressing one’s anger towards their family’s ignorance is challenging, and having to play the role of a person happy to be returning “home’’, does not make it easier. For me, this word lost its meaning when a couple of years ago I came back to Bulgaria from Berlin with my then girlfriend, and we were asked not to come ‘’home’’. We were together for three years, and spent half of that time in Sofia - this did not lead my parents to want to get to know her. My mother never stepped a foot inside our flat. My father dared it, but never when my partner was there. When I was to meet them, I was supposed to go to their place alone. The legitimation for my family’s ‘’lack of sympathy’’ towards her was that she is thirteen years older than me. As we know, homophobia rarely comes alone. More often than not, it intersects with sexism, ageism, etc.
Last summer my parents came to see me in Spain. I was genuinely excited about their visit since to me this meant that, for the first time, they were going to meet a partner of mine. We asked why they were willing to get to know her, but not my former partner of three years. It would have been better not to ask. My father explained that the age of my former partner led him to conclude that she really was a lesbian, but since my current partner is nine years younger than me, they viewed our relationship as a young person’s experiment. In other words, there was nothing to worry about since they didn't take our relationship seriously. I was shocked, offended, and wanted to cry out loud, but instead, I had to keep on as it was just their first day, and four more were coming. After this ‘’splendid’’ time, we flew back to Bulgaria where I was warned not to bring her home.
This was in the summer, and now it's winter, but nothing has changed. My partner and I are in the same city for Christmas and New Year, but neither of us can bring the other “home”. I wonder how many homosexual couples let go of each other’s hands when they land at the airport of Sofia?