The Bulgarian city of Plovdiv planned 214 events for its 12-month stint as European capital of culture. Amid the wellbeing workshops and the literary tours, just one show makes space for discussion of LGBTQ rights. For some, that is still one too many.
Scheduled for July, the #BalkanPride photo exhibition will showcase snapshots of oppression, celebration, and love at Pride parades across the region. With images from Serbia, Romania, and Kosovo, the exhibition is as much about Balkan identities as it is gay rights.
That, however, hasn’t calmed the fury of local nationalists, many of whom have singled out the show as a cultural assault on Bulgaria’s “traditional values”. Some have even pledged to stop the show by “legal or illegal means”. “I am very curious what would happen if a teacher made a mistake and sent her schoolchildren to see the exhibition,” lamented Borislav Inchev, a member of the ultranationalist VMRO party’s Plovdiv branch. “What would they see? How would she explain it?”
The ongoing furore — as well as the ensuing global press coverage — has made uncomfortable reading for liberal Bulgarians, especially those who were keen to see the country take on the mantle of EU culture capital for the very first time. Instead, the event is at risk of becoming the centrepiece in a game of political football, as Bulgaria tussles with its own identity.
For the Sofia-based GLAS Foundation, who say they had no problem seeing the exhibition accepted as part of the programme after winning an open call for projects on minority communities, the outrage has come as an unpleasant surprise.
“We wanted to start a conversation on cultural identity, what unites us,” says GLAS chairman and co-founder Simeon Vassilev. “Frankly, we did not expect it to become this big. We are coming up against people who say we are destroying their values. What are those values and how are we disrespecting them? We are fighting for our families, for the right to be protected by the law from discrimination. I don’t see anything provocative or scandalous in that.”
Some might say the problem is geographical. Plovdiv, where the event is being held, as well as Bulgaria’s other major cities, Varna and Burgas, are often considered more conservative than the capital, Sofia. When GLAS released a pro-LGBTQ ad campaign across the country last year, Sofia was the only city where their billboards were not vandalised.
But for Vassilev, the wave of well-timed outrage instead ties in neatly with the run-up to Bulgaria’s local and European elections. With politicians vying for the spotlight, nothing grabs attention faster than a controversial subject — or a scapegoat.
The LGBTQ community has previously been used as a convenient punchbag for Bulgarian officials rallying against the EU’s Istanbul Convention. But while similar tactics are deployed by right-leaning politicians across Europe, Bulgaria still has few people willing to speak out in favour of LGBTQ rights, including among the ruling party, GERB.
“We need one courageous politician — just one — to stand up for human rights. It’s one obstacle we cannot overcome,” says Vassilev. “We’ve been in the EU for 11 years now but we’re still lagging behind when it comes to human rights.”
Despite the political malaise, civil society is beginning to shed some of its apathy. While anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is pushing some towards distrust, it is pushing others towards activism. The founding in Sofia last year of the Rainbow Hub, an LGBTQ centre, has given the community a new-found space to make themselves heard. Just a few years ago, such alliances would have been unthinkable, says Vassilev. “We’ve never been more attacked but we’ve never been more organised,” he says.
With roughly two months until the show opens, however, GLAS is concentrating on ramping up security for the event itself. Plans are currently being made for a private security firm to join local police. The exhibition’s photos show the freedom that Pride can bring, says Vassilev, but the show’s current predicament hammers home that that same freedom is still yet to be backed up by real legislation.
“[What really is] alarming is all the bystanders; the people who think ‘this doesn’t relate to me’,” he says. “Sure, today it is this exhibit, or LGBTQ rights. But then next it will be women’s rights. It is a dangerous trend. People in Bulgaria aren’t protesting, because communism made everyone feel as if they can’t influence the societies they live in.”
“At these EU elections, people need to vote against this hate. It is in our power, but people need to be active.”