This Pride month, the Bulgarian LGBT+ community is experiencing an increase in homophobic attacks and bullying. Many years ago however, the country was a pioneer in the legalisation of homosexual activity.
Bulgarian opponents of LGBT+ rights often argue that all non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities are foreign and new to Bulgaria.
In reality, back in 1966 Bulgaria was amongst the first countries to decriminalise homosexuality – not just in the Eastern Bloc, but in Europe as a whole.
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In the early days of Bulgaria’s communist dictatorship, the country’s policy towards people with a sexuality or gender identity seen as diverging from societal norms was largely dictated by attitudes emanating from Moscow.
In Stalin’s Soviet Union such people were accused of belonging to the bourgeoisie, and homosexual relations between men, in particular, were punished with up to five years of prison and hard labour.
In 1951 and 1952 Bulgaria passed similar laws, which in theory allowed for sentences of up to five-years of forced labour to be imposed on those found guilty.
However, according to the archives of the Bulgarian Communist party (BCP), the law was not enforced until 1961, and even then was mostly aimed at public figures living in the capital Sofia who were accused of flaunting their sexuality and thus supposedly influencing others to engage in such activities.
Sofia’s first Pride
In response, in 1963 several men from the National Musical Theatre organised a march in the capital to demonstrate against this unfair treatment. During the event, which has been described by some as Bulgaria’s first-ever Pride parade, the men wore extravagant clothing, some dressed as women, and alongside some Sofia locals, marched from the city’s Central Mineral Baths to Gorna Banya, one of the best districts of the city, at the time largely reserved for the communist elite.
Needless to say, the BCP was not best pleased with this show of free will and accused the men of “undisguised manifestation against the people’s power”. The Minister of Interior at the time, Diko Dikov, threatened them: “We will destroy all who are like you.”
The 1963 march led to a group trial year later of 26 men for practicing homosexuality, many of whom were high profile individuals, including actor Georgi Partsalev, pop singer Emil Dimitrov and his rumoured partner, songwriter Vasil Andreev, poet and translator Borislav Georgiev, and other actors, film directors, and dancers – all of whom were in the public eye.
Alongside the popular entertainers, other targets included BCP members, such as Atanas Svilenov, the film and art critic for the newspaper of the Dimitrov Communist Youth Union, the BCP’s youth division. Another was Chavdar Dragoychev, son of the first woman cabinet minister in Bulgaria’s history – Tsola Dragoycheva.
The indictment read, “Influenced by the decadent West, the accused became importers and promoters of the ugly Western morality, they constantly praise the Western way of life and declare that in the West there is love between men and men and between women and women.”
During the trial, Georgi Partsalev, one of Bulgaria’s most popular and legendary comedy actors, infamously asked the court, “What kind of people are you? Did you fix Bulgaria that you are trying to fix what we are doing in our bedrooms?”
Protected by his high status and friendship with the country’s long-term communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, said to have on numerous occasions attempted to arrange a marriage (with a woman) for Partsalev in order to “cure” his sexual orientation, the actor was spared a prison sentence.
At the same trial, Svilenov, defended himself, stated: “Those who you are a calling a cursed tribe have given humanity people like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky, and Oscar Wilde.”
Most of the less well-known men put on trial were sentenced to two to five years of forced labour. Many of the men were subjected to medical experiments, separated into two groups of which one was injected with testosterone and the other with estrogen. The men were shown provocative images of other men, and then injected with a substance to induce nausea and vomiting.
“During the experiment, they tried to brainwash us to like women, and one or two guys said that the treatment worked for them and that they liked women now, but not too long afterwards they returned to men,” the then 58-year-old survivor Lyubcho Mladenov, who also goes by the name Lolita, said in a 2009 interview.
Mladenov, who was forcefully injected with estrogen, added, “14 years after the experiment on me, I was diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma. Doctors explained that this is a tumour which occurred as a result of the improper hormonal ‘treatment’ in question.”
The complete failure of the experiment eventually led to sexologist Todor Bostandzhiev declaring homosexuality an “incurable mental illness” and for this reason, he argued, it should not be punished as harshly as it was then outlined in the law.
Largely owing to this conclusion, Bulgaria subsequently decriminalised homosexuality in 1966.
In 1968, Bostandzhiev, alongside psychologists Nikola Shipkovenski, Emanuil Sharankov, and Kosta Zaimov, prepared a paper for the BCP Central Committee calling for homosexuality to be fully legalised, arguing that, “Sexual intercourse between adults, by mutual consent and under conditions which do not violate public morality, should not be prohibited or prosecuted.”
On May 1, 1968, more than a year before the Stonewall Riots took place in New York City, the penal code in Bulgaria was revised, and homosexuality became fully legal.
Despite being involved in a cruel and scientifically baseless experiment with queer men’s sexual orientation and declaring homosexuality a mental illness, Bostandzhiev did eventually contribute to the significant relaxation of the BCP’s attitudes towards LGBT+ Bulgarians.
At the time, with a few exceptions, most of the events surrounding the prosecutions, trials, the National Musical Theatre march through Sofia, the experiments, and even the decriminalisation and legalisation of homosexuality remained hidden from the public eye, especially for those residing outside the capital.
Many of the details of what happened throughout the 1960s only became public knowledge after the declassification of the BCP archives and as those impacted by the events were given the freedom to speak openly following the collapse of the communist regime.
For those unaware of LGBT+ issues, both the gruesome details and the progressive – for the time – 1966 and 1968 rulings remain obscure knowledge, with many still asserting that LGBT+ identities are a recent “trend”.
Alas, the LGBT+ community in Bulgaria has once again become a target. When the seaside town of Burgas held its first Pride parade on May 15, anti-Pride rioters outnumbered attendees and threatened them by burning the LGBT+ flag.
In the days leading up to and since the start of Pride month, there have been several other instances of intimidation. Two LGBT+ community centres in Sofia were attacked with eggs and covered in stickers with homophobic slogans.
At a reading of the children’s book Marvin on May 25, the first such Bulgarian book to feature same-sex parents, a group of men dressed in black attempted to scare off attendees. On June 6, a similarly dressed group of young men walked into the screening of an LGBT+ themed film, part of Sofia Pride Film Fest ‘21, also aiming to frighten the audience.
Around the country, a large number billboards celebrating or acknowledging Pride month have been vandalised.
Sofia Pride will take place on June 12. It remains to be seen if it will pass without incident.
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