Article originally published on 2 October 2020 in Balkan Insight.
Videos of youngsters assaulting young LGBT people in plain sight of police in Plovdiv – a former European Capital of Culture – are a worrying reminder of Bulgaria’s failure to tackle this social ill.
According to Bulgarian National Television, there is a lead that the gang is connected to one of the two main football clubs in town, which would be “Lokomotiv” or “Botev”.
Prosecutor Atanas Iliev from Plovdiv told BIRN that the boys are part of Botev’s fan base, the so-called “bultras”, and the people they attacked identify as LGBT.
“We’ve only been investigating the case for 24 hours so we’re short of new details; however, what we’re focused on currently is engaging other institutions, because this concerns people who are underage,” Iliev, a spokesperson for Plovdiv’s Prosecution, said.
He confirmed that both the aggressors and the victims were between the ages of 14 and 16.
“We’re working with schools and the Child Protection Agency to build a profile of the boys who carried out the assault – what conditions they are living in, what the root of the problem is. It’s important to also engage school psychologists in all of this.”
Screenshots of Facebook comments and Instagram stories circulating on social media indicate that further “cleansing actions” may be expected in Plovdiv but also in the capital, Sofia, and the seaside resort of Burgas on October 3.
The attacks in Plovdiv highlight unresolved problems in Bulgaria with homophobia and hate crimes in general, which occur despite some signs of progress.
Since its start in 2008 the Sofia Pride event has got bigger each year, although the 2020 edition had to be cancelled because of the pandemic and replaced with online activities.
Activism, public talks and media visibility have noticeably increased over the last decade. Despite this, there is a way to go before the LGBT community enjoys equality in Bulgaria. The penal code still doesn’t include sexuality and gender-based violence as actions warranting severe sentences, for example.
“Such behaviour among young people and juveniles, still attending school, is the visible manifestation of a deeply neglected problem related to bullying at school,” Victor Lilov, an activist, publisher and music manager told BIRN.
“Not only has it been ignored, but the motivation to prevent it is being actively suppressed by parents, teachers and by the victims themselves, who rarely know who to turn to for support,” he added.
Lilov came out as the first openly gay politician in Bulgaria in 2015, at the time a member of DEOS party and running for mayor of Sofia. Currently, he is a member of the executive board of the LGBTI organisation Single Step Foundation.
On March 6 this year, Single Step Foundation and the Bilitis Resource Center Foundation presented a report, Attitudes towards LGBT students in Bulgarian schools, which included a survey of 880 participants aged 14 to 19.
In the survey, 48.3 per cent of the respondents said they feel unsafe at school and 70.6 per cent said they had been verbally abused and 34.2 per cent physically abused. The report concluded that hate speech is still not considered a problem at school – either by staff or by students.
Homophobia intersects with other prejudices in Bulgaria, as evidenced by stickers on the streets of Plovdiv that proclaim hatred towards people of other races and members of the large ethnic Turkish community. “I doubt that school kids have done that, I think it’s more of a sign of a bigger movement,” Lilov observes.
He also targets the homophobic speech, popping up in jokes or internal parliamentary fights, of politicians such as Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, Sports Minister Krasen Kralev, or the Prime Minister himself, Boyko Borissov.
“This creates an environment where violence against LGBT members is tolerated. Regardless of whether they are children or grown-up citizens, it inflicts additional damage. The fact that, according to witnesses, police officers observed what was happening [in Plovdiv] but did not take any action to stop the verbal aggression and physical violence, says enough,” Lilov said.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee agrees. “There is a need for a clear signal that violations and crimes caused by hatred based on sexual orientation do not enjoy the silent protection of law enforcement and the judiciary,” it said in a statement from September 29.
The latest cases have brought back into focus other instances of hate-based acts in Bulgaria.
In 2019, while still a European Capital of Culture, Plovdiv was embroiled in another homophobia row after an exhibition entitled “Balkan Pride”, organised by Glas Foundation and featuring photos of different Pride events in the region, annoyed some of the city’s more conservative and far-right officials.
In 2018 LGTBI+ rights were controversially discussed when the Istanbul convention suddenly became a hot topic and eventually ruled anti-constitutional by the Bulgarian Constitutional Court.
One of the most brutal documented cases of homophobia in the country’s fairly recent history remains the killing in 2008 of a medical student, Mihail Stoyanov, in a Sofia parks, the Borisova Garden. Two men, aged 19 and 20 at the time, killed him apparently because he looked effeminate to them.
A survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, published earlier this year, said 75 per cent of LGBT people in Bulgaria often or always avoid holding hands with their partners, while 45 per cent often or always avoid certain locations for fear of being assaulted. Another 44 per cent of LGBT students aged 15 to 17 say they hid their sexuality at school.
The violent act of “cleaning” city centres of LGBT people echoes the creation earlier this year of so-called “LGBT-free” zones in Poland.
Indicitavely, no state official from Bulgaria was among the 50 ambassadors to Poland that responded to this by signing a joint letter calling on Poland to instead forge “an environment of non-discrimination, tolerance and mutual acceptance”.