Emilia Slavova August 2021
The Curious Case of Translating Gender in Bulgarian, Part II: “Gender” has become a highly contentious word in Bulgarian. As discussed in Part I, there was a deliberately staged moral panic around the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in 2018. It served not only to undermine women’s and LGBTQ rights, but also to attack the EU and Bulgaria’s membership in it. “Gender” was turned into a slur and its meaning was turned on its head. This part shows how this happened and what followed.
"Szájer has been an MEP member since 2006 and this poor man got infected. From morning till evening, every day for the last 14 years, he has been listening about gender ideology, gay marriages, homosexuals, bisexuals, threesexuals, multisexuals, transsexuals. So he got infected. It is contagious… He got infected with gender ideology. What did the first session of the Euro parliament after the elections start with? It started with the Istanbul Convention. … Gender Parliament – Euro Parliament."
This quote refers to the sex scandal in Brussels from late 2020, when an MEP was caught lightly clad and heavily partying with two dozen other men, breaking covid-19 lockdown measures. József Szájer, then leader of the Hungarian Fidesz group in the European Parliament and married to a high-profile Hungarian constitutional judge, is well known for his extreme homophobic positions. He drafted the 2011 Hungarian constitution, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, practically denying gay people the right to family life. The scandal was problematic on multiple levels and ended with Szájer’s resignation from the European Parliament and the Fidesz party.
The comment was made on Bulgarian national TV by a Bulgarian politician, Georgi Markov: a former constitutional judge, currently an MP from the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (in Bulgarian: GERB) party (Markov was revealed as a former agent of the communist state security services). An avid Orban fan, always ready with a comment against LGBTQ people, minorities, refugees and so on, he was challenged to explain the scandal. Trying to flip it around and derive maximum gains for his own agenda, he compared homosexuality to a virus that you can catch from the environment, especially from the liberal Brussels environment. This was also an implicit accusation towards EU culture for the MEP’s gross moral failing.
The episode is part of a larger campaign in recent years, led by other, much more vocal nationalistic, racist and homophobic parties against LGBTQ rights, persistently framing the EU as degenerate, gay-loving, and so on. GERB (an abbreviation for Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) did little to stop the attacks on the Istanbul Convention from others, nor to curb some of its own members’ reckless comments.
The onslaught on “gender”
As discussed in Part I, Bulgarian translators and social scientists have struggled to translate “gender” in Bulgarian ever since it made its way into Bulgarian discourse in the 1990s. While several terms competed to do the job, the transliterated form of gender (джендър) was seen as too foreign and was used less frequently, mostly in specialist writing. That created a vacuum which was easy to fill when the anti-gender hysteria unfolded in 2018 around the ratification of the Istanbul Convention: the almost empty signifier джендър (the transliterated term for gender) suddenly acquired a new, highly pejorative meaning and could now refer to any of the following:
- A homosexual;
- An intersex person;
- A transgender person;
- Third sex;
- A liberal; a feminist; gay rights activist; a ‘sorosoid’ (paid by the philanthropist George Soros).
All this was framed as unnatural, ungodly, perverted, and distinctly foreign – and running against the “traditional Bulgarian values”.
Here are some examples:
"During Turkish [yoke] they took our children away to be janissaries. Now they want to take them away in Europe to be genders"
This comes from a protest in Sofia in 2018. It exploits many Bulgarians’ aversion to Turks, because of our troubled history under Ottoman rule. Janissaries were young Christian boys abducted from their families and brought up as soldiers in the Ottoman army. The European Union is cast in similar terms: it presumably takes away Bulgarian children and turns them into “genders” through gender ideology.
The unorthodox usage of “gender” also gained popularity in media discourse. Politicians, journalists and other public figures further derailed the meaning of the word:
"A Bulgarian gender was brought down from a plane"
This headline appeared in a news outlet referring to a transgender person whose ID did not match their current gender.
"More than 150,000 gays in Bulgaria; birth rate plummeting because of genders"
One of the most popular mainstream news outlets ran this headline, accompanied by an image of a doctor in a white coat (although the doctor himself did not use “gender” in the interview).
The same newspaper came out with a more disturbing title soon after:
"GENDER AGENTS from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences bought for USD 24,000"
The title refers to a project aimed at studying gender attitudes in Bulgarian schools, supposed to receive the said amount of funding from UNESCO. As a result of the outcry against it, and the false accusations of “agents” being “bought”, the Ministry of Education withdrew its support from the project.
One of the most absurd newspaper headlines, however, quoted Angel Djambazki, MEP from a nationalist party:
"Djambazki worried about pension reform because of gender pensioners"
As the MEP explained, he was concerned about men deciding to change their sex in order to retire a few years earlier as women.
"The Bulgarian Socialist Party: NO to gender ideology!"
The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), who had previously supported the Istanbul Convention, now changed its tone andjoined the anti-gender coalition. In spite of mounting pressure from their European family, the Party of European Socialists, they decided to support “traditional family values”, to denounce the perceived “gender ideology” and to stand against the Istanbul Convention. In the words of their leader, Kornelia Ninova:
"No to gender ideology in Bulgarian schools… Family values are dearer to us than the third sex. Bulgaria and Bulgarian society does not accept this ideology."
The irony is that LGBT, women’s and minority rights are often framed and attacked as “leftist ideology” and “cultural Marxism”. Yet the socialist party openly embraced traditional conservative values and turned its back on social progressivism. It didn’t help that Ninova herself had embraced a rather untraditional gender role as the first woman to lead the party.
The President Rumen Radev, elected largely with the support of the socialists, also positioned himself against the Istanbul Convention:
"The Bulgarian Orthodox Church against Judith Butler"
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was also quick to join the anti-gender coalition. It opposed “gender ideology”, and there were calls for the excommunication of the Bulgarian ministers in support of the Convention. As one Orthodox priest commented on national TV:
"Europe is pressing us hard to accept the Istanbul Convention, and people are right to protest against these absurd traditions and practices, alien to human society. In the intellectual circles of Europe ... there is one Judith Butler, who claims that sex is a phantasm; it is not anatomy but a discursively created physicality. Sex is not something finite, but a fluid state, a permanent possibility. It is not based in biology, but is an invention."
The words sat uneasily in his mouth as he was reading from his carefully prepared notes in an attempt to quote and make sense of Butler’s complex theory of gender.
The final blow in this all-round offensive against “gender” was struck by the Constitutional Court. It pronounced itself on the Istanbul Convention and deemed it “unconstitutional,” placing the problem with the lack of clarity on the meaning of “gender” (see Part I).
The “gender” agenda becomes particularly heated every time elections approach. An extensive content analysis of 251 media publications (Kovacheva 2020) published in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections found that the main talking point was the opposition between Bulgarian and European values construed along gender identity and sexual orientation lines. “Bulgarian values” were associated with traditional (Orthodox Christian) family values; “European values” were interpreted as freely choosing one’s gender identity and sexual orientation, imposed by “Brussels” against the core national values. The conservative rhetoric was typical of most parties, mainly from the nationalistic specter, but not exclusively. The only registered explicit support for European values and the parties which represent them was found in an Open Letter to Bulgarian Citizens (24 May 2019), signed by over 500 public figures (writers, artists, academics), the survey found.
So toxic was the atmosphere that no party dared to openly proclaim itself in favor of European values, liberal democracy and human rights. Not embracing the ultra-conservative agenda was as far as one could go (the only exception is the Green Movement, part of the Democratic Bulgaria coalition (DB); it supports Sofia Pride, even though DB has remained neutral).
In the run-up to parliamentary elections on 4 April 2021, a similar pattern could be found. “Gender” was actively exploited by many parties positioning themselves along nationalist/traditional/conservative lines. No party openly supported LGBT+ rights. Somewhat surprisingly, a recent opinion poll showed that some 40% of Bulgarians were ready to support a party in favour of LGBT rights. DB had as much as 75% of its supporters’ approval. No wonder: it is widely backed by urban, progressive, educated people and active citizens. In spite of this encouraging result, the topic is considered too contentious and preferably avoided.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament took a bold stance in March 2021, declaring the EU “an LGBTQ freedom zone”. Ironically, this would confirm allegations that the EP is indeed a “gender parliament”. But it would also offer some support for all those people who feel threatened by the growing number of “LGBT-free zones” and “anti-gender” policies and rhetoric. Hate has spread like a virus and has gone unchecked for too long. It is time for tolerance to go viral.
- “European” versus “traditional” values in Bulgarian media. Ralitsa Kovacheva, 9.11.2020. http://medialinguistics.com/2020/11/09/european-vs-traditional-values/
- Parliament declares the European Union an ‘‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’’. Pressroom, European Parliament, 11.03.2021. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/sv/press-room/20210304IPR99219/parliament-declares-the-european-union-an-lgbtiq-freedom-zone
- Open Letter to Bulgarian citizens on the occasion of the National Day of Culture and Education and the European Elections, 22.05.2019 https://www.facebook.com/OpenLetter24.05.2019/posts/1059327277599989
- The day begins with Georgi Lyubenov, Bulgarian National Television, 5.12.2020. https://bnt.bg/news/georgi-markov-koronavirusat-e-biologichno-orazhie-v282036-287852news.html
- The mind of József Szájer. Samuel Stolton, Brussels Times, 05.12.2020.
Green movement online poster: “No to homophobia” (May 2019): https://www.facebook.com/Zelenite/
Guy Verhofstadt’s Facebook post, 11.03.2021: https://www.facebook.com/GuyVerhofstadt/
11. August 2021