Emilia Slavova December 2020
“Gender” has become a highly contentious word in Bulgarian. After a carefully staged moral panic around the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in 2018, it has been appropriated as a term of abuse by politicians and other actors. This has served not only to undermine women’s and LGBTQ rights. It has also been used as an attack against the EU and Bulgaria’s membership in it, as well as against the anti-corruption protests in Bulgaria in the summer of 2020.
“We cannot let a few Sorosoid NGOs and small parties that are not even in the parliament get in power and destroy the country. In the name of what? To introduce gay marriage and to create a gender republic.”
These are the words of Bulgaria’s deputy prime minister for public order and security, minister of defence and leader of one of the nationalist coalition parties, Krasimir Karakachanov. The statement was part of his speech against the anti-government, anti-corruption protests in Bulgaria which have attracted tens of thousands of people every day in a row since July 2020.
What is a gender republic?
‘Gender’ had been temporarily outside of public attention, while a series of other grandiose scandals enveloped the country. With possible premature elections approaching, it was once again time to get the skeleton of gender out of the closet. What Karakachanov means by ‘gender republic’ is unclear, but may be inferred from the context: he strongly opposes gender equality, gay marriage and adoption, LGBT rights, and what he assumes to be ‘gender ideology’: a phantom circulating not only around post-communist countries, but also in some of the older democracies. A Gender republic, therefore, is one where women’s rights, LGBT rights, and other minority rights (essentially, human rights) are observed. These rights were deliberately framed as foreign, Western, a threat to our native traditions, and imported from a morally corrupt Gayropa (a Europe dominated by gays).
Other foci of Karakachanov’s attack were non-governmental organisations (NGOs), many of them involved in human rights protection; particularly ‘sorosoid’ ones, related to the philanthropist and influential supporter of liberal democracy George Soros. The attack was also against a small extra-parliamentary party, supported mostly by urban, liberal, young and educated pro-European people. Its leader gave the first shot in starting the protests over the summer of 2020. With support for the protests rising up to 60%, Karakachanov’s position was under threat and he decided to play the gender card once again in order to scaremonger a gullible electorate, already soaked in conspiracy theories about gender ideology.
While no such thing as gender ideology is being peddled in Bulgaria, there was a huge anti-gender campaign in 2018. This suddenly brought the previously obscure term ‘gender’ to the fore of public discourse, twisting its meaning beyond recognition.
Translating gender in Bulgarian
Since the 1990s, there had been attempts to bring Bulgaria up to date with key concepts from Gender Studies, an area completely ignored by the social sciences under communism. It was shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain that academics and NGOs started introducing the term “gender” and wondering how to translate it in Bulgarian. Until then, “pol” (the equivalent of “sex”) had been the only word used to describe the differences between men and women, seen mostly as biological. There were fears that a transliteration of “gender” (джендър in Bulgarian) would sound alien and would raise suspicion as another weapon of westernisation, imposed by foreign-funded NGOs. The descriptive alternative “social pol” (social sex) was suggested instead, as well as a few other options. After years of debates, there was no agreement between scholars, NGOs and translators. Somehow pol, meaning biological sex but also used as a replacement of gender in many contexts, seemed to prevail. Social pol was used only occasionally, when gender and sex appeared simultaneously and a distinction between the two was necessary.
Moral panic around the Istanbul Convention
In late 2017, a coordinated moral panic campaign was staged by several agents, prompted by the pending ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as The Istanbul Convention. The ruling party’s coalition partners United Patriots (among them, Karakachanov’s party) and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were among the first to raise the alarm. The Bulgarian Socialist Party was another vocal opponent. The President joined in. The main thrust of the campaign was that under the seemingly innocent cause of preventing domestic violence, a more sinister agenda was lurking: to legalise gay marriage, to introduce a ‘third gender’, and to blur the line between women and men.
The translation of the term ‘gender’ in the Istanbul Convention contributed to the confusion: it was inconsistently translated in the Bulgarian version as either “pol” or “social pol”. In some cases, this led to a clear confusion, as in Article 3, where “gender” is defined as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men” – these social roles appear in the Bulgarian text as pol/sex, rather than social sex. “Gender identity” appeared as one of the most contentious items in the text, as it was assumed that a person was free to choose their gender identity regardless of their biological sex, and probably to switch from male to female or vice versa at a whim.
Meanwhile, the debate around the translation of gender escalated in unpredictable ways. Instead of highlighting the socially constructed differences between the sexes, the transliterated word “gender” came to mean the blurring of the distinction. “Gender” came to denote a gay or trans person, or someone with a fluid identity, a “third sex”, and sometimes even a liberal supporting gender equality and LGBT rights, having a strong pro-European orientation and threatening the traditional family.
Even though the ruling party GERB, under pressure from its European partners, initially tried to defend the Istanbul Convention, it got under fire from all sides. To avoid dealing further with this hot potato, the government decided to pass the decision to the Constitutional Court. After consultations and multiple positions taken into account, in July 2018, the Court sided 8 to 4 with those opposing “gender ideology” and blamed the translators. The point of contention, it said, was the concept of “gender”, as well as “gender identity” in Art. 4.3. As a result, the Court decided that the Istanbul Convention was “unconstitutional”. Not only did that derail the ratification of the Convention in Bulgaria; but, in the words of Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva, Bulgaria would be the reason why the entire European Union would not be able to implement the Istanbul Convention en bloc.
Reaping the fruit of the anti-gender campaign
The results of the aggressive anti-gender discourse are painfully evident. Since the onslaught of the campaign, there have been multiple cases of attacks against LGBT organisations, attempts to cancel festival events (such as the Balkan Pride exhibition, part of the Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture programme), defaced LGBT posters, broken windows, LGBT flags set on fire. Just days after the vice prime minister spoke about a “gender republic”, a group of several dozen teenage ultras organised online to “clear the town of gays” and attacked a group of girls in the very centre of Ploviv, in the central park. The following week, an organised LGBT event against homophobia was met with more aggression and intimidation by a large group of young boys in black hoodies and masks. The fear was comparable to the fear during the first Pride in Bulgaria in 2008, when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at their feet, participants said. Death threats were sprayed on walls, attacking particular activists. Bulgaria, once a leader in LGBT acceptance, is rapidly turning into a dark and dangerous place for people of non-traditional sexual orientation and gender identity.
The silver lining
The clouds may be gathering, but there’s also a silver lining, or perhaps a rainbow, lurking behind. The twisted debate around “gender” and the Istanbul Convention forced a lot of people to take a stance, and the attacks on LGBT people gave rise to more resistance and activism. On the 8th of October 2020, a debate on the situation in Bulgaria in the European Parliament was followed by a European Parliament resolution on the rule of law and fundamental rights in Bulgaria. It expressed “unequivocal support” for the protesting people in Bulgaria and their legitimate demands for justice, media freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Surprisingly, out of the 27 articles, four articles (15, 16, 17 and 18) were directly related to the rights and freedom from discrimination of women, LGBT people and minorities. All the nationalists’ attempts to eliminate these articles from the resolution failed. There was a special mention of the Constitutional Court’s regrettable decision on the Istanbul Convention in article 17. Article 18 directly addressed the fearsome gender identity, and also pressed for the adoption of a legal framework that would allow for same-sex spouses and parents to have children:
"18. Considers it necessary to eliminate discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, both in law and in practice in all spheres; calls on the Bulgarian authorities to amend the Protection against Discrimination Act to explicitly include gender identity as grounds for discrimination; calls on the Bulgarian authorities to amend the current Criminal Code to encompass hate crimes and hate speech on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics; calls on the Bulgarian authorities to implement the relevant case law of the Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights and, in that context, to address the situation of same-sex spouses and parents with a view to ensuring their enjoyment of the right to non-discrimination in law and in fact, and to establish an appropriate legal framework that provides equal rights for all couples."
The resolution was a powerful symbolic gesture of support and recognition of the Bulgarian citizens’ efforts to fight corruption and defend democracy. It was also a clear sign that gender issues are an inextricable part of human rights and the rule of law. It may be time for the protests to embrace the concept of a gender republic after all: one where gender equality, LGBT rights, minority rights, and all kinds of human rights are observed.
- Why thousands are fighting the Bulgarian government: ‘They have no vision for the future’. Politico, 10.10.2020. https://www.politico.eu/interactive/why-thousands-are-fighting-the-bulgarian-government-they-have-no-vision-for-the-future/
- How the word gender became a slur in Bulgarian, Filip Stojanovski, 22.05.2019 https://alicenews.ces.uc.pt/?lang=1&id=25418
- Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/rms/090000168008482e
- Promoting ‘Gender Ideology’: Constitutional Court of Bulgaria Declares Istanbul Convention Unconstitutional. Ruzha Smilova. 22.08.2018. Oxford Human Rights Hub. http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/promoting-gender-ideology-constitutional-court-of-bulgaria-declares-istanbul-convention-unconstitutional/
- Bulgaria once led the way on LGBT+ rights in emerging Europe. Not any more. Milana Nikolova. Emerging Europe. 14.09.2020. https://emerging-europe.com/news/bulgaria-once-led-the-way-on-lgbt-rights-in-emerging-europe-not-any-more/
- European Parliament resolution of 8 October 2020 on the rule of law and fundamental rights in Bulgaria (2020/2793(RSP)) https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2020-0264_EN.html
- Photos: Header by Emilia Slavova, Gallery by Anastas Tarpanov
17 December 2020