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Acceptance, equality for LGBTI people yet to happen

"In Bulgaria, there is no homophobia," reads the bold text of a poster near the Red Army monument in Central Sofia featuring two young men in an embrace against the backdrop of a Communist-era apartment block. A man in his 70s sits peacefully in the midst of the brightly-coloured youth, and holds a rainbow flag, while two teens perched on the monument kiss.

The atmosphere of this year's Sofia Pride Parade, which gathered about 2,100 people, was jovial, but reality is more complicated. Before the Sofia Pride Parade, organisers warned participants not to walk alone before and after the event.

During the parade, a few streets away the extreme nationalist party VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, whose leader is the current deputy speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament, conducted its own counter-demonstration. The head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was all over the national media, warning that going against the "norms" of male-female relations would bring "spiritual death" to the individual, the family, and ultimately, his parish.

The social networks were abuzz with ordinary people exercising their Bulgarian-style "freedom of speech" rights over the Orlando shooting in the United States.

Historically, there has been some progress in LGBTI rights in Bulgaria. Under Communism, homosexuality was a crime punishable by up to three years in jail. Same sex relationships were decriminalised in 1968, when homosexuality was considered a disease. It would continue to be until 1990.

The transition to democracy brought changes. The 1990s saw the emergence of the first NGOs for the rights of the LGBTI community. The first law to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation came in effect as late as 2003, as Bulgaria was preparing to join the EU. But since Bulgaria's accession in 2007, little has changed for the LGBTI on an institutional level.

Same-sex partnerships in Bulgaria are still not legal, and the general attitude is overwhelmingly against. According to a 2015 survey by the European Commission, just half of the Bulgarians agreed that gay, lesbian and bisexual people should have the same rights as heterosexual people, a proportion that has barely changed since 2006. These attitudes are best summed up by the usual comment under articles on the community and in social networks. It goes like this: "I don't mind gay people, I just don't like them parading and kissing in public," often followed by the rhetorical "How do we explain this to our children?!"

Extreme political parties always seize the opportunity to be seen protesting against the Sofia Pride march, while mainstream parties generally shy away. The embassies of EU countries and the United States actively support the event, but few Bulgarian politicians have joined.

Corrupt media is the main obstacle to productive public conversations about the rights of LGBTI people in Bulgaria, thinks Radoslav Stoyanov, an analyst and communications expert for the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog. His opinion is backed by a study by the Media Democracy Foundation and the Institute for Modern Politics, which found that a significant part of the Bulgarian media is rife with hate speech against the LGBTI community and human rights activists, especially online.

This is not the only obstacle towards broader acceptance of the LGBTI community. Political apathy in the community often dissuades its members from reporting discrimination or hate crimes, Stoyanov says. "They live in a closed world that creates a positive environment, but distorts their perception. They really believe that they are not discriminated against in Bulgaria."

Yet there is not only silence on LGBTI issues in Bulgaria. Some activists seek legal reforms, such as an amendment to the Bulgarian Penal Code to include hate crimes based on sexuality. Currently, these get reported as acts of "hooliganism."
New administrative processes are also needed to facilitate the change of one's gender in legal documents, says Stoyanov.

"Bulgarian laws still lag behind those of other European countries. In Europe, 28 states recognise in one way or another same sex relationships," says Veneta Limberova, from the organisational committee of Sofia Pride 2016, and chairwoman of Youth LGBT Organisation Action. But more pressing to her is the punishment of hate crimes.

Unlike the first Sofia Pride Parade, in 2008, which was attacked by extremists throwing Molotov cocktails and 60 people were arrested, the rally in 2016 went peacefully.

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