Happy faces from Sofia Pride parade in Bulgaria

Girls at the annual LGBT Sofia pride parade for equality and non-discrimination of the LGBT community in Sofia, Bulgaria

Girls at the annual LGBT Sofia pride parade for equality and non-discrimination of the LGBT community in Sofia, Bulgaria   | Photo Credit: Cylonphoto

The writer and his partner join the Sofia Pride parade, held earlier this month, where the street turns into a party with 6,000 happy faces joining in

Bryan and I enjoyed a diplomatic posting to Sofia, Bulgaria, some years back. When Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, was named the European Capital of Culture for 2019, boasting over 5,000 years of continuous habitation and culture, we booked a trip back to the country which was once home to us.

Happily, our visit coincided with Sofia Pride. The Pride parade is a colourful march of LGBTQIA+ people, along with their families and friends, and it has been taking place every year since 2008.

When we arrived at the Pride Festival, surrounding the monument to the Soviet Army, the crowd — officially reported between 5,000 and 6,000 strong — was dancing and singing in the warm sun along with Galena, a famous Bulgarian pop singer. Many NGOs and local businesses set up booths, with colourful rainbow flags flapping in the wind. Pride organisations from other cities, including Milan (Italy) and Thessaloniki (Greece), had booths marketing their own events.

The buzzing atmosphere felt like a huge outdoor picnic or family reunion. Sofia Pride has become a tourist attraction, showing the economic power of Pride. We ran into old Bulgarian friends, who are now veteran organisers, busy managing volunteers and handling official guests.

We also crossed paths with Americans and Germans in town for the parade. We were proud to march with a 30-person contingent from the US Embassy in Sofia, joining more than 25 foreign embassies and international NGOs on hand, endorsing Sofia Pride.

We last attended Pride in Sofia in 2013, with a small crowd in a tense atmosphere, due to threats from extremist groups.

This year, we were pleasantly surprised to see an energetic turn-out of mostly young, urbane marchers. They were educated and world-aware, with many having travelled or worked abroad. Gay or straight, it was hard to tell; and it didn’t really matter. The pure joy of the crowd, celebrating Pride and expressing who they are, radiated hope and optimism.

Pitching for the community

“Sofia Pride is still the most important event for LGBTQIA+ people in Bulgaria,” says Radoslav Stoyanov, a member of the Sofia Pride Organising Committee since 2013 and an advocate at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the largest human rights organisation in Bulgaria.

“It makes the community visible, draws attention to our messages, and gives courage to those who are still in the closet to be proud instead of ashamed of who they are. We see that every year. The Pride in Sofia started in 2008 with 50 people. This year, we had more than 6,000, many of them youth. When I see them, I feel both sad and happy. Sad for myself because I didn’t have pride at their age, but happy for them and our common future.”

Flaunt your colours Scenes from the Sofia pride march

Flaunt your colours Scenes from the Sofia pride march  

Some marchers carried signs to protest or mock the homophobes, who claim to protect the family or children by attacking the LGBTQIA+ people. Confusion over the Istanbul Convention on the protection of children has made strange political bedfellows between American evangelical Protestants and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, insisting that people only be allowed to identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Evidently, among homophobes in Bulgaria, the word ‘gender’ has become a derogatory slur. Go figure!

The police, both in uniform and plain clothes, were mobilised as a solid and professional force protecting participants. They respected the marchers, and vice versa. At one point along the route, we noticed a large group of police, and learned they were stationed at the office of Ataka, an extreme right-wing nationalist party that is currently a member of the ruling government, to prevent any incident.

When Sister Sledge’s song ‘We are family’ burst out from the main Sofia Pride float, my eyes got misty as we danced with our Bulgarian brothers and sisters. Just as in the US, as more Bulgarians know more LGBTQIA+ people, the acceptance of equal rights will increase. And the theme of Sofia Pride 2019, ‘Do not give power to hatred’ will become a reality.

Memorable wedding gift

When Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria married Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma in Sofia in 1893, his Hapsburg cousins sent yellow cobblestones as a wedding present to pave the main street, evoking references to L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ever since. On June 8, 2019, the Sofia Pride parade meandered along that same yellow brick road. In this fairy tale, Sofia (‘wisdom’, in Greek) is the Emerald City navigating its hopeful future — democracy and tolerance — against its tortuous past. At sunset, I clicked a picture of the marchers heading towards the end of the rainbow… somewhere.

Anandaroopa and his husband, Bryan Dalton, Chief of Consular Affairs, US Consulate, lived in Chennai from 2008 to 2011. Then, they were posted to the US Embassy in Sofia from 2012 to 2014. They currently live in Vermont, US.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 1:38:44 AM |

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