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06/23/2013

LGBT Pride and Protest: A First-Hand Report From Sofia, Bulgaria

BY GARTH GREENWELL

1_bulgariaPride has always been a tense time in Sofia, Bulgaria, where I have lived for the last four years. In 2008, the year of the first Pride (not coincidentally, Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007), the parade was disrupted by a group of nationalists, who assaulted participants and threw Molotov cocktails. In subsequent years Pride has proceeded without incident, though with a heavy police presence. In 2010, the first year I participated, there were many more police than marchers, most of them in full riot gear, and a phalanx of armored vehicles escorted us on either side of the street.

Still, each year the number of participants has almost doubled, and support from foreign embassies and local public figures has also grown. Media coverage has gradually become more positive, and now one seldom hears words like pedal (faggot) or obraten (queer) in television commentary, as I did often during my first year here. Last year, just before Pride, I was amazed to see a short television profile of a lesbian couple and their child on Bulgarian National Television—a portrait that presented them without any sensationalism, but simply as what they were: an entirely normal family. It felt to me like a revolutionary moment.

Sofia PrideSo it has been deeply disheartening that this year’s Pride events have been marred by violence. I was shocked to learn that in Plovdiv, the country’s second largest city, an LGBT film festival was violently disrupted by hooligans. The film festival (the city’s first) had already been a source of controversy, with the local Metropolitan of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church declaring that LGBT people “destroy the souls of our children”—rhetoric that is not at all uncommon here. When a local soccer club—powerful social groups in a country obsessed with the sport—denounced the festival as “gay propaganda,” the mayor of the city responded not by defending principles of human rights or freedom of expression, but instead by declaring himself “categorically opposed to all events that divide the citizens of Plovdiv.”

On the fifth night of the festival, a group of nationalists entered the bar where that night’s film was being shown. According to LGBT-Plovdiv’s press release, one man asked, “Is this the faggots’ screening,” before promising that the first LGBT film festival would be the last. As they left, they broke the projection equipment. Although the city had promised security for the event, and though there had been an attempted disruption of an earlier screening, there was no police presence; according to organizers, it took twenty minutes for police to respond to a call for help. Bravely, organizers continued the festival the next night, and—now with police protection—it passed without further incident.

Over the last ten days, Sofia has experienced large anti-government protests each evening, with thousands of people marching peacefully through the city center. Acknowledging the burden placed on the city by the demonstrations, and told that security could not be guaranteed, the organizers of Sofia Pride decided to postpone the parade that had been planned for Saturday. Much to their surprise, an anti-gay parade took place as scheduled, with a few dozen demonstrators walking down Vitosha Boulevard, the center of the city’s fashionable shopping district.

Signs beforeSaturday evening, a small group of LGBT activists took part in the anti-government protests, carrying signs bearing messages such as “Let’s be united,” “I’m protesting without homophobia or xenophobia,” and “Gay, bi, hetero, trans: Love each other.” (#Обичайтесебе, “love one another,” is a hashtag associated with the anti-government protests.) They also passed out a large number of small flags, featuring on one side the Bulgarian flag and on the other a rainbow peace flag.

I was in the protest on Saturday, but among the tens of thousands of protesters I never managed to connect with this group. According to my friends’ reports and those that have appeared in the press, while these activists were sitting on the ground beside Eagle Bridge, a landmark of the city and a major gathering place for protesters, a man grabbed many of their signs and destroyed them. They were then harassed by several other demonstrators and accused of passing out “gay propaganda.” The police intervened to tell the LGBT protesters to “stop being provocative” and to go home; they then left the group alone and unprotected.

When the hooligans returned, one LGBT activist was physically assaulted, though not injured, and serious violence was only averted by the intervention of passers-by. By all accounts it was a terrifying moment, and one that could have been terribly worse.

Posters afterBulgaria is on the very edge of Europe, and the presence of Russia looms large; the emphasis on “gay propaganda” in attacks on gay rights here is clearly inspired by Russia’s recent passing of anti-“propaganda” laws. Attacks on Pride events in Georgia and the murders of gay men in Russia, as well as, just this weekend, an attack on the LGBT support center in Skopje, the capital of neighboring Macedonia, all contribute to an atmosphere that has called into question my own sense of the progress gay people have made in this part of the world.

I’ve written a good deal about gay life in Sofia, and about my own experiences as an openly gay person here. I work as a high school teacher, and each year gay students, none of them open, have spoken to me about their own sense of the limitations imposed on their lives. I still believe what I tell them: that even in the four years I have been here I have seen things get better, and that there are activists working bravely and tirelessly to make sure that continues to be true. But it’s hard not to be troubled by what seems, at least possibly, like a change for the worse in the weather.

Eating lunch with a number of activists this afternoon, I found myself sitting next to a young man, a new high school graduate from a small town in Bulgaria, and we spoke a bit about the recent events. “For the first time, I feel like things could move backwards,” he said, “like maybe progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s no denying that, and much depends on the ability of activists here—with the watchfulness and support of the international community—to hold government officials to their obligations under EU agreements.

The organizers of Sofia Pride promise that the parade will take place in September, though they haven’t yet set a date. They should do so, and quickly. Now more than ever, it seems terribly important that this year not pass without Pride. 

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award as well as a Lambda Literary Award. This fall he will be an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Posted Jun. 23,2013 at 8:00 PM EST by in Bulgaria, Garth Greenwell, Sofia | Permalink | Comments (10)


College Assignment Promoting Tolerance Causes Uproar

A professor at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, Tennessee has come under fire for an assignment she gave to her psychology class, aimed at creating empathy for gays and lesbians, The Tennessean reports:

Collegevue"At issue is an assignment in a class taught this spring by psychology professor Linda Brunton. Students claim they were required to wear a rainbow ribbon and make public statements in support of gay rights. They were then assigned to write a paper about the reactions they got from other people.

Lawyers from the Phoenix-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group, said they received complaints from Christian students in Brunton’s class who oppose gay rights.

Travis Barham, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney, claimed in a letter to Columbia State that the assignment was illegal.

'Dr. Brunton’s assignment violates decades (of) clearly established law by compelling students to support in public views they either do not wish to advocate or find abhorrent,' Barham wrote."

While there appear to be conflicting reports as to whether the assignment was mandatory, at least one student, Jeff Vernon, who took a class taught by Brunton two years ago, recalls a similar assignment that was voluntary and offered for extra credit. Vernon, who did not participate, told The Tennessean,

“It did not affect my grade. It did make for an uncomfortable situation.”

The assignment, entitled "“Promoting Increased Understanding of Sexual Diversity through Experience Learning," also caused controversy in the local community, drawing the ire of nearby Collegevue Church of Christ and its minister, Greg Gwin.  Of particular offense to Gwin and the students who filed the complaint is the claim allegedly leveled by Brunton that those who oppose gay rights are, "uneducated bigots”:

"On Wednesday, the church changed its sign to read, 'CSCC [Columbia State Community College]: God is not an ‘Uneducated Bigot’ Rom 1:26,27.'

'I am increasingly disgusted by the intolerance of those who claim to promote tolerance,' Gwin said."

In a statement issued to the AP, College officials stated that they have begun an investigation into the matter.

(photo via The Tennessean)

 

Posted Jun. 23,2013 at 7:14 PM EST by in Gay Rights, Tennessee | Permalink | Comments (35)


Gay Man Beaten In Assault Outside Cleveland, Ohio: VIDEO

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 4.32.36 PM

A gay man from Norwalk and his friend were attacked and beaten earlier this week while visiting a 7-Eleven in Sandusky, Ohio about 60 miles outside Cleveland. Fox 8 reports

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 4.31.31 PM"The victim and his friend were inside the 7-Eleven initially and the two suspects walked in right after them," said Detective Gary Wichman with the Sandusky Police Department. "The two suspects had left the store prior to the two victims and it apparently happened right after that."

Police say Angel Kennedy, 23, and Neno Miller, 18, confronted the 22-year-old victim inside the 7-Eleven.

Surveillance cameras were rolling as the victim said he and his friend were taunted and called names.

"The victim described himself as flamboyant, and he felt that because of his sexual orientation, they were attacked because of that," added Detective Wichman.

While there is no surveillance video of the attack, the police report states the victim was repeatedly punched in the face, even kicked in the ribs. The two suspects took wallets from the victims and fled the scene before being arrested by police later that day. However, whether or not the two suspects will be charged with a hate crime is still in question.

"Right now, under Ohio Revised Code, it doesn't recognize what happened as a hate crime. We had looked into it and according to the prosecutor, it doesn't fall under a hate crime," said Detective Wichman.

Ohio law allows judges to consider "hate" circumstances in sentencing if, "in committing the offense, the offender was motivated by prejudice based on race, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation or religion." At the sentencing hearing, the judge has broad discretion to decide how much consideration, if any, will be given to "hate crime factors."

Check out a news report on the attack, AFTER THE JUMP...

Posted Jun. 23,2013 at 6:08 PM EST by in Cleveland, Crime, News, Ohio | Permalink | Comments (9)


Over One Quarter Of San Francisco's Homeless Identify As LGBT

For the first time ever, the San Francisco Human Services Agency surveyed a sample of the city's homeless population about their sexual orientation and the results are startling. Of the 1,000 surveyed, 29 percent said they were gay, bisexual or transgender, which is about twice as high as the percentage of the residents in the city overall. The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

SfThe numbers suggest that more effort may need to go toward providing special services - such as beds set aside for LGBT people in shelters or social workers with special training in LGBT issues - to get gay people off the street and into temporary, and eventually permanent, housing, homeless advocates said.

"It's great to finally have these numbers. What we get from this is that homelessness is a queer issue," said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. "And when we look at our system, it's not particularly gay-friendly."

She's talked to gay and lesbian people who experienced homophobia in homeless shelters, and she said that transgender people staying in shelters experience abuse at "three times the rate" of straight people.

Friedenbach noted that the city is hoping to provide 24 new shelter beds set aside for LGBT people this year. 

Posted Jun. 23,2013 at 5:10 PM EST by in California, Homeless, News, San Francisco | Permalink | Comments (10)


Dan Savage Offers Some Gay Advice For Straight Couples: VIDEO

Dan savage

On the latest "Ask Anything" video for The Dish, Dan Savage discusses the benefits of gay couples not having to conform to gender expectations and suggests a four-word question that every straight couple should consider adopting into their sex life. 

Check it out, AFTER THE JUMP...

 

Posted Jun. 23,2013 at 4:02 PM EST by in Dan Savage, News | Permalink | Comments (33)


Lesbian Couple Married Across the Street from Westboro Baptist Church: VIDEO

Equality_wedding

As Julian reported on Thursday, Kimberly Kidwell, a 31-year-old EMT, married Katie Short on Saturday at Equality House, across the street from Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church.

The HuffPost reports:

Members of the church, who have travelled across the U.S. to promote their anti-gay message, didn't even need to leave their headquarters to protest, putting up some signs in their front yard and a banner over the wooden fence outside their property.

The brides hardly noticed. "I guess I was almost numb after seeing them for a minute. I knew the signs would be there, and I wasn't even angry about it. We were just so ecstatic to be getting married," said Kidwell, who wore a white pantsuit for the occasion.

The proximity to the WBC was no coincidence. Kidwell and Short were hitched in the front yard of the rainbow-painted residence owned by Aaron Jackson, one of the founders of the charity Planting Peace, whose intention is to confront Westboro and its history of anti-gay activism.

Watch a stunning video Equality House made of the wedding, AFTER THE JUMP...

2_equalitywedding

Posted Jun. 23,2013 at 3:11 PM EST by in Gay Wedding, Kansas, News, Westboro Baptist Church | Permalink | Comments (9)



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