Bulgaria gay parade peaceful, despite provocations

A gay pride march in the Bulgarian capital Sofia stayed peaceful Saturday, but homosexuality remains a sensitive issue across the Balkans.

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    An activist waves a rainbow flag in front of a building of the Bulgarian parliament during the fifth Sofia Pride annual parade in Sofia June 30. Hundreds of gays, lesbians, transsexuals and gay rights supporters participated in the parade.
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A Pride Parade in Bulgaria passed without threatened violence yesterday, but homosexuality remains a sensitive issue across the Balkans.

In the weeks before, fears of violence had been stoked by provocative language from opponents of the parade. Last week one small nationalist party paid for billboard advertisements across Sofia saying “Gay Parade Allowed – Smoking Banned. Which is more harmful for the nation?”

Global media attention was guaranteed when Father Evgeniy Yanakiev, an Orthodox priest from eastern Bulgaria, said "stones should be thrown" at parade participants, the Bulgarian newswire Novinite reported. A chorus of international disapproval called for the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate to distance itself from the comments, but instead the church issued a statement condemning the parade itself as a "harmful demonstration that violates the rights of Orthodox Christians," according to Novinite.

Organizers said yesterday's parade, the biggest yet held in Bulgaria, is a step forward in highlighting the importance of tolerance for the gay community, but that there is a long way to go in broadening acceptance of homosexuals in society in the region.

“Everything was perfect,” says Marko Markov, one of the parade organizers. “For four consecutive years there has been no violence at all at the parade itself, though we were very concerned this year. The far right is very loud but they know they can’t harm us.”

During Bulgaria’s first Pride Parade, in 2008, extremists threw petrol bombs at marchers.

Pride events elsewhere in southeast Europe have attracted controversy and occasional violence.

* In September last year, Serbia banned the Belgrade Pride Parade, one of the most high-profile in the region, ostensibly to prevent a recurrence of attacks on the march by extremists.

* The previous year, 10,000 had rallied against gay parades in the same city.

* In June, Zeljko Kerum, maverick mayor of the Croatian coastal city of Split, urged people to “ignore” a Pride Parade. After the event, he was quoted as saying that “Split residents have, by ignoring the parade, shown what they think about it, that they are not interested, that they do not want it in their town and that it is not welcome in Split.”

Despite most countries havings passed gay equality legislation, homosexuality is seen as a taboo in many Balkan countries, particularly outside the bigger cities.

"Intolerance is driven by a fear that homosexuality undermines patriarchal notions of the 'nuclear family,' and therefore the 'traditional values' that supposedly make a society or nation 'normal.'  Since most of the former Yugoslav countries are still states and nations in the making, their inchoate national identities feel particularly jeopardized by anything which in some way diminishes – or even breaks with entirely – the idea of heroic masculinity," says Mirjana Kosic, executive director of TransConflict Serbia, an organization undertaking conflict transformation projects and research.

For Orthodox Christianity, the issue is one of centuries-old teachings on sexuality. 

Father Antim Manoliov, Archimandrite and Protosyncellus at the Metropolitan of Vidin in northwest Bulgaria, was critical of Father Yanakiev’s reported statements, but maintained the Church’s stance in opposing the parade and considering homosexual acts a sin.

“The Church cannot promote morality with offensive, attacking, or frantic words,” he says. “The Church’s position is to help people spiritually, not to throw rocks as happened in Old Testament times. Those of different sexuality are like blind people and we should help them and not say bad things. But public protests and demonstrations discriminate against the majority in society.”

Markov argues that the Church’s stance on issues from IVF to a Madonna concert in Sofia – it urged a boycott by the faithful – have exposed it to criticism, but that it can still be a rallying point for opponents of gay rights, which are widely opposed. 

“A huge part of the gay population is closeted,” he said. “Hate crimes are a big problem and public displays of affection between homosexuals are very rare and often met with attacks.”

Yesterday's pride parade was attended by 1,500 to 2,000 people, and drew several foreign ambassadors, including the US’s James Warlick and Britain’s representative Jonathan Allen.

The presence of 600 policemen may well have helped forestall clashes at the rally, though Markov says one participant had been attacked in the center of Sofia after the march, but was rescued by passers-by.

A counter demonstration was poorly attended, with only around 200 present, and was colored by the conspiracy theories of some of those involved – for example that the US had a secret plot to turn Bulgaria into a gay tourism destination, or at least to subvert the country via sexuality as part of an imperialist mission.

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