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In Bulgaria, A Bisexual Police Officer Set Up An LGBT Union. Then He Was Shunned.

Petromir Genchev (right, with Alain Permentier of the European LGBT Police Association) says the aim of the union is to provide legal protection to colleagues who have been victims of all forms of discrimination.
Petromir Genchev (right, with Alain Permentier of the European LGBT Police Association) says the aim of the union is to provide legal protection to colleagues who have been victims of all forms of discrimination.

SOFIA -- Fed up with the discrimination he and his LGBT colleagues on the police force faced in Bulgaria, where "homophobia is a religion," officer Petromir Genchev decided it was time to do something and established an association to protect their rights, a first in the largely conservative Balkan country.

Although Genchev, 33, registered the group late last year, its existence largely remained a secret until he was interviewed in May by bTV, Bulgaria's biggest private TV station.

After the TV interview aired, the reaction from his colleagues in Vratsa, where he lives and serves in the local police force, was not encouraging to say the least, Genchev told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

"Relationships are extremely tense. I haven't heard from most of my colleagues since the broadcast," Genchev said. Comments on the station's website linked to the interview frequently referred to it as the "gay union," along with disparaging descriptions.

On the other hand, Genchev says queries about the group have been trickling in from other officers across the country.

The group --- formally called the Trade Union of the Employees of the Interior Ministry for Equality and Integration --- has already been accepted as a member of the European LGBT Police Association, an umbrella organization of national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) police associations from across Europe.

The LGBT community in Bulgaria has long been targeted with hate speech and violence. In 2021, a member of the right-wing Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO) called the Sofia Pride "a manifestation of group mental disorders."

In its annual report for 2022, the advocacy group ILGA Europe said Bulgaria was still plagued by "bias-motivated violence," with several anti-LGBT incidents registered in the period under review.

In one incident that shocked the country, a far-right candidate in the November 14, 2021, presidential election, Boyan Rasate, was detained and charged with hooliganism and inflicting injury over an attack on an LGBT community center in Sofia on October 30, 2021.

Traveling beyond the borders of Bulgaria, Genchev often found that the LGBT community rarely stirred many if any emotions. "I've been to Western Europe, to countries where it's not even a topic of conversation. Nobody cares. 'You are that way? Well, great, that's your choice.' People are much more tolerant. They've moved on from this."

Genchev, who is openly bisexual and married with two children, says he grew up in an open and supportive family. "I've never been brought up to hate someone just because of who they are. I have been taught to judge people by what they are like as a person, and how they treat me and others. The personal life of someone has never interested me," he explained.

The warmth he found at home juxtaposed with the hostility he experienced elsewhere.

"I was teased as a child, at school, and elsewhere.... In Bulgaria, hating is normal. We hate refugees, we hate foreigners, we hate all kinds. Everyone has to like what I like, want what I want, otherwise that individual is not normal for me. We hate everyone who is not like us," Genchev said.

The reaction to his interview with bTV -- much of it negative and homophobic on social media -- is illustrative of the problem in Bulgaria, Genchev says. "Many people didn't even really pay attention to what was said after the word 'bisexual' was uttered, a different sexual orientation. Once that was said, nothing else mattered. Homophobia in Bulgaria is a religion," he lamented.

In the police ranks, anti-LGBT attitudes are largely the legacy of Bulgaria's communist past, says Genchev, questioning how officers harboring such views can investigate hate crimes. "You can't hate these people openly, express narrow-minded opinions on social media that almost everyone should be killed or expelled from the country, and then expect that this individual will be able to do his job when just such a person is injured," Genchev said.

People march in the Sofia Pride parade in Sofia in June 2016.
People march in the Sofia Pride parade in Sofia in June 2016.

Among those who have contacted him, Genchev says there is confusion as to the aim of the LGBT police advocacy group. "It's unfortunate that many of them are asking about what type of privileges they will get. There are no privileges. We do not fight for privileges," he said, adding that high membership numbers weren't important to him.

"We don't want everyone to be our member or to have many people. I hope that people who have really suffered from discrimination are not afraid to contact us, and that we don't have many people in general. "

According to Genchev, the aim of the union is to provide legal protection to colleagues who have been victims of all forms of discrimination.

"We're not just focusing on any one type of person. We're focusing on all those who are victims of discrimination. Anyone who has been subjected to anything described in the Anti-Discrimination Act or who has faced discrimination in any form," Genchev explained, adding that the current laws on the books were insufficient.

Civil society in Bulgaria has long advocated for the criminalization of anti-LGBT hate crimes, including by filing a petition with over 8,000 signatures late last year. So far, no such legislation has been approved by parliament.

The European Court of Human Rights on June 14 ruled that Bulgaria compensate the mother of a young man killed in what was determined to be a homophobic attack.

The Strasbourg-based body determined that, although local courts had clearly established that the reason behind the murder had been the perpetrators' hatred for LGBT people, there had been no legal consequences for this, as the Bulgarian Criminal Code does not cite homophobia as an aggravating factor.

In another recent development, the Bulgarian state on June 14 refused to give citizenship to "baby Sarah," the daughter of a same-sex couple, a Bulgarian and a British citizen, who had married in Gibraltar.

Genchev says he expects to sit down in the near future with officials from the Interior Ministry, which oversees the country's police forces, to discuss specific proposals for improving the working environment for LGBT people.

Those plans could be in jeopardy or at least put on hold after a no-confidence vote on June 22 toppled the government.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky in Prague based on reporting by Dilyana Teoharova of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service

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