SOFIA -- Thirty-two-year-old Gabriela Bankova says that, with no "weapons" left to fight for trans rights in Bulgaria, she is ready to sacrifice everything.
So this week, after ripping up the birth certificate at the center of the legal dispute over her gender identity, on November 13 she announced an open-ended hunger strike and sit-in on the courthouse steps until her Balkan nation adopts a legal route for cases like hers.
Then, on November 16, Bulgarian police handcuffed and detained Bankova on the spot, reportedly for failing to show proper ID. She was subsequently released and reportedly went back to her hunger strike.
"Trans people in Bulgaria are a minority and we don't have any weapons to fight for our rights," Bankova told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service after starting her protest. "All the state is offering us are these apparently ineffective cases that drag on for years."
But opponents of legal gender reassignment are almost certain to disagree with her characterization of recent cases as "ineffective."
Arguably the country's biggest case on gender affirmation concluded in February when the top appellate court, the Supreme Court of Cassation, ruled that Bulgarian legislation "does not envisage" legal changes to assigned gender. It cited a Constitutional Court decision from 2021 asserting a "binary existence of the human species" and saying that gender is strictly biological and is "determined at birth and is lost at death."
Under a "hunger strike" banner and blanket as overnight temperatures are forecast to dip below zero degrees Celsius this weekend, Bankova is camped out in front of the Sofia district courthouse where protesters in February labeled the Supreme Court's decision a "legal absurdity."
Nearly every subsequent case of Bulgarian plaintiffs seeking gender reassignment has been refused or simply batted down by judges applying the Supreme Court's standard.
The LGBT community celebrated in July when lawmakers amended the Bulgarian Criminal Code to include discrimination against someone due to their sexual orientation on the list of punishable hate crimes. Bulgaria's wider treatment of sexual minorities has drawn fire from rights campaigners. Critics complain of an absence of legal safeguards for trans and other minorities along with public condemnation and even occasional physical attacks, including by a former right-wing presidential candidate.
An influential LGBT rights ranking recently put Bulgaria below all but Romania among EU member states. The European Court of Human Rights in September chided Bulgarian authorities for wrongfully denying recognition to a same-sex couple who wed abroad.
At the moment, Bankova is fighting to be admitted to a hospital for treatment for pneumonia under what she says is her correct name and gender. She presented the results of a psychological examination and the opinion of an endocrinologist as evidence.
After the court this week rejected her appeal, however, she vowed that her hunger strike will continue until the whole judicial system is reformed. "Until I see these measures implemented or until I die, I will continue this hunger strike," Bankova said.
She accused the courts of perpetuating intolerance and violence as a "fundamental" and "guiding" value.
"For years, institutions in Bulgaria have been mocking us, encouraging violence against us, discriminating against us, and alienating us from society," says Bankova. "This works against the rights of trans people to self-identify and have control over themselves."
Denitsa Lyubenova, a lawyer for the LGBT legal assistance group Deystvie, said that since the Supreme Court ruling in February, just one of dozens of cases in which trans people have sued to legally change their gender has been decided and implemented in the applicant's favor. Two more got district-court rulings in their favor but have not yet been enacted.
Deystvie posted news of Bankova's protest on its Facebook page and vowed to "demand from the National Assembly and the institutions in Bulgaria legislative change now, because one human life cannot be destroyed because of institutionalized discrimination that has turned the lives of trans people into hell."
Deystvie criticized the Supreme Court's interpretation and said it represented an "unequivocal and unambiguous" prohibition on legal gender transition," closing the door for transgender people in Bulgaria to obtain favorable decisions in their cases for gender affirmation."
"This is a way for Gabriela to show the hopelessness of the situation in which the law in Bulgaria puts her," Lyubenova told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service at the time.
On November 16, when news broke of Bankova's detention, Lyubenova described the situation as shameful for political officials and the entire justice system. "Because turning the whole country against one woman is insane," Lyubenova said. Speaking to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, she called it a "deliberate action" and a "show of force" against Bankova.
"This repression, which deliberately attempts to silence and erase trans people and their discontent, is a gross violation of the basic human rights to peaceful assembly and expression," the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights monitoring group, said in response to Bankova's arrest.
In a previous statement on Bankova's case, another LGBT rights and advocacy group, the Bilitis Foundation, complained that the court had "trampled" her "identity and rights." Hers is "one of the cases of the systematic humiliation of trans people in Bulgaria," the statement said.
The Bulgarian-based Gays and Lesbians Accepted In Society (GLAS) Foundation recently published a survey suggesting that Bulgarian public opinion is "still dominated by traditional stereotypes" about LGBT people but that "slowly, skeptical opinions are changing" due to personal experience and increasing familiarity with the topic.
Bilitis and GLAS said in their joint post that injustice against self-determination for trans and intersex people in Bulgaria "not only creates discomfort but costs lives and robs from the future of all of us as a society."
Amid a heavy police presence, thousands of participants turned out for the 2023 Sofia Pride event in June despite vandalism and threats to disrupt the proceedings, including banners hung anonymously purporting to be from Pride organizers urging violence. It was the 16th time Sofia has hosted the Pride procession and related events despite past objections from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and other critics. A competing event was organized under the banner of a "March for the Family."