This blog has been written by one of our newer volunteers, Vinay.
As an out and proud member of the LGBTQ+ community, it was definitely difficult moving to a country where homophobia is prevalent, and over the last 6 years I faced many ups and downs with the city where I moved to study.
Plovdiv, the second biggest city in Bulgaria, is historical and vibrant with so much to offer the new influx of international students and many tourists that come to visit. However, disappointingly, there is nothing to offer the city’s LGBTQ+ members. Unlike the many gay districts we are all used to here in the UK, where we all feel safe and welcomed, Plovdiv doesn’t have any gay bars, restaurants or shops offer the same level of safety. Interestingly, Plovdiv was 2019’s European Capital of Culture –with the rainbow being its official logo – yet there was no sign of the LGBTQ+ community anywhere. To exemplify this, a huge backlash was faced when an exhibition about the Balkan Pride was brought forward: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/07/homophobia-scandal-hits-plovdiv-bulgaria-european-capital-of-culture.
Being “that out and proud individual”, it has not been easy living in a city that has very conservative outlook to people who are “different”, and a change for the better was thoroughly needed.
As June was fast approaching, the rapid and efficient response to Covid-19 in Bulgaria meant life quickly headed back to normal, and with it being Pride month, what a better way to celebrate being post-lockdown than having Plovdiv’s very first ‘mini’ Pride.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Vinay Jangra you are out of your mind! How are you hosting Pride in a place where we have established that has underlying homophobia?
That’s a good question, but Plovdiv has a colourful LGBTQ+ community who are hidden away and deserve to be celebrated and accepted by the city they live in, and I felt I needed to do something, anything, to help.
Over the past month, I spent time, with a lovely couple of volunteers, to put together a mini Pride in Plovdiv’s creative district, Kapana: an area in the heart of Plovdiv composed of a labyrinth of narrow, winding cobbled streets, saturated with some of the most vibrant places the city has to offer including quirky bars, restaurants and galleries – the perfect place to host the city’s first Pride. During the planning process, a very interesting phone call took place: the founder of GLAS, Sofia’s gay and lesbian association, was willing to co-host the event. Success! This was an amazing opportunity as they host Sofia Pride every year for the past 13 years, where roughly 7000 people attend. Furthermore, Huge.bg , an online Bulgarian gay magazine, wrote an article explaining the significance of the event. So, from having such a small idea, it had blossomed into something momentous.
On the day of the event, the reality hit and my anxiety levels were through the roof, with so many thoughts and questions racing through my mind. What if no-one turns up? What if we face scrutiny from the wider society of Plovdiv? What if no-one has a good time? There were just so many ‘what ifs’.
As we arrived in Kapana, my girls and I made our way to the first bar where we were met with an eager group of people sipping on their Aperol Spritz. Nervously, introductions were made, cocktails were ordered and the fun really started. As music filled the street, more and more people poured into the bar; conversations, laughter and excitement saturated the air.
I couldn’t believe it, so many people have come to show their support and a chance to belong and feel accepted. It was such a warm and overwhelming feeling.
After the last drink at the first bar, the crowd of roughly 100 marched their way to the second bar with the LGBTQ+ flag in hand: an unofficial gay parade. These were the first steps taken as a large group of queer people through the heart of Plovdiv. It was an immensely significant moment. At the second bar, we met Plovdiv’s resident drag queen, Enigma, who sashayed and slayed her way through her set, albeit in Bulgarian. But the laughs we had was just incomparable, especially during the lip sync battles between guests of the event. I will never forget the moment where my very masculine, heterosexual friend took on Enigma by lip syncing to The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” and winning by taking his shirt off and erotically pouring a glass of water (I hope it was water) over his body – iconic! The night was concluded at the last bar, where a dear friend of mine DJed a set of gay anthems and we danced the rest of the night away.
As I clambered into the back of the cab, I sat and reflected on how the evening was a huge success; there was no negativity or scrutiny that overshadowed the night, but only love, laughter and acceptance. I am hopeful that this small but significant event will pave a way for a better future for the LGBTQ+ members here in Plovdiv.