Unwanted and Unwelcome? Stories of Bulgarian LGBTI+ migrants

In 2021, I conceptualised and guest edited a feature series for the Bulgarian LGBTI+ portal Out.bg titled Unwanted and Unwelcome[1]. Its aim was to provide a space for LGBTI+ Bulgarians who live abroad to speak about their experiences with migration, including work, family, community life, successes and challenges, and anything else they wanted to share. This short article presents the rationale behind the series and summarises some of the main conclusions that I drew from the 19 stories we published.

The idea for the series was born out of several discussions I witnessed in LGBTI+ groups on Facebook. I don’t remember the specific comments but they were familiar to many Bulgarians: “I can’t stand it here anymore”, “I’m thinking about leaving”, “I’m tired of this country”, “the only way out is Terminal 1 or Terminal 2 [of Sofia airport]” and so on. The reasons for these comments are also familiar to everyone: the shamefully low salaries and pensions, the drained social and healthcare systems, the ubiquitous corruption, and the many problems with democracy and rule of law. For people in the LGBTI+ groups, however, there was another, just as important, reason: the lack of social acceptance and legal protections for LGBTI+ people, the constant insults hurled at us in the media and public space, the violence or threats of violence, and the deafening silence by political and social figures.

I’m interested in the topic of migration both personally and professionally: I’ve been living abroad for twelve years and I work in the field of migration and human rights. I’ve noticed that migration is highly visible and on the minds of many people in Bulgaria – not only through comments like the ones above. In villages and small towns, houses that are bigger and prettier than most are often built with money remitted by migrants; while rundown houses and weeded yards probably belong to people who live abroad and don’t return anymore. Strangers or distant acquaintances you meet on the street spontaneously say things lie “there’s nobody left here” and “everyone went away” or ask you “where do you live now?” and go on to tell you where and how their children and relatives live. Practically everyone has stories of migration – their own or of their friends, family members, or neighbours.

At the same time, migration rarely features in public discourse – at least to the extent that I follow Bulgarian media. Occasionally, we hear about “Bulgarians abroad” (the most common way migrants are referred to) – how we are the largest source of direct foreign investment and how there should be a strategy to attract us back to the country. Rarely does anyone ask who we are, why we go abroad, how we live there and if or why we would return.

Therefore, the aim of Unwanted and Unwelcome was to touch upon these issues from the perspective of LGBTI+ people. We published a call for contributions where we invited LGBTI+ Bulgarians who live abroad to tell us about their new lives. We proposed concrete questions like why they migrated, how they live there, whether they miss Bulgaria, and whether homophobia played any part in their decisions and if yes, what, and whether they consider returning one day.

We wanted to provide a space for LGBTI+ people to tell their stories. This is important in itself: in the Bulgarian context, where we are constantly attacked and insulted, there’s a tendency for us to speak in defence – to explain that we’re not sick or crazy, that we don’t want to corrupt anyone’s children or destroy their families, that we need pride and legal protections, and so on. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to speak about our problems and successes the way we want to – regardless of whether they are related to our sexuality or gender identity or not. Besides, I strongly believe that there must be space in public discourse for the stories, views, and analyses of “regular” people – not just politicians, celebrities, or social media “influencers”.

A secondary aim of the series was to see if and to what extent homophobia in Bulgaria contributes to “brain drain” and prevents LGBTI+ emigrants from returning. And to travel a little – to get a brief idea of life in other countries from the perspective of fellow LGBTI+ Bulgarians.

I proposed Unwanted and Unwelcome as the series title because the phrase is well-known and catchy, and the eponymous novel by Ivan Vazov tells the story of Bulgarian émigrés. In a more literal sense, I was thinking how LGBTI+ Bulgarians may feel “unwanted and unwelcome” in our home village, city or country because of our sexual orientation or gender identity, and this may be one of the reasons to emigrate. In a new place, however, and especially in a new country, we may face other difficulties, like discrimination or suspicion, finding a job or community, learning a language and, in more extreme (but not rare) cases, isolation and exploitation. In other words, LGBTI+ Bulgarians may feel “unwanted and unwelcome” in our home country as LGBTI and abroad – as immigrants.

We published the stories of 19 people. They live in a total of eleven other countries – New Zealand, a country in East Asia, Thailand, a country in the EU, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, France, Spain, UK, and the US; one person who lives in Bulgaria now after studying in the Netherlands and Singapore; and one couple of a Bulgarian guy and a French guy who live in Bulgaria. Eleven contributors were men, six were women, and two were gender non-conforming. Seven sent us short stories and I interviewed twelve.

I hope that everyone who can do so will read all 19 stories. In this article, I won’t detail the main themes that came out in the stories but just share some of my conclusions. They are not new or surprising but I think it’s important to highlight them.

Most of the people who shared their stories love Bulgaria! Boyan said it explicitly and in other stories it became clear from things people talked about. Several said that they miss Bulgarian food, nature, the relaxed way of life, and the way people communicate and relate with each other. For example, Vicky said that in Bulgaria it’s much easier than in the US to make an appointment with friends (something I had experienced in the Netherlands). Everyone still has friends and relatives in Bulgaria, they think about the country, they follow the news and participate in the social and political life as much as possible. Tzetzo, Doro, Ivan, Darina and I are engaged with various organisations or projects. Those who have children are making sure that their children remain connected to Bulgaria: for example, both of Nick’s children have Bulgarian names, Vicky and Darina talk to their children in Bulgarian, which is also what Lilly intends to do when she has children someday. Clément seemed to know more about Bulgarian folklore dances than the average Bulgarian and together with his partner Nick, they constantly discover new pieces of Bulgarian nature, language, history, and cuisine.

I think it’s important to emphasise this because so-called “patriots”, “nationalists” or “keepers of traditional values” often imply that LGBTI+ people don’t love Bulgaria but only “the west”. This is not true. We love Bulgaria too but we want our society to accept us as its own citizens. In most of the stories, I didn’t feel resentment or hatred of Bulgaria but a mix of sadness and frustration from the lack of adequate legal protections or support from political parties or public figures, and the constant hatred and disinformation about us in the media and public discourse.

Most people had not emigrated specifically to escape homophobia and the lack of legal protections and social acceptance in Bulgaria but for several this was a significant reason. A.D., Vladi, Mitko, and Jasmina had witnessed or experienced violence and homophobia, Nick had wanted to avoid them, while Lilly, Vicky, and Darina just wanted to live in a country where their family would be recognised by the law. The lack of legal protections and social acceptance, however, were among the reasons why people did not want to return. For S.T., Boyan, and others who have, or hope to have, partners and children, returning to Bulgaria seemed unlikely.

Another, but related, reason for going or remaining abroad was the more general feeling that Bulgaria is “small” – that there is a lack of diversity of people and opinions, and most Bulgarians are narrow-minded. Peter, Lilly, Nick, and I noted that we live in multicultural cities or countries where there are people from all races, ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities and this enriches us and the countries where we live. This wasn’t just about the size of a country or city – yes, New York, London, or Bangkok have populations larger than Bulgaria’s. However, New Zealand and Denmark are smaller but Nick and Maya appreciated the diversity of people, religions, and views there. Additionally, A.D., Nick and I have Asian partners and were worried about returning to Bulgaria with them because our society is conservative towards people from other races. Others, like Stoyan and Danny, said that abroad they feel free to wear whatever clothes they like while in Bulgaria they have to put up with judgmental looks and comments.

I also want to reflect briefly on the process of preparing the series. Participants shared their stories with excitement, joy, and enthusiasm. Tzetzo said that he found the interview therapeutic; others shared stories that they had not shared before, at least not in front of a large audience. The series also helped create new connections – some participants discovered that they live in the same city or state and made plans to meet; others discovered that, even though on different continents, they share common experiences and connected to express support; still others found long-lost acquaintances or made new friends.

I think the series was also interesting for the LGBTI+ community in Bulgaria. The materials were among the most read ones on Out.bg. On social media, people commented, raised questions, and empathised with the stories. I joked that Unwanted and Unwelcome became like a TV show that some people eagerly await and discuss (we published new materials every Wednesday and Saturday, which contributed to my sense of it being like a TV show). But more seriously, my assumption that the community would be interested in reading the stories of “regular” LGBTI+ Bulgarians proved correct.

Based on these conclusions, I make two recommendations. First, this series provided concrete evidence that the lack of social acceptance and adequate legal protections forces some LGBTI+ Bulgarians to leave the country and stops others from returning. It is well-known that homophobia has negative impact on economic growth and this argument can no longer be dismissed as unrelated to Bulgaria; we now have real people whose stories confirmed this. The series can serve as a tool for LGBTI+ advocacy groups to use as another piece of evidence for the need to combat discrimination and homophobia in Bulgaria. It can also serve as an inspiration for organisations or researchers to conduct a larger, quantitative study on the reasons why LGBTI+ people leave the country or how homophobia affects Bulgarian economy and demographics.

And second, LGBTI+ organisations and media can continue with similar initiatives that provide space to LGBTI+ people to tell their stories. Storytelling is an established method for empowerment of marginalised groups and can contribute to community-building and to broader acceptance of LGBTI+ people in society. Stories help us see others as people just like us and recognise that there is more that unites us than divides us. As Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said during a lecture in the University of Cape Town, “How we relate to people who are different from us, people who we might never get to see, who we might never have a personal interaction with, is very much shaped by the stories we consume of those people, how they are portrayed in media, and it seems to me that because we are unfamiliar with the stories of one another, we are then unfamiliar with one another.”

Such initiatives can focus on intersecting identities, for example, people who are LGBTI and Roma, Muslim, immigrants, or with special needs. This may help foster alliances between social movements for rights and justice and lead to greater acceptance of LGBTI people in society. These undertakings should not simply be an invitation to send an essay because not everyone has a computer or the time and capacity to write. Interviews are time-consuming but as our series showed, rewarding.

I conclude with two more quotes from the above-mentioned lecture by Ngozi Adichie: “we need more stories because they have the power to change the world” and “here’s to a world in which not only do we tell more human stories but that we’re more open to hearing – actually hearing those human stories”.

(This story was originally published in Bulgarian on Out.bg on 5 November 2021)

If you’d like to share a story about your experience with migration, send it to me in an email at [email protected] or via the Contact page.

[1] This is my own loose translation from Bulgarian of Немили-недраги (Nemili-nedragi), which is the title of a nineteenth-century novel by Ivan Vazov that tells the story of Bulgarian revolutionaries exiled in Romania.

In this video, I speak about this feature series to students at De La Salle University in the Philippines