Written by Ris Galabov
Illustrated by Emily Nash
As a queer person, I feel most grateful for living in London whenever I have to fly back to Bulgaria which I last did less than a month ago. I go once a year for no more than a week. My mum often asks why I don’t come back to see family more and it hurts to know how much they must be missing me.
It’s not that I don’t care for them or feel some type of disdain for Bulgaria, but with every trip I’m reminded of the uneasy truth that I have to tone down my queerness and femininity to avoid abuse and concern towards me in public or private.
I have to present if not specifically as masculine (because God knows I can’t pull that off for the life of me), then at least in a way that is as non-threatening as possible to the conservative, heteronormative worldview widely held in Bulgaria. All this means is that I have to ‘pass’.
While this article communicates my personal experience, which is ultimately subjective, it’s worthwhile to point out some of the facts that relate to the treatment of and opinions held about LGBTQ+ people and our community in the country.
While discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been officially banned in Bulgaria since 2004, no laws are in place to protect against hate crimes towards LGBTQ+ people and such abuses are often swept under the rug.
I was entering middle school in 2008 only vaguely aware (and vehemently denying to myself) that I’m not particularly straight when news broke that a young boy had been beaten to death in Sofia.
His assailants perceived him to ‘look’ homosexual and were intent on ‘purging’ gay people from one of Sofia’s most popular parks. It took seven years to finally convict the two men and have them sentenced to just thirteen and under five years.
The case shed light on the dysfunctional and corrupt nature of the Bulgarian justice system, specifically in the sloppy way it deals with hate crime towards the LGBTQ+ community. This contributes to the normalisation of such aggression and sends the message that queer people can barely rely on institutional support.
Further, with regard to public opinion, more than 60% of Bulgarians believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society with inconclusive data on public perceptions toward bisexual and trans people.
With that in mind, in adolescence, trying to ‘pass’ was a much-needed defence mechanism since I found exploring my queer identity on the outside to be a ridiculous notion and completely out of the question. What would be the point in dressing or acting more androgynously or femme, even if it came naturally, when you see fellow queer people harassed and abused for it – by their families, the public, the media and the institutions that are supposed to protect them.
Flash-forward to relocating to London 3 years ago. The move slowly re-framed my relationship with myself. It’s a big shock to replace the old environment where you feel partially accepted at best, with somewhere new, where your freedom of expression seems somewhat unrestricted.
This ultimately led me to develop a relatively androgynous look and manner which is significantly more congruent with my inner self than it’s ever been before. Taking away the barrier between those inner and outer expressions of identity and melding them into a single concept allowed for a certain sense of harmony which I hadn’t really experienced before.
It would be nice to imagine how all that internalised homophobia, shame and fear have now completely disappeared from my life, but those are deeply ingrained beliefs. Rather, it’s like they remain in an unlit corner of my mind where their presence can be easily ignored for the most part.
Whenever I make plans to travel to Bulgaria, they’re the first feelings to come to light as a form of mental conditioning for my trip. It can easily feel like they overpower my thoughts and revert all the progress I’ve made. As if there’s no other way to go about the situation, but to force myself in some form of closet and split the inner from the outer expression again.
If I don’t – my family would worry about me and given how rarely we see each other, I want to make our time together as peaceful as possible. It’s a bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation as the trip causes my mental well-being to take a hit regardless.
By choosing to put up that inauthentic front, I can at least protect myself from external danger and have a somewhat less stressful time. So, ‘passing’ it is.
The Act of ‘Passing’
When packing for the trip I leave out all the high-waisted trousers that make my legs look longer and overall feminise my proportions. I want my shape simple and boxy. I dig out the one pair of low-rise jeans that I’ve practically phased out of my everyday wardrobe and haven’t donated only because of occasions like this one. I chip away the last bits of nail polish on the plane which I must’ve missed earlier. I stiffen my walk, try to reduce the movement in my shoulders and suppress how much my hips sway.
The first comment I got about my walk was from a friend in school who made a joking remark about it and tagged it as a comical abnormality that I moved so flamboyantly. Suffice to say it’s been on my mind ever since and it was one of the first things I began accentuating when I moved to London.
For one, it felt natural to do so, but then it was also a form of rebellion and a soft ‘screw you’ to the norms I was expected to adhere to previously. I then remember to leave whatever shirt I’m putting on untucked. As hard as I try with my walk, my hips can’t lie and a loose, oversized top is the perfect disguise for it.
Friends sometimes make light fun of how it only takes me to utter a sentence or two to know that I’m indeed very queer. While this doesn’t bother me in the slightest in London and I find it quite entertaining, the topic of my voice develops a wholly different meaning when trying to ‘pass’.
I cover up any unwanted flamboyancy by flattening my intonation and deepening my tone. My smiley nature also goes out the window and I ultimately become an uncharismatic bore. My facial expressions (especially around groups of threatening-looking guys) vary between ‘lost in thought, observing this fascinating thing on the opposite side of where you are’ and ‘staring at the ground in front of me appearing slightly annoyed, but not scared of you at all’.
Since I’m too skinny to look threatening, the end-goal is to at least appear as unapproachable as possible. That way, any potential aggressors can consider it more of a bother than anything else to approach me.
This kind of thinking can make you hyperaware of your surroundings, as you’re constantly evaluating potential threats, adjusting your behaviour and overall frying your brain by trying to control situations that are completely out of your grasp. That’s how overthinking turns you into an anxious control freak.
Yes, ‘passing’ can keep you out of trouble, but over time it becomes a habit to have your guard up 24/7 and it can make opening up to people extremely difficult. You’re unsure how much to reveal and uncover and are stuck trying to assess others’ potential reactions and the consequences for you thereof, and that’s all before you’ve even said or done anything.
The damaging effects of ‘passing’ on the psyche cannot be overstated.
Some of my queer friends might criticise me for not being unashamedly queer at all times and say that I should always strive to ‘be the change’ or ‘lead by example’ and on countless occasions those arguments are valid.
However, I’m a firm believer of A) picking your battles and B) prioritising your mental health when you know certain situations can send you on a downward spiral, especially when you know it’s a lose-lose scenario either way.
As recently as June, a hate crime in West London, borne out of homophobia and misogyny, found a lesbian couple assaulted and robbed on an overnight bus. While this incident goes to show that members of the LGBTQ+ community may not be completely safe even in a city as accepting as ours, the way the event was handled communicates how differently hate crime towards queer people is treated and dealt with here.
Just five days after the event, arrests have already been made and the victims have been taken care of. Statements have been issued by leading political party leaders and the mayor of London who have all expressed support towards the LGBTQ+ community and branded this kind of violence as unacceptable.
Ultimately, my trip goes fine. The week passes and I’m on the tube back home to North East London. I don’t know if that was the best way of approaching this situation, but at least I felt and remained safe.
It’s strange to think how easy it is to revert to behaving as though I’m back in the closet, but I guess it’s kind of like riding a bike – muscle memory. Bit by bit I return to my normal self and begin banishing all those feelings and behaviours to the crummy corner they came from.
In a few days, my opal nail polish will be back in action, I’ll snatch my waist with my good belt on and resume exchanging flirty looks with the boys on the street. It takes a week or two until I get my mind in order, but after that, things are pretty alright for me again.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but think about all the queer people who don’t get to return to their significantly more accepting environments, but instead, continue dealing with these issues on a daily basis.
As shiny as our cosmopolitan, Western bubble is, its influence on the rest of the world on LGBTQ+ matters can be rather limited. While it isn’t wrong to be grateful for our current position, it’s important to recognise there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure the equal treatment of members of our community on a global scale.
Ris is a London-based recording artist and songwriter who has recently graduated from the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance. His academic work has delved into the field of gay identity formation with regard to the relationship between fans and pop stars. Some of his hobbies include dance and yoga.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous