The Enduring Obstacles to Full LGBTQ+ Rights in Bulgaria

April 10, 2024
There is a long way to go to until LGBTQ+ people in the EU member state are fully protected in law and government policy from discrimination and violence.

The conservative nature of Bulgaria’s institutions leaves the LGBTQ+ community facing significant legal and societal challenges, depriving thousands of citizens of their rights. Discrimination, hate crimes, and a lack of legal protections are persistent issues, underscoring the urgent need for action, despite some progress in recent years at the legal and judicial levels. 

The advocacy organization ILGA-Europe ranked Bulgaria 40th out of 49 European countries in 2020 when it comes to the protection LGBTQ+ rights. In the summer of 2023, far-right extremists disrupted the screening of the movie “Close” during the Sofia Pride Film Fest. They then took photos of attendees, called them “pedophiles”, and chanted “LGBT virus”. The event was cancelled. In the lead-up to Sofia Pride in June 2023, several posters and billboards for the event were vandalized in the capital. There were similar anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns in Plovdiv, Varna, and other cities in the preceding years. 

Positive Developments

The fight against the pervasive discrimination and violence faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in Bulgaria has been long. They cannot seek protection from domestic violence under current legislation. In amendments to the Protection from Domestic Violence Act last year, parliament defined “intimate relationships” as being only between people of the opposite sex. Multiple cases have shown that the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination and the judicial system do not recognize discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.

Despite these challenges, there has been some notable progress. Tougher penalties for homophobic crimes have been introduced. In a long-awaited move, parliament amended the Criminal Code in July 2023 to sanction hate crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation. Incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation through the media and online is now a crime punishable by one to four years in prison and a fine of €2,500 to €5,000.

Many same-sex couples married in another country find themselves in a legal vacuum because they have no legal relationship in Bulgaria. In 2023,the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the authorities should recognize the marriage concluded in the United Kingdom by two Bulgarian women, Liliya Babulkova and Darina Koilova, which they had refused to recognize. The court stipulated that the country must create a legal framework to recognize same-sex relationships. The case is subject to appeals and awaiting a government response. This decision should be key to the development of legislation regarding LGBTQ+ rights. 

In another important development last year, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that Bulgaria is obliged to recognize a same-sex marriage concluded abroad to grant a right of residence to a third-country national.

Organizations like Deystvie and GLAS are fighting for legislative steps to ensure legal recognition and protection for same-sex couples, of which there were 1,428  in 2021, according to the most recent census. That was the first time that this information was collected.

Persistent Obstacles

The constitution defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, and same-sex couples do not enjoy fundamental rights, including in adoption, inheritance, and hospital visitation. The lack of legislation for same-sex relationships leaves LGBTQ+ people deprived of over 300 rights, according to a 2018 Deystvie study. It also affects children born to same-sex couples. In March 2023, the Supreme Administrative Court denied a baby’s right to a birth certificate and citizenship on this ground, contradicting a ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Transgender people are also under threat. In 2022, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a case that Bulgaria is obliged to guarantee respect for the gender identity of a transgender citizen. However, in February 2023, the Supreme Court of Cassation dismissed the request of the Bulgarian transgender plaintiff in that case to reopen their case before the national courts to change their gender-related data on their birth certificate. In another recent case, a trans woman went on a 12-day hunger strike over the lack of trans rights.

Conservative attitudes toward homosexuality and transgender people continue to shape public discourse and policies. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has highlighted the issue of anti-LGBTQ+ content on media. It has documented the use of phrases such as “brutal gender fraud”, “locusts of Sodom”, and “Brussels obsession with gender ideology”. Hostility toward the LGBTQ+ community have been expressed by a variety of public actors from far-right politicians to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. 

Conservative attitudes toward homosexuality and transgender people continue to shape public discourse and policies.

No party represented in parliament includes LGBTQ+ rights in its agenda and there is no openly LGBTQ+ politician in the country. Parties such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the far-right Revival Party, both of which are represented in parliament, use narratives related to “gender ideology” to pursue their political goals. In 2023, during a parliamentary debate about the new domestic violence law, the BSP’s Kornelia Ninova stated that it was “dangerous” for children to be “poisoned” with information about LGBTQ+ minorities, and she said “we will never sign and agree to have a third gender in Bulgaria”.

As a member state, Bulgaria is bound by the EU’s legal framework, of which the prohibition of discrimination and the protection of human rights are key elements. Equality and nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation are outlined in Article 10 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, in Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty on European Union), and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, the EU’s competence does not extend to marital or family status, which makes it possible for Bulgaria not to grant legal status to same-sex couples. However, Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits discrimination, including in private and family life, and states failing to meet their obligations are mandated to cease such infringements.

Despite being an EU member, Bulgaria is still far from dismantling systemic discrimination and ensuring full legal recognition and protection for LGBTQ+ individuals and couples. This is why the role of LGBTQ+ organizations is crucial in their fight for their rights. Last year, Deystvie trained 100 police officers on responding to anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes, while GLAS and Bilitis trained over 80 prosecutors on hate crimes and LGBTQ+ people’s needs, and discussed with them specific cases that showed legislative shortcomings and their implementation by the judicial system. The purpose of the trainings was to inform participants about the legal terminology, the state of LGBTI+ life in Bulgaria, and the specific difficulties that the LGBTQ+ community faces. However, Bulgaria still has a long way to go until there are governmental policies that protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination and violence.