Bulgarian LGBTQ activists say they hope an unprecedented mob attack on a trans community event, led by a far-right presidential candidate, will prove a tipping point for gay rights in the country and lead to the introduction of long sought-after hate crime laws.
A violent mob of 10 people, led by notorious ultranationalist Boyan Rasate, a fringe candidate in presidential elections later this month, stormed an LGBTQ community centre in the capital Sofia on Saturday night, trashing the offices, spraying paint, and yelling anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
Rasate, who has a track record of anti-LGBTQ agitation, including conviction for violating public order while protesting Sofia’s first Pride parade in 2008, reportedly punched one of the women present in the face, and brandished a knife which he used to slash the tires of a scooter in the building, Bulgaria’s only LGBTQ community centre.
Photo: Rainbow Hub
After the Central Election Commission waived the legal immunity he had as a presidential candidate, Rasate was arrested on Wednesday and charged with hooliganism, and causing minor bodily injury with hooligan motives, which could bring him up to five years in prison.
"The crimes committed are characterised by extreme audacity and disrespect for the democratic foundations of the state," prosecutors said in a statement.
The violent attack on the Rainbow Hub has stunned the country’s LGBTQ community and sent shockwaves throughout Bulgarian society, prompting an uncharacteristic outpouring of solidarity.
Manuela Popova, communications manager for Bilitis, one of the groups that runs the Rainbow Hub, told VICE World News she arrived at the scene about 15 minutes after the attackers had left on Saturday.
“The first girl I saw was crying so hard, she collapsed on the floor and said ‘It was my fault, I opened the door to them.’ I had to hold her in my arms for several minutes just to try to calm her down,” she said.
“Everybody was so scared. It was heartbreaking to see your friends and your community like this.”
Simeon Vasilev, chair of Gays and Lesbians Accepted in Society (GLAS), the other group that operates the Rainbow Hub, said that while LGBTQ individuals had been targeted in hate attacks before, the coordinated mob attack on the community centre was unprecedented.
Protesters demonstrate against a far-right attack on an LGBTQ community centre in Sofia. Photo: Emil Metodiev
“I haven’t seen a crime like this before. I never imagined they would go this far,” he told VICE World News.
“It’s not just the physical thing – we will repaint, we will rebuild. But this is something that will leave long-lasting damage. Everyone is feeling insecure, everyone is feeling afraid.”
He said that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric regularly ramped up with each election campaign, as the community was scapegoated by nationalist groups to appeal to their base – with Rasate a repeat offender. “They see us as easy targets,” he said.
But Saturday’s violent attack had also appalled the political mainstream, triggering a wave of support and solidarity that he believed could ultimately help the community achieve long-sought judicial reform to recognise hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Rasate was charged with hooliganism, but that’s not what it was,” said Vasilev.
“It’s a crime that’s sending a message to the whole community: you’re not safe to be who you are. This is why it’s a hate crime, that's why we’re advocating so strongly for changes to our criminal code.”
He was optimistic that the broad spectrum support for the community in the wake of the attack indicated that change was coming. GLAS Foundation and Bilitis have been inundated with offers of support, with people volunteering to help repair the Rainbow Hub, donating about 33,500 levs (about £14,650) to the centre, and ambassadors from 11 Western countries visiting the vandalised community centre on Monday in a show of solidarity.
“Everybody started calling us, offering to help clean up, or instal security cameras,” said Popova. “The thing that sticks with me is how united we stand.”
Most significantly, Bulgarian politicians, who have previously been conspicuously quiet in their support for LGBTQ rights, have spoken out to condemn the attack.
“What we’ve been missing so far is the political support,” said Vasilev. “This horrible incident is perhaps going to be a tipping point where, I hope, the next parliament will support us in changing the criminal code. Society is acknowledging this is something really bad.”