Bulgaria Art exhibition celebrating trans women faces ‘fascist’ protests

Images from Mísho’s exhibition Other Bulgarian women on the steps. (YouTube/Mи́шо)

An art exhibition showcasing the beauty of Bulgarian trans women is threatened with violence by nationalist groups.

The other Bulgarian women features plexiglass portraits of trans women in Bulgarian national dress holding some of the country’s national flowers. The women’s faces are illuminated with kaleidoscopic lights, creating an elegant showcase of trans joy.

The exhibition opens at The Steps Gallery on Tuesday, March 8, International Women’s Day. But its opening will be marred by planned protests by nationalist groups.

Activists from the Bulgarian group Feminist Mobilisations will organize a counter-demonstration against “facism” and for LGBT+ rights.

“Feminism means anti-fascism,” said one of the organizers PinkNewsadding that trans women in Bulgaria are “some of the most vulnerable people” in the country.

Mísho, the artist behind the exhibition, said that the inspiration for The other Bulgarian women comes from a friend, a trans woman he lived with with her ex-boyfriend.

“Much of his transition was before my eyes,” Mísho said. PinkNews. “When you live with someone, you see it in the morning, how they feel, depression or happiness or joy – and I’ve experienced them being so close to her.”

Mísho said her friend decided to “tell the world about her” by leading the Sofia Pride Parade in 2010, which resulted in her image being featured in media outlets across the country. She was fired from her job soon after.

He contacted the Sofia Pride Parade, which he said was the “only LGBT+ structure in Bulgaria” at the time, but was told there was nothing the organization could do. So Mísho decided to create a series of artworks featuring “positive role models” for the trans community. It also sought to compare the experiences and discrimination of trans people in Bulgaria to the experiences of other minorities in the country.

Many of the women he approached were afraid to go on the show. In the end, Mísho decided to make a “photographic reconstruction” of the paintings of Vladimir Dimitrov, a famous Bulgarian artist who painted living portraits of peasant women.

Dimitrov’s work captured images of the “last images” of women living under the “patriarchal” regime, Misho said, “before the era of feminism” in Bulgaria. Through his research, he realized that the struggles of modern trans women with no access to society were similar to the lived reality of women painted by Diminitrov.

“I realized that women in Bulgaria before the era of feminism could not work, that they could not be part of our society and that the only right she had was to stay at home – like the trans women currently in Bulgaria,” Misho explained.

“Most of the time they are at home because they want to prevent [themselves from becoming the victim of] violence – both physical and verbal.

However, Mísho’s work sparked outrage, with calls on far-right groups to completely ban the exhibition and for the resignation of the minister of culture over a small government grant for works of art.

Mísho said there is a “mantra in our society” that Bulgaria is a “very tolerant nation” due to the country’s history and geographical location, which has resulted in a “colorful” society. But there is a “majority” of people who think that the LGBT+ community – especially people from the trans community – “have no right to our Bulgarian folklore”, and that they “can’t touch the roses, symbol of Bulgaria”.

“I was like, ‘come on, they have Bulgarian passports, they pay taxes, they went through the school system, they’re still part of our society, no matter your [suppression],” he said. “So if the Bulgarian symbols are for Bulgarians, you have to recognize them as Bulgarians first.

As nationalist groups plan to protest the exhibition, activists from the Bulgarian group Mobilisations féministes will support the exhibition as part of the group’s march for International Women’s Day.

Gigi of Feminist Mobilisations said the informal group has a long history of supporting the LGBT+ community, and their manifesto includes several calls to support the queer community as well as trans people.

She said PinkNews it was important for the group to “show support” for exhibitionism and trans women, as they make “some of the most vulnerable populations” in the country.

“They are really marginalized, especially here in Bulgaria,” Gigi said. “Their conditions are difficult.”

Gigi said visibility was important to “change the material conditions” of the trans community, and that there is a constant threat of physical violence for LGBT+ people and activists in Bulgaria.

Gigi said the group had filed a document with the municipality advising them of their march so they could contact the police. EEverything was fine initially, but then the municipality informed them that far-right groups, which it described as “fundamentally Nazi parties”, also filed documents to demonstrate in front of The Steps.

Mobilizations féministes suspected “in advance” that nationalist groups were going to manifest themselves and hoped that there would be “a certain form of resistance against them, because feminism means anti-fascism”.

The municipality asked the feminist mobilizations to modify the route, said Gigi, so that there are “no clashes” between the groups. After deliberation, Mobilizations féministes agreed to slightly modify the route but “will still spend time” in front of The Steps.

But Gigi said she was still concerned about the safety of the group as well as the safety of those who want to visit the gallery, as anti-LGBT+ violence is rampant in the country.

“We don’t trust the police – given their background – and in the last year there have been dozens of cases of anti-LGBTI violence by the Nazis towards many of us,” Gigi said. “There were a lot of attacks last year, including physical violence, and the police did almost nothing. They’re not really there to keep us safe, and we know that.

The constant threat of far-right violence does horrible things “to your soul,” Gigi said, adding: “It’s really scary. But we think there is no alternative. The only alternative I can think of is to stay home and not do this.

They continued, “It’s not a choice we can make. We will be there, and whatever happens, will happen.

“All we can do is try to bring more people together, try to get people to understand why it’s important to fight for these things and hopefully something will change at some point.”

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