THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT: SEXUALITY IN COMMUNIST BULGARIA
Marxism was discarded from the political arena in the countries of Eastern Europe, which had experienced the implications of the Marxist social-economic paradigm in the gloomy period of “socialism”. Instead of freedom of expression and association, based on the destruction of private property and exploitation, the socialist citizens were subjected to authoritarian regimes that restricted all personal freedoms and enforced uniform individualities. Nevertheless, today Marxist theory remains a source of inspiration to radical thinkers within the academia. A quick review of the curriculum at leading universities in the West reveals that Marxist courses are to be found in sociology, anthropology, literary criticism and other fields upon which the 19th century theorist had little to say. In the social and political context of Western capitalism Marxism was inspirational to radical social movements, such as the women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement. Ironically, in the countries where economic and social development was supposedly grounded on the Marxist theory, no radical social movements were allowed to flourish and yield fruit.
Was socialism a falsification of the theory of Marxism by people who used this ideology to position themselves in a growing parasitic class that never engaged in any productive function? Or was there something intrinsically wrong with the theory that inspired this social transformation? A number of questions like these will be open to debate for a number of years to follow. The term “socialism” was used in Eastern Europe to denote the social order created by the communist parties after they came to power. The latter was propagated as a predecessor of the perfect communist state. For the purpose of historical correctness I will also use the term “socialism” when referring to the communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th century.
This paper explores the way in which sexuality was policed and politicized during socialism in Bulgaria (1944-1989) and attempts to see whether the ground for that was Marxist theory or not. The paper also analyses the effect of the repressive socialist system on homosexual identities and the difficult legacy that today’s sexual movements in Bulgaria have to deal with.
The classical Marxism and the reality of the socialist state
Engels was the first Marxist to make a significant analysis of the influence of production forces on gender/sexual relations in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. He examined family structures in different societies in different eras. He traced a historical transition from matriarchal to patriarchal family forms, and identified the monogamous family as intrinsic to all societies based on private property. He showed that the family, monogamy and inequality between the sexes were not natural, and had nothing to do with “sex love”, but were specifically intended to control the ownership of private property, through the protection of heirs. He envisioned communism as a classless society in which the family would be replaced by non-exploitative freely-chosen sexual unions within which the status of male and female would be equal. Unfortunately, his view, that inspired the strong feminist critique of gender inequality within the capitalist system, did not touch upon diversity of sexual relations as a natural outcome of a social order that allows freely-chosen sexual unions. After all, the focus in the works of the classics of Marxism was the class struggle, and all other oppositions within society were not discussed, and seen as minor and not decisive for the character of the social order. The primary agenda of Marxism was to promote economic and political changes, and interpersonal relationships were regarded as a side-effect of the introduction of the new social system. In what way free “sex-love” practices would be promoted within the new system, the classics of Marxism did not bother to elaborate on. Nevertheless, at the end of The Origin of the Family Engels left an open window for new dimensions of interpersonal relations that could occur in a few generations time, if the latter grew up in a society which was unfamiliar with the commoditization of sexuality. Other Marxists, such as August Bebel (1973) and Alexandra Kollontai (1977), spoke of “free love” as a basic feature of the socialist society as well, leaving an open door for interpretations of all its dimensions.
Moving away from the classics of Marxism to the reality of the socialist state one finds a stunning discrepancy with the blueprints of the communist ideology. On one hand, when the communist parties came to power, they enforced political and economic changes that formally led to the creation of public property, rule of the majority and gender equality. On the other hand, they imposed discriminative social practices that prohibited diversity and infringed human rights. The maintenance of a social order that was based on a revolutionary ideology could only be achieved by an authoritarian regime. This led to concentration of power into the hands of a small minority (the party elite) that used the new political order for its own benefit. The elite of the dominant party became the new ruling class and although they did not legally own the means of production and distribution, they controlled them, and this resulted in enormous benefits and privileges for a small number of people at the expense of the majority. The workers, who were the majority of the population, were subjected to legally approved state exploitation and human rights abuse. The official ideology banned individualism and indoctrinated collectivism as a norm which validated repression of minorities and purposeful erasure of differences in opinion, outlook and behavior. Spying on each other and slandering in order to demonstrate one’s own faithfulness to the regime became a universal strategy for survival and career growth. The Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, an ardent critic of the regime even before the time when he fled Bulgaria in the 1970s and started working in London for BBC and Radio Free Europe, describes socialism as a social order that instigated the display of the worst features of human nature, such as laziness, domination of the mediocre, thievishness, calumniation, debauchery (Markov 1990).
Family and sexual relationships during socialism
Quite contrary to the original Marxist view of the family as a voluntary union based on free sex-love (Engels 1973), and with the possibility of becoming obsolete after the complete dissolution of the private property (Kollontai 1977), the official ideology in socialist Bulgaria promoted the cult to the procreative family, which originated in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The heterosexual family as a conduit of the political doctrine in the upbringing of the socialist citizen was the only allowable form of sexual relationships under socialism. Procreative heterosexuality became a norm that together with membership in the dominant party provided opportunities for career advancement for people who adhered to it. Non-reproductive sex was officially damned as degrading the personality of the communist citizen, and secretly allowable only in the circles of the ruling elite. A complicated triple moral standard came into being: what was allowable for the party elite was not allowable for the class of the workers, and what was allowable for men of any social strata was less allowable for women. In “Reports on Bulgaria” (1983) Georgi Markov gives a detailed account of the debauchery that the ruling elite practiced despite the officially promoted puritan moral standards. He calls the communist party elite the “Sodom at the top”. Promiscuous behavior of party leaders and use of elite prostitutes for entertainment were something common and tolerated in the ruling circles, while the low-wage mainstream of workers was subjected to public censure for any sign of flouting chastity norms.
Upholding the procreative family as an ideal was seen as a civic duty for the workers, since the growing economy needed a constantly expanding work force. At the same time, the socialist ethics outlawed sexual pleasure as a dangerous distraction from work that might ruin the morale of the socialist citizen. The only allowable pleasures for the average citizens were happiness from work and enjoyment of parenthood. The ideals of the “new Man” and the “new Woman” were absolutely desexualized.
The portrayal of sexuality in socialist art and media
Socialist art in the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s, as a servant of the regime, did not tolerate any open expressions of sexual desire. Any depiction of love and sexual attraction beyond the boundary of the procreative family served only to damn the latter as dangerous, degrading the person and ultimately tragic. Paying too much attention to sexuality, even within the family, was believed to diminish the working potential of the “builders of communism” and a taboo topic in art. In some of the masterpieces of the Bulgarian socialist novel sexual love was described as secondary of importance to the love of the party. Devotion to the ruling party and its politics was indoctrinated as a relationship of kinship with the “mother-party” and this notion was promoted by the official doctrine at school and at the work place.
A special place in art was devoted to workers’ friendships (“comradeships”) as they contributed to strengthening the labor or military unit. Friendship was promoted as more important than love, especially when it united the efforts of workers to achieve a common goal. Non-procreative sex became the forbidden fruit in socialist art and culture. The internalized censorship installed in literature, movies and other art products by the principle of “socialist realism” was a conflation of prohibition and imperative that structured every notion or picture. Art and the official propaganda of the communist-party-controlled media constructed the very restrictive identity of the socialist citizen who was not supposed to have any other desires except serving the party, working to advance the socialist economy, and procreating to produce new workers for the socialist state. Free expression of sexual desire at the work place or at school was intolerable and punished. The official censorship was particularly very strong at the time of the sexual revolution in the West when some embryonic form of hippie movement also emerged in the big cities in Bulgaria. Diversity and sexual freedom were perceived as a threat because they drew upon ideologies popular in the West. Consequently, their presence was damned and sanctioned as an ideological intervention from the capitalist countries. The uniformity of the socialist citizens was a necessary tool for keeping the masses under control. The ideology was strong as long as it unified people by concealing the differences among them, and the variety of identities was comprehended as uncontrollable and dangerous.
Some more freedom in art, media and in the public expression of sexuality became allowable and more visible in the second half of the 1980s with the beginning of the Soviet “perestrojka” and “glasnost” (openness). A few Bulgarian movies1, openly criticizing the flaws of the regime, such as lack of freedom of expression, lack of workers’ morale, corruption and “clientelism”, were shown with the approval of the ruling party that considered a possible “renovation” of its policy. They also contained love scenes showing naked bodies and hints of sexual acts. This was a new phenomenon in socialist art that critics explained as an allowable conflation of socialist ideals with realistic depiction of people’s lives. The tendency to more openness and freedom of expression was the new directive that came from Moscow and Bulgarian party leaders strictly followed.
The second half of the 1980s also witnessed a visible formation of youth popular culture in Bulgaria. Various youth subcultures were formed on the basis of music tastes. Uniforms were still obligatory at schools but no longer in universities. Nevertheless, until 1989 there was still an official grading scale for the behavior of students, applied alongside grading of their knowledge. The grading of the behavior of the students was used as a measure to prevent the dissemination of “anti-social acts” among young people, such as smoking, drinking, gambling, expression of intimacy in public, etc. The list of anti-social acts could be expanded or narrowed down at the desire of the authorities of a particular school, but it could never be questioned. Though much weaker than in the 60s and 70s, the organized state repression of diversity and free choice continued in the 1980s till the fall of socialism in Bulgaria in 1989.
The women’s question
The women’s question was an indispensable part of the picture of the socialist society and one of the true measures of (the lack of) freedom for its individuals. Vladimir Ilich Lenin was the first among the Soviet thinkers who recognized the importance of the social practices for eliminating women’s oppression as a sign of transformation in society. In The Emancipation of Women2, he argued that the proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women. And what was the particular application of the Soviet model of woman into the Bulgarian conditions? Although socialist ideology in principle opposed the traditional image of woman and fostered a new role model of the working woman, it did not eliminate particular traditional elements, such as patriarchal relations. The model of the socialist woman in Bulgaria was a compilation of Soviet patterns and local traditional models. The division of household labor did not change in most families, although women joined the workforce and were given equal job opportunities as men in all areas of work, including heavy industry. The state created some public services that made women’s household duties easier, such as public nurseries and kindergartens; public kitchens for baby food; etc. But women still remained the main servant at home. The slogan “gender equality” raised by the socialist state was based on purely economic motivation. In the face of rapid industrialization and expansion of the planned socialist economy, women were an indispensable work force that the state needed to attract and retain. That is why, a lot of images of women in the socialist art of the 1950s and 1960s in Bulgaria stress on women’s strengths as workers. The woman on a tractor became a paradigmatic image not only in Bulgaria, but in all socialist countries of the “Eastern Block”. Socialist realism promoted a new type of women’s beauty that had little to do with the traditional ideal of women as delicate and tender creatures, heavily relying on male support and protection. The “new Woman” was pictured equally strong as the “new Man”, and equally experiencing the joy of work. In fact, in many ways women’s strength was depicted to be greater than the strength of a man. The women whose personalities were promoted by the socialist media as “exemplary” were the winners in a factory’s working competition, achieving the highest production results, and at the same time mothers of at least 3 children.
Most women managed somehow to fit into the new norm and perform all the new duties that the working lifestyle demanded. In fact, many of the women who had been working class before socialism regarded the changes as positive. At least they could send their children to public nurseries, kindergartens and schools, they received paid maternity leave, free medical care, and they could afford higher education for their grown-up kids. Much graver was the situation for the intelligentsia. Again referring to Georgi Markov’s Reports on Bulgaria, featuring the development of the socialist identities from the onset of the socialist state to the 1970s, we find a lot of complaints among the women of the intelligentsia. They idealized the role of the housewife that was no longer accessible for them, but seemed more manageable than the simultaneous implementation of mother’s, worker’s and party member’s duties. The unspoken resistance to the regime among the women from the intelligentsia and idealization of the housewife as an antidote of the woman-worker was probably the reason why Bulgaria did not experience any noticeable feminist movement during socialism. The opportunities that the socialist division of labor created for reconstruction of the traditional family remained unexplored. The patriarchal values dominated in the vast majority of the Bulgarian families, partly because of the idealization of the past by those who suffered directly from the re-distribution of property, and partly because of the lack of free flow of information between the West and the Eastern Block. The “iron curtain” left Bulgarian women unaware about the struggles of their sisters in the West to achieve greater freedom both in the public and in the private realms. Although 8th of March was officially celebrated as the International Women’s Day, few women knew the real meaning of this holiday. It was widely known as “the day of the mother”. The few women from the intellectual elite who had access to information about the new social movements in the West did not dare to risk their privileged status by popularizing them in Bulgaria. Therefore, socialism in practice failed to achieve liberation of women from traditional forms of oppression that the classics of Marxism preached for. Many critics of socialism argued that it actually added new forms of oppression to engrave the status of women and make their lives harder than before.
The new look of the woman, enforced by the socialist media, an emanation of strength and industriousness, was hated by the majority of women who preferred to stick to ideals of beauty uphold in the West. The “diva” and the “prostitute” - two lifestyles that were officially banned from public discourse - served as beauty ideals for many progressive young women. Assuming condemned by the regime appearances in private life was a kind of rebellion for those who used to think differently. The underground popular culture during socialism that emerged in the big cities, and especially in Sofia, upheld beauty ideals that persisted in the contemporary mainstream culture in the West. The enforced new look of the woman-worker did not sustain and was quickly forgotten after 1989.
Homosexuality during socialism
Homosexuality was one of the many deviations from the norm whose display was forbidden during socialism. Homosexuals were no more repressed than ethnic Turks or religious people, but they were repressed in a different way - by refusing to recognize their existence as a specific identity. There was no systematic prosecution of homosexuals during socialism - the sporadic arrests and court cases were usually linked to some broader ideological campaign. While there is evidence that homosexuality was researched as a specific identity in the Foucauldian sense by Bulgarian psychiatrists and sexologists after 1960, it was never regarded as such by the political discourse. The visibility of homosexuals was banned in the same way as the visibility of disabled people or abandoned children, all of them regarded as unacceptable deviations from the norm that should be taken care of without giving them any public notice. The communist propaganda never allowed homosexuals to be recognized as a distinct identity in the public arena. Homosexuality was condemned merely as an unhealthy sexual/moral practice that reveals an admiration of the western lifestyle, and could be “cured” by corrective labor or public censure. Ultimately, homosexuality was regarded as a weakening of the socialist morale that could “infect” anyone. The lack of a public discourse on homosexuality resulted in unidentifiable homosexual identities that had little to do with the gay/lesbian identities to be found in the same period in the West.
Homosexual identities were not only unallowable; they were unthinkable for the majority of people because of lack of a public discourse on these matters. Sexuality was repressively standardized and the dominant paradigm refused to admit the existence of non-heterosexual identities. The existence of homosexual acts was recognized only as a remnant of the decaying bourgeois moral. In the political discourse, homosexuality was classified among the many anti-social acts that could be a reason for arrest and detention at the police for up to 24 hours without court decision.
The medical discourse on homosexuality
One of the first Bulgarian textbooks on Psychiatry for students in the medical universities that contain an entry on homosexuality dates back to 19613. Homosexuality is classified as a kind of psychopathy - among the perverse psychopathies, together with masturbation, fetishism, exhibitionism, sadism, masochism, zoophilia, necrophilia and voyeurism. There are only 3 sentences on homosexuality in this textbook defining it as “unnatural sexual attraction to same sex partners”, and mentioning that it is more often to be found among men than among women. Male homosexuality was also called “pederasty” and female homosexuality “sapphism” (after Sappho) or “lesbianism”. The chapter “Prophylaxis and Treatment of Psychopathy” in the same textbook mentions as most successful treatment “labor therapy” and the Pavlov principle of strengthening of the weak nervous processes by training and reinforcing of the desired practices.
The textbooks on Psychopathology for students of psychology published in 1971 (Zaimov) and 1976 (Milev) have special chapters on “Sexual Perversions”. The textbook from 1971 contains two case-studies of homosexuals, one of which describes an effeminate homosexual man, and the second - a masculine homosexual woman (Zaimov 1971: 137-138). Although the textbook does not contain any analysis of the cases, the depicted types speak for themselves. Homosexuality was still regarded as a psychological inversion that might be the result of an intersex condition in the physiology of the individual. The chapter on “Sexual Perversions” in the textbook from 1976 is much more elaborate and mentions that sexual perversions might be “the only sickness” of otherwise physiologically and psychologically healthy individuals (Milev 1976: 172). It also says that sexual perversions are not always a sign of debauchery. They can be found in personalities with high moral and intellectual qualities. The chapter explains further that their origin had not yet been sufficiently researched, but it was determined that they were not the result of a single factor. It is also stated that the majority of homosexuals of both sexes are people of normal physical condition that do not have intersex characteristics. This entry proves that homosexuality has been researched by the Bulgarian socialist psychiatry and psychology, but the scientific research was implemented behind closed doors. Little of this information reached the general public. The dominant discourse still regarded homosexuality as a sickness that must be hidden and secretly taken care of until it is cured. Not as a specific identity with sustainable features.
A rather different view is to be found in a book on sexual relations written by the doctor of medical sciences from Eastern Germany (GDR) Heinrich Brueckner. The book (Brueckner 1985) was originally published in the GDR in 1976, but its publication into Bulgarian was as early as 1985. The book contains a chapter titled “Sexual minorities” (Brueckner 1985: 138-140), which depicts homosexuals as distinct identities. The chapter emphasizes on the feelings of love and care in the homosexual couple which are the same as the feelings in a heterosexual couple. It mentions that social attitude to homosexuals has in most societies been very negative that resulted in social isolation of these people and prevented them from achieving personal happiness. The author obviously aims to promote an attitude of acceptance and tolerance of homosexuals. He finds the ground for that in one of the currently available explanations of the origin of homosexuality. The theory held that homosexuality results from a defect in the embryonic development that happens between the 4th and 6th months of pregnancy but produces an effect on the post-natal development only when the child enters puberty. The author raises the question whether homosexuals can be blamed for something that happened to them between the 4th and 6th month of their pre-natal development. He mentions that this new data from scientific research had been taken into account in revising the Penal Code in the GDR, and the new Penal Code after 1968 did not contain articles that criminalize consensual homosexuality between adults. The same type of argumentation might have been applied to decriminalize homosexuality in Bulgaria with the revision of the Penal Code that took place in the same year - 1968.
The research on sexual identities started in Bulgaria in the 1960s with the opening of the first functional office of sexology by Professor Todor Bostandjiev. In 1964 a department of sexology was created at the Scientific Association of Psychiatrists, Neurologists and Neurological Surgeons in Sofia. The first national conference on sexology in Bulgaria took place in 1974. By that time several distinct profiles of Bulgarian sexology had been delineated: treatment of inborn and acquired endocrine disorders that affect the sexual life of the individual; treatment of gynecological and venereal diseases that lead to sexual malfunctions; treatment of psychological sexual disorders and research on the social factors that influence sexuality. The office on sexology at the National Research Institute in Neurology and Psychiatry functioned as a coordinating unit of all the aforementioned branches of sexology. Although the Bulgarian sexologists that took part in the first national conference (1974) still held to a classification of sexual disorders that included homosexuality and masturbation4, their vision about the role of sexology was quite progressive. They promoted sexology as a science that should unite progressive thinkers from the fields of medicine, psychology, sociology, law, and pedagogy, who would collectively research the sexual phenomena. The intention of the founders of Bulgarian sexology was to develop sexology as a multi-disciplinary science that would provide recommendations to schools, marriage consulting services, sexual education units, and any other agencies that take care of the sexual development of the individuals5.
The first Conference of the Bulgarian sexologists is emblematic in one more way: it presented an ardent critique of the regime because of its blindness to the sexual problems of the socialist citizens. The participants recommended a radical change in the attitude of the authorities to sexuality: overcoming the harmful bourgeois double sexual standard (which had been rejected in words but still followed in reality); overcoming the outdated Christian sexual asceticism; and assuming a more progressive attitude to sexual relations6. The founder of the first sexology office - D-r Todor Bostandjiev - was among the most passionate critics of the law that criminalized homosexuality. He advocated for a change in that law, especially after the exemplary trial against homosexual men organized by the communist party in 1964. He was among the first Bulgarian scientists who spoke of homosexuality as an identity, and its existence was explained with inborn features in order to prove that homosexual people do not hold the responsibility for their sexual orientation, and to free them from blame.
The attitude to homosexuality inside the medical circles was not unified. Some hard-liners insisted on continued sanctions and corrective labor for homosexuals, even after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1968. The military medicine continued to classify homosexuality as a personality disorder that makes the individual ineligible for military service throughout the 1990s, in spite of the change of the regime and of the medical paradigm. Today the medical discourse on homosexuality in Bulgaria is still ambiguous and some doctors of the old generation may still prescribe a treatment.
Legal provisions against homosexuals
From 1944 till 1951 the old tsarist penal law was still functional with respect to homosexuality - it postulated a sentence of 5 years for “sex between men”. This law did not recognize the existence of sex between women, and did not penalize it. The new Penal Code from 1951 extended the criminalization of homosexual contacts to women as well, which was a distinction from similar laws in other socialist countries. Article 176 of the Penal Code sanctioned with up to 3 years imprisonment for “sexual acts or sexual gratification between people of the same-sex” (Kunev 1995: 545).
In 1964 the Bulgarian communist party initiated the biggest exemplary trial against homosexuals. Twenty-six people with different educational background and professions: writers, musicians, literary critics, actors, as well as ordinary workers, were arrested for alleged homosexual relationships and representation of the decaying bourgeois moral. Although the court interrogation took place behind closed doors, some information about the process reached the general public, and aimed to imprint fear of prosecution in the minds of people with same-sex desires. The act of accusation read that in the recent years a lot of cases of homosexual relationships in the big cities between Bulgarians and visiting foreigners from the capitalist countries were detected7. This practice had caused an increase of venereal diseases and presented a threat to the socialist morale. The document also mentioned the fact that some representatives of the literary elite had started a war with the socialist realism and attempted to promote such dangerous art forms as individualism and symbolism in the literary magazine “Sunset” (the mere name aimed to suggest the sunset of the socialist culture). These people propagated “free love” as it was practiced in the West between partners of the same-sex. All arrested in this trial were men. Some of them were convicted up to 6 years for practicing “homosexualism” and presenting a threat to the ethical code of the socialist citizen. Interesting about the accusation act of this trial was that it regarded the homosexual relationships of the arrested people as a matter of choice and a sign of attraction to the Western values. Homosexuality was discussed as a free-chosen illicit practice that contradicted the norms of the socialist society. Consequently, the assumption was that it could be eradicated by corrective labor or another form of legal punishment.
In 1968 a change in the Penal Code decriminalized homosexuality. The motives for the change remained hidden from the public. A possible explanation is that the liberalization of the Penal Code at that time followed a pattern characteristic of other socialist countries in the Eastern Block. Only one discriminatory provision against homosexuality remained in the Penal Code - article 157, paragraph 4 in section “Debauchery”- sanctioning the expression of homosexual desire in public places, or in a scandalous way, thus seducing others along the road of perversion. This ambiguous text remained in the Penal Code until 2002 when it was finally removed under the pressure coming from the EU, and as part of the accession process. Although the Penal Code was liberalized in 1968, homosexuality continued to be sanctioned on the basis of other legal norms, such as article 39 of the Law for the People’s Militia. Police raids of gay cruising places such as public baths and toilets, as well as bars where homosexual men used to meet, were allowable under this law, and arrests up to 24 hours, as well as beating of the arrested by the police continued until 1989. There is no statistics of the number of cases of homosexual people sentenced to corrective labor camps. This number is difficult to trace because the allegations always related homosexuality to some other anti-social act, and rarely mentioned it as a crime on its own. Arrests of homosexual people were not regular, but linked to various other ideological campaigns that aimed to reinforce the socialist identity norms.
Homosexual subcultures during socialism
The non-existence of a public discourse on homosexuality that outlines some distinct features of the homosexual identities was a condition that made most of the homosexual relationships inconspicuous. This was especially true for relationships of two women. Holding hands and hugging, even kissing between women, was regarded as a sign of nothing more than friendship. The official ideology tolerated close same-sex friendships among the workers. Men were allowed somewhat less freedom in the expression of same-sex intimacy than women, but the lack of awareness of what a homosexual identity is, led to some degree of acceptability of homoeroticism between men as well. The expressions of homosocial bonding were used to symbolize the strong reliance on one another among the “comrades” in the work and in the struggle to change society. An example of this was the tradition of male hugging and kissing on the cheeks among party leaders at official meetings - a practice that faded away with the decline of socialism. Another example is to be found in the style of socialist monuments erected in memoriam of the revolutionary men and women who fought against capitalism and fascism. Many of these monuments pictured men holding hands or gently embracing each other - something that would be interpreted as a sign of homoeroticism, had the official discourse explored the features of homosexuality as an identity.
While homosocial bonding was tolerated and even desirable among men who strongly adhered to all current norms of masculinity, any signs of sexual ambiguity in the appearance or behavior were strictly sanctioned. These signs would involve a more effeminate outlook, or more “frivolous” behavior, such as laughing, too much chatting, wearing bright colors. The so-called “moral police” - civilians hired by the police to keep an eye on people who transgress the norms - used to watch closely someone who demonstrated sexual ambiguity, or was reported by neighbors or colleagues to have had intimate relationships with other people from the same sex.
Norms of femininity created by socialism made lesbianism more difficult to identify than male homosexuality. Wearing trousers instead of skirt and having a short haircut was something approved by the regime, even required in schools and in some professions. Consequently, a mannish woman would rarely be suspected of being a lesbian, unless she had personally decided to share her secret with a doctor or a friend. One of the cases of female homosexuality described in the textbook of Psychopathology by Kosta Zaimov (1971) described a masculine woman who requested breast surgery to reduce the size of her breasts, because she wanted to be able to wear more comfortably men’s shirts. The case would not have reached the sexologists unless the woman had placed her request at the authorities of a hospital.
Though women beauty ideals promoted by the socialist art focused on strength and endurance, thus transgressing traditional norms of femininity, socialism neither produced any significant change in gender roles, nor gave birth to any noticeable sexual countercultures that could make use of the new outlook standards for women. It would be interesting to research further why didn’t a vibrant underground lesbian culture flourish during socialism although women’s same-sex relationships were more difficult to detect than men’s.
Unlike lesbians, homosexual men were forming clusters and circles of friends, and even enjoyed popularity in the artistic circles. Often the homosexual identity of a famous actor or singer was a public secret and many beholders with same-sex desires gravitated around this popular figure. Homosexual men who did not practice cruising at public places, such as public baths and toilets, were not prosecuted after 1968. Police arrests concerned only men who used to have sex with other men in public places. An eyewitness reports that in the 1980s some pop-culture famous figures started to organize kinky parties at their homes at which one could come across all kinds of ambiguous sexualities - cross dressers; effeminate men and androgynous women. Promiscuity was the norm at these gatherings. The events were taking place with the official approval of the police that was probably bribed to stay away, and with notifying all neighbors and asking their permission for a night of loud music and noise. However, these informal gatherings did not give rise to an organized sexual counter-culture that would advocate for the rights of sexual minorities even in the late years of socialism.
The reasons for the non-existence of sexual subcultures during socialism were manifold and need further research. The liberalization of the regime in some “thaw” periods like the mid 1960s and the early 1980s was usually followed by reactionary increase in prosecution of persons who demonstrated freedom of thought. This prevented the formation of long-term underground counter-cultures in general. In addition to that, until the late 1980s, the Prime Minister Todor Zhivkov successfully prevented unrest in the Bulgarian intellectual community. Membership in the writers' union, as well as in other artistic unions, brought enormous privilege and social stature, and that drew many dissident artists into the circle of the officially approved intelligentsia. On the other hand, entry required intellectual compromise, and refusal to compromise led to dismissal from the union and loss of all privileges. The number of those who preferred security and privilege greatly exceeded the number of the ones who risked becoming outlaws in order to save their freedom of thought. Intellectuals with homosexual identity who could become leaders in a movement for sexual minority rights did not dare to risk their lives during socialism and their careers after the change of the regime. There is still no interest in the artistic circles and among Bulgarian intelligentsia in general of becoming part of a visible sexual rights movement.
The belief of classical Marxists that a radical change in economic relationships will destroy social oppression, and create freedom and equality for all people, did not come true in the reality of the socialist states. Socialism developed a repressive state-party system that sanctioned every expression of individuality as a sign of “decaying bourgeois morals”. The actual fear of diversity as a condition that would threaten the one-party model led to the creation of a sanitizing identity-paradigm that restricted variety and enforced uniformity among citizens. This identity-paradigm excluded freedom of expression of individuality, consequently - of sexuality.
No sexual subcultures originated during socialism in Bulgaria. The repressive system, combined with traditional norms, outlawed any expression of sexual freedom and diversity. The wounds that socialism created on Bulgarian sexual culture are still to be healed. Today’s sexual movement needs to deal with a rigid intelligentsia which does not produce radical thinkers, and lack of civic participation in decision-making. External pressure from the EU is the major factor that leads to liberalization of laws and not bottom-up pressure exercised from the citizens. Public opinion is still very conservative with respect to all minorities. Gay and lesbian organizations are weak because of lack of tradition to step upon and lack of prominent public figures to support them. At the same time a new generation is growing up, a generation brought up with MTV and Internet, which knows little about the past and exhibits a much freer way of thinking. The proliferation of sexual subcultures in a freer Bulgarian society is a question of the near future.
1. Director Nikolaj Volev, Да обичаш на инат [Loving Obstinately] (1986); Маргарит и Маргарита [Margarit and Margarita] (1989); Director Edward Zahariev, Скъпа моя, скъпи мой [Dearest mine] (1986). [обратно]
2. Published in the 1930s. [обратно]
3. With editor Prof. Kiril Cholakov. [обратно]
4. Paper by D-r T.Bostandjiev presented at the 1st National Conference on Sexology, 1974. [обратно]
5. Paper by D. Trajkov and St. Duchev presented at the 1st National Conference on Sexology, 1974. [обратно]
6. P. 26 of the Conference Papers. [обратно]
7. Ilko Doundakov’s film “An Ambiguous Feeling” (1997) is a documentary presenting people who were sued in this trial. The sexologist - D-r Todor Bostandjiev, who was asked to provide a medical expertise for the arrested people, reads the accusation statement in the film. [обратно]
Bebel 1973: Bebel, August. Woman and Socialism. // The Feminist Papers. Alice S. Rossi (Ed.). Columbia University Press edition, 1973, pp. 497-506.
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© Monika Pisankaneva
Текстът е представен на петата годишна конференция “Радикална сексуална политика” на международния семинар “Социализъм и сексуалност”, 3-4 октомври 2003 г. в Амстердам.