Ivan Dimov, founder, and chairman of Single Step Bulgaria, bore witness to a powerful story that changed his life forever. “Six years ago, I was back in Bulgaria on vacation. I was at an event and met this kid who shared with me that he tried to commit suicide after coming out to his mom.”
By Dorian Coleman
Ivan asked the young person, “what resources are available in the country to help with these situations?” At the time, there were none. Ivan was devastated at the realization that this young person and others with similar circumstances were enduring the multidimensionality of the LGBTI experience alone.
“It wasn’t a part of the plan to get into activism, but this kid’s story really affected me,” he said. Ivan returned to the US from his vacation a changed man. Within a year, he left his job in New York as an investment banker and devised a plan to establish Single Step, which supports, motivates, and empowers young people from the LGBTI community in his native Bulgaria.
Single Step also offers aid to families and friends of LGBTI people through processes of self-awareness, disclosure, and validation of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The organization was pioneering and innovative. Single Step offers a variety of support services that focus on the mental and emotional wellbeing of LGBTI people in Bulgaria: a helpline, online chat, a community center, and personal counseling. Ivan explained, “We have a full-fledged team comprised of a psychologist, a sexual health expert, a lawyer, a communications person, and project managers for the foundation.”
Services have extended to ten different cities in the country. The organization has expanded its support services to include promoting sexual health, legal assistance, and specific support to help trans people. Its comprehensive support services are designed to assist young people in multiple aspects of their life experiences in Bulgaria.
Like many other counties in the Balkan region, Bulgaria holds a socially conservative attitude regarding matters involving LGBTI people. There is no legal recognition of same-sex relationships. In reference to gender identity, trans people are allowed to change gender after sex reassignment. Although LGBTI people do not legally have marriage rights, single people can adopt children.
Legally, Bulgaria developed the Protection Against Discrimination Act of 2003. This act forbids discrimination and hate speech based on sexual orientation in many parts of society, including employment, education, and health services. It was amended thirteen years later to include gender change. Although these legal protections exist, there are still areas where protection is lacking. Ivan states, “hate crimes are often not prosecuted.”
Hate crimes can include physical assault and psychological attacks. LGBTI people can also face discrimination in the workplace and vandalism of their homes and social spaces. “It’s not a rosy picture. But I am optimistic, and that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.”
Ivan has personally seen the impact of vandalism. He founded the social enterprise, The Steps, to create a social meeting space for LGBTI people in Bulgaria. The Steps has been vandalized several times. This state-of-the-art venue is described as a “place to gather, make friends, and engage people with different ideas,” Currently, the team is working towards finding funding to expand medical, psychological, and legal support for trans people. You can donate to support The Steps here.
Taking a stand against homophobia takes courage. Although many see Ivan as a courageous role model, he emphasizes the importance and value of his team. “We can deal with whatever provocations that come our way. It’s much more difficult for a kid in the countryside to come out than what I’m doing.”
The journey of coming out can be long, difficult, and intricate. Therefore, having a support system is so important. Ivan and his team work daily to ensure young people in Bulgaria get the support and sense of community they need. Single Step has been transformational for hundreds of young people all around Bulgaria. Perhaps Lao Tsu captured it best: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
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