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Simeon Vassilev – GLAS, Bulgaria

Simeon Vassilev is the head of GLAS (Gays and Lesbians Accepted in Society) Foundation in Bulgaria, a community connector for LGBTI activism and events. He shares about how the GLAS Foundation has incorporated an intersectional approach to cross-community organizing and how readers can support the GLAS Foundation’s work for LGBTI rights in Bulgaria.

By Ari Weinstein

I would love to hear a bit about your own introduction to LGBTI activism.
Seven or eight years ago, I first started helping with Sofia Pride, which is the only pride parade in this country of 7 million people. They asked me to curate an exhibition full of Pride art, which is relevant to my field of expertise: I’ve worked at a contemporary art gallery in Sofia for ten years. I became more and more involved in organizing Pride events. About six years ago my partner and I started a Bulgarian language online media outlet about what was going on in the world and in Bulgaria relating to the LGBTI community. We then started the GLAS Foundation because we saw that there was a clear need for another organization in Bulgaria. At the time, there were just two active LGBTI organizations in the country. Currently, I’m still part of the organizing committee for Pride and while also running the GLAS Foundation.

Can you tell me more about the GLAS Foundation?
The GLAS Foundation is primarily focused on social awareness campaigns. That’s one of our core activities and what really makes us different from the rest of the organizations. My partner and I both come from backgrounds of public relations, marketing, and contacts with the media. Additionally, we collaborated with two other organizations to establish the first community center here called the Rainbow Hub, and we operate the community space there. We have different clubs like a literature club, a film club, and even a RuPaul’s Drag Race club. These clubs create a sense of culture.

We also run initiatives that are gathering research, organizing conferences, and working for HIV awareness. In the last couple of years we’ve really focused more on using art as a means for social change. One of the recent projects that happened last year was a research project about homosexuality in Bulgaria during the communist regime, which lasted for almost 50 years. There was a scarcity of information about what was happening and what life was like here. We gathered a team of scientists and data analysts and based on that research, we created an exhibition which was really well received.

So GLAS has its own structure but also collaborates with other projects and programs?
Yes, we collaborate with all of the other Bulgarian LGBTI organizations. In the last two years we really established a much broader network of NGOs and public leaders with whom we cooperate. We saw that often, when we center a message around LGBTI acceptance, people immediately shut down. However, if we broaden the message to include other minority groups, this has a better impact on our campaigns. We’re working with the Bulgarian Jewish community, the Bulgarian Fund for Women, and many other organizations. That’s proving to be successful so far.

I’m curious to learn a bit about the backdrop of where all this activism is happening. What can you tell me about the current political, social, and cultural situations for LGBTI people in Bulgaria?
In short, we don’t have civil partnerships, we don’t have same-sex marriage, we don’t have adoption rights, and we don’t have sexual orientation and gender identity as protected grounds in the criminal code. The levels of acceptance of LGBTI people in the last six years have been dropping. We are one of the countries with the lowest levels of acceptance in the EU when it comes to LGBTI people which is bizarre because we are there with countries like Poland which are very active against the community. That’s the difference with Bulgaria: we have a government which so far has been ignoring us. They are only vocal around Pride, or if something happens like one of our people campaigns was attacked and vandalized, and then they become vocal. In the last few years, there has been a much stronger opposition from the nationalist party in power. They’re using us like a pinata that they can hit, so that out drops media and publicity for them when they attack us. The largest party often says that we have the same rights as anyone else, that they don’t see a reason for pride to happen, and so on. It’s been a challenging environment to work in because we don’t always have a clear enemy. Here, we face silent complicity from the party.

What about the GLAS Foundation sets it aside from other LGBTI organizations in Bulgaria?
Using art as a tool for social change and combining art with activism is unique to GLAS. Also, public awareness campaigns definitely make us different from the rest. We’re also quite experienced at organizing different events. The other organizations which we partner with are focused on writing reports, collecting data, conducting trainings, but we are quite experienced at different large scale events.

How can donations benefit the GLAS Foundation?
All of our funding is project based. We do campaigns to fundraise for Pride or certain activities, but not for our budget as a whole. For example, we also had a donation from the LA LGBT Center which helped us with the donation to launch Rainbow Hub, the community center. In recent years we’ve been working with local businesses, but they mostly only engage with us around Pride, not long-term financial help. This model means that we often struggle to sustain our core costs. We cannot always pay for the rent of the offices. We cannot always pay salaries. We cannot always pay the bills. Donations can help keep all of our programs running.

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