LGBT people in Bulgaria are often used as some kind of scarecrow in the political agendas of the right wing parties in Bulgaria. The topic about who is gay and who isn’t still sparks a controversy in the hearts of the narrow-minded people. And believe us there are lots of them in Bulgaria. However the awareness of LGBT community and its social acceptance is slowly increasing in the past few years. One of the fields in which this process is already obvious is the nightlife of the Bulgaria’s capital.
As media that is involved in the Bulgaria’s dance music scene since 2006 and openly gay, we decided to weight in with some thoughts about it, delving a bit more into the history of our dance music scene. Where were the gay people standing on back then and where are they now?
No matter how many threats have been made during the years against Sofia Gay Pride, it happened for a twelfth time this year. Few weeks before the event the usual haters are being offered a tribune on the medias to spread hate in the name of the “freedom of speech”. The result is that the Bulgarian society is getting a little bit polarised on the topic for a while. That’s why our pride is a political act for human rights.
But this year the pride finally felt also as party and celebration. There was a second truck platform equipped with a sick Function One sound system. bassline.bg chief editor DJ Kaloo was responsible for the music and the result was more than 6500 people dancing on the streets under the sounds of KiNK, Josh Wink, Da Hool and many more. The local medias covered the parade as “happening under the booming sounds of electronic music”. “It makes me really happy that I’m personally responsible for that. It felt like Street Parade Circa 2002”, says DJ Kaloo. This was a humble and very happy moment for us as gays, DJs and people who care about the electronic music scene in Bulgaria. This was also the most successful edition of Sofia Pride up to date with a record number of visitors and support from various businesses and international diplomacies.
bassline.bg and DJ Kaloo are also running the Gay & Queer Club Night dance parties in one of Sofia’s alternative places – Tell Me Bar for almost a year and a half. So we can say one thing for sure – the capital’s LGBT people are open for electronic music. They were turned away from it in the past and now they have to feel welcome again to fully embrace that sound. Gay people in Bulgaria now are usually into festivals like Circuit and La Demence and the music and culture which comes out of them, or into the local folk music. It was different two decades ago.
In the 90s we had the legendary club Spartacus. The country was in a process of recovering from its communism past and everything new felt welcomed and desired. It was wild. “I will never forget the so called “Spartacus era”, said back then one of Sofia’s nightlife icons Dim Dukov. “It wasn’t just a gay club, it was another culture we only read about in the western lifestyle magazines but we didn’t really know it personally.” Then the club closed and its gay attendees got divided between Chervilo and Yalta Club. Both clubs had a hedonistic image back then and they kept on attracting gay and flamboyant people.
But the nightlife in the late 90s changed – most of the people who went out were the people of the Bulgarian criminal underground. Of course they had money and power so the clubs adjusted to their heteronormative lifestyle. All the crazy, colourful drag characters from Spartacus disappeared. Some of them even went out on TV saying it was just an act and they were never gay (!?!). There is no more Chervilo (RIP), but Yalta Club still stands. It always had the image of a mixed place. But then there were years in which Yalta Club fiercely avoided being associated with anything obviously gay. Things have changed in the last years and Yalta Club held 3 openly gay events for the past 12 months, but the damage was done. If you go out on a regular night in Yalta Club, you’ll see gay people for sure, but they are always trying too hard to fit in the heteronormative setting.
One thing that really fucked up the self expression in clubbing and we talk about in general is the role of the face control in Bulgaria. We all knew that if you wanted to get into the cool clubs you must wear more than a casual outfit and avoid sport attire. In other words you must look like you are going to a prom. This was especially valid for Chervilo. At the end things boiled down to the simple rule – wear jeans and don’t look sporty and if you are not ugly you’ll probably get in. The result is wherever you go now you’ll see a crowd of people who obviously want to demonstrate wealth, but zero self expression. Yay, let’s look alike and show we have money! In the golden years of Yalta Club and Chervilo the face control were people with power and respect that were really good in creating a vibe and atmosphere. We can’t say the same thing now.
People in Bulgaria love to see someone making a charade, but avoiding at any cost being the center of attention themselves. So when someone have the confidence of breaking the norms by expressing themselves by the means of outfits or the bravery of the simplest gay act of taking your shirt off when you are high immediately becomes a target for unwanted attention, giggling and pointing out. If you want to be yourself on a dance party in Bulgaria you got to be tough and very thick skinned, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Everyone is trying to blend in, not the other way around.
We don’t even want to talk about the sexual charge on the electronic parties in Bulgaria simply because there isn’t any. No wonder the Bulgarian LGBT people prefer to spend money for a plane ticket to Circuit or doing belly dance moves in Sofia’s only gay bar which is focused on folk music. At the end they want to be surrounded with people like them, feel free, horny or whatever and be safe.
We used bassline.bg tribune myriad times to remind and educate that the electronic dance music had its humble beginnings from the gay clubs and communities. And the truth is we are kinda sick of repeating it already, but it turns out it finally got picked here. Gay people now are welcomed and desired audience. This can be explained by the fact that many young people have the opportunity to travel, go to cool places or hear a word from mouth to mouth where the wildest parties are happening. Probably 9 out of 10 techno fans will know about Berghain and will swear religiously how it is the wildest place on earth (even if they have never been there). Stories about how “guys are fucking on the dance floor” are surely lighting up the imagination. This is true but such a cliche at the same time. At the end of the day Berghain itself is just a physical space. The people who fill the space are THE party. This buzz talks help us, the gay people, in some way, but also are portraying us as a sexually insatiable freaks in black latex. Being sexually objectified, by people who don’t get it, however is not cool.
It’s kinda expected that promoters as people who wants to sell you experience, need crazy audacious characters on their parties, so they can eventually be dubbed as wild. But we gay people are not some fantasy creatures like fairies or unicorns. No matter which way we are looking at, the newfound attention toward us is good! Straight people appropriate gay things all the time – in fashion for example. Everyone wants to be us – we totally get it!
There are certain people on the Sofia’s scene whose work within the LGBT community and the city’s nightlife is finally starting to show results making the rise of our community and putting us back to the dance floors where we truly belong.
Simeon Vassilev is the founder of the NGO GLAS Foundation (Gays and Lesbians Accepted in Society). For a couple of years in the the late 2000s there was DJ Mag Bulgaria and Simeon was responsible for that. “It’s been a long evolution for us”, says Simeon. “First, we started almost 11 years ago with publishing DJ Mag in Bulgarian, licensee of DJ Mag UK. And the first party was at the Central Mineral Bath, now transformed into a museum. That was an epic night, with guest DJs Marco V, DJ Steven and Liubo Ursiny. I still have clear memories of that party and its unexpected scale.” Soon the parties evolved and became regular. “We were publishing the magazine for a couple of years and our parties evolved as well – always at unusual venues like old warehouses, factories. It was the first time when Hercules & Love Affair’s Andy Butler performed in Sofia supported by DJ Kaloo. It was truly inspirational night”, remembers Vassilev.
As you can imagine publishing a dance music magazine was and still would be quite challenging for our local context, so publishing DJ Mag Bulgaria stopped. However Simeon is behind djbook.bg which is another friendly platform for dance music in Bulgaria. “We transferred all of our knowledge and experience from DJ Mag into the online platform and promoter agency DJbook under which we continue up to date to have events.”
Vassilev and GLAS Foundation are involved into so many LGBT activities that we can’t even name them all. He is always onto something. He is also part of the organisers of Sofia Pride for the last 5 years and the main force behind Sofia Pride Art Week that is foregoing the gay pride. “I started with the LGBT activism 5 years ago, when we launched GLAS Foundation and the online media huge.bg and one thing let to another”, says Simeon. “Of course we started organising events for the queer community in Sofia.” Today there are clubs, bars and promoters all competing to attract queer crowd and have special events. “The mere fact makes me beyond proud that at least on the dance floor we have reached a certain level of openness, acceptance, and equality”, witnesses Vassilev.
Now GLAS Foundation and its promoters’ activities are focused on the ballroom culture. “We started the first Ball last year together with a team of volunteers and passionate individuals and are now in the midst of our 3rd Ball, the Love Affair Ball on November 9th. To anyone who hasn’t been, come! It’s an amazing celebration of dance, self-expression, fashion, music, vogue, and competition. We are joking at GLAS that it has become the Bulgarian MET ball and it sure feels like this open, embracing culture, where you can be who you are, free to express yourself, without the stigma of prejudice.”
Julieta Intergalactica or Yasen Zgurovski as others may know him is a colourful character from Sofia’s nightlife. A DJ, drag character, illustrator – he is very expressive as Julieta and very shy as Yasen. It’s like putting on the Batman’s cape and transforming into a superhero. “The queer culture isn’t something new for Sofia, but in the last few years its visibility is definitely rising”, Yasen tells us. “Club owners realised the fact that LGBT people got out of the closet and went out of the shadows of the specialised clubs and logically began looking for ways to broaden their target and to attract this audience. The result of all this is that now the capital’s nightlife is more acceptable and colourful.”
Yasen together with two of the Bulgaria’s post punk scene legends – Nasso Ruskov and Ivo Charlie, are running the monthly We Like Kitsch parties at Tell Me Bar, attracting a very vibrant blend of people. Despite Nasso and Ivo not being gay, both of them adore the subcultural diversity of individuals. “Tell Me is not only a place to dance, but a place with a freedom of expression”, Yasen describes the club concept. “We never thought of creating a tendency or being weird, we just do the things we love and enjoy. The result is a crowd of happy, smiling, artistic and colourful faces who are inspiring each other creating a community.” We Like Kitsch party was never really dubbed as gay-gay night, but so it’s the venue. The music revolve around new wave, 80s pop and disco and other intended or not so intended musical obscurities and treats. “We Like Kitsch is a brand that has a powerful ethics and broad views so it was easy recognised by the queer community and the rest of the promoters and clubs owners”, continues Zgurovski. “Of course the accent is on the music and the people, that’s why we totally discard the norms for sex and sexual preferences. We do not serve on labels as “gay”, “lesbian”, “bisexual” or “straight”. The name of the event states of a splendid and eclectic crowd of broad-minded people and set a mood for freedom of expression, the way we dress and move on the dance floor.”
We mentioned Tell Me Bar as a game changer place cause it actually showed that in fact alternative gay people in Sofia do really exists. DJ Kaloo is running our Gay & Queer Club Night there and the club has been nothing but supportive. We learned that it’s hard to detour the local gays from their musical tastes and habits with only a promise for good music. Nevertheless we’ve seen many gay people who are obviously not into house and techno, but having fun at our parties. “As a DJ I can say that gay people are free from elitism attitude toward electronic music”, says DJ Kaloo. “They don’t talk about labels and genres. They don’t care about unreleased tracks and other circle jerk shit. They don’t care if you play on 3 turntables or just a laptop. They judge the music as good, boring or too hard sometimes. I found this very freeing. I see that many straight DJs put their ego first, trying to educate and not entertain the crowd. Or try too hard to fit in someone else’s sound. I don’t like that. With the gay audience I feel like I have much more freedom to express my taste for electronic music. Once you win their attention you can go some crazy places with the music.”
Gay & Queer Club Night parties doesn’t really have a concept. It is a night where all people are welcomed to enjoy our culture and way to have fun with disco, house and techno music. The event itself did a precedent in Sofia’s nightlife as the first ever party to have the words “gay” and “queer” in its title. “Gay & Queer Club Night is pretty self explanatory”, explains DJ Kaloo. “That’s why I want to invite people who are gay or involved in the gay scene to play with me. For most of our events Moustache Love has been delivering awesome disco warm up sets. He definitely know his game when we talk about disco. He also have a very unique way of turning old Bulgarian pop classics into groovy disco edits. I wish if there were more DJs on our scene who are openly gay and have good taste in music. I’m looking forward to work with them.”
Importing foreign models on to the local scene may not be the most appropriate and working model as well. “I believe trying to import or trying to recreate the Berghain vibe in term of attracting gay people is not right”, points DJ Kaloo. “Techno and Berghain are pretty trendy buzzwords at the moment and I got it. But first of all the vibe in Berghain is a result of many many years of building a culture and visibility of the gay community. Our scene is just starting to feel as a community and the more important thing in my opinion is to devote ourselves into building it not importing it. We have our own identity and we are capable of doing great stuff. Why we should copy others?”
As openly gay and as part of a minority that was once pushed aside in the corners of the clubs, we are very happy that now we are welcomed on the dance floor again. It means that all of our efforts as gay individuals, DJs, promoters and media were worth it! But we want to point out that if this is just an attempt for appropriating our culture in the name of a momentous trend and a quick buck without honest intention and understanding toward us then it’s not going to work. To feel welcomed LGBT people need a sense of community not flashy promises and more glitter. Community is a result of a culture. Culture is a result of devotion. None of these things happen overnight.
Cover photo: Geo Kalev