Rossa, Boryana. “What is Queer Forum and Do We Need It?” Sofia Queer Forum 2012 (exhibition catalogue). Edited by Boryana Rossa and Stanimir Panayotov. (Sofia:Anares Books) 2013.

Sofia Queer Forum was conceived as an event which by means of contemporary art explores gender and sexuality as two parallel systems that affect each other and determine our evaluation of ourselves and the others. These two systems have strong influence on all aspects of culture and society. The influence of course, is mutual. Therefore, in focus is the evolution of the concepts “gender” and “sexuality” in relation to social, political, cultural and medical factors, specific for particular time and place.

Apart from the question: “What are these connections and why are they important?,” two more questions appear, such as: “Why ‘queer forum’?,” and why not “Forum on Gender and Society,” or “Forum of the Strange and the Different.” (“Strange” and “Different” here are the equivalent Bulgarian words that might be used instead of the foreign word “queer.” The question refers to replacement of the foreign term with a local word.) And the second question: “Why these issues should be looked at through art?,” and not by series of lectures by academics, activists or supporters, by organization of parades and protests for equality that address the connections between gender and social issues?

In this short introduction I will try to answer these three questions, hoping that the ones interested in them will get more detailed answers while looking at the reproductions, reading the other texts published in this edition and the descriptions of the art works, the screenings and the discussions, which were part of this forum. Last but not least, I would like to note that the forum is focused on Eastern Europe and its specificity, contextualized in the global context of equality struggles.

What is the connection between gender and society?

Gender issues are not related just to questions of identity. “Identity” might be (and might be considered) something very personal, intimate, and perhaps for most of us needed to be hidden away from others. Gender, however, is everywhere, we do think everything in our lives – from politics to interpersonal relations – through dominating heteronormativity. For instance notions like “activeness,” “bravery,” “initiativeness” are traditionally considered “male” and “important,” while “sensitivity,” “passivity,” etc., are traditionally considered “female” and “not so important.” This is where associations of gender with specific professions or norms of behavior come from, which economically is expressed in lower salaries, contempt or disrespect of specific labor (such as the domestic work and childcare, most often not paid and assigned to women).

These interconnections are not new to anyone in Bulgaria, nevertheless they are given priority only in the activity of some NGOs, due to the individualist value system nowadays and are to a quite lesser degree addressed in public discussions and pop culture. For instance, during the socialist period, overcoming class inequality has been referred to as the only necessary and sufficient condition to eliminate gender discrimination of women. This idea was fundamental for women’s emancipation at this time. And yes, women obtained rights that rapidly bettered their social condition on legislative level and created access to social security and highly qualified work. Despite all this, the focus on class inequality as “the only evil,” created opportunity for inequalities and exploitation to be sustained inside the institution of the family (regardless of the class history and the class affiliation of each of these families). Women became a “special” class. Unfortunately the propaganda of the “already achieved” equality, embraced by men, but also by many women, did not give them an opportunity to become self-aware, to organize and to oppose the patriarchal exploitation within the family, through social resistance (except rare marginalized examples such as Alexandra Kolontai – People’s Commissar for Social Welfare in Bolshevik Russia in 1917-1918).

After the socialist period we found ourselves in an environment that created clear class divisions and enormous gaps between them. And while women from the socialist generations are still not betraying their emancipated behavior and manners, based on already realized emancipated biography, the new generations of women are deprived of social support and respect, they are thrown out on the market of bodies and labor and each of them is trading with everything she can. Sex workers are not the only ones to trade their bodies, but also those who marry for money; with variable success those who have the privilege to afford education trade their talents; all others permanently occupy the territory of the “gray economy,” and especially vulnerable are the ones in a childbearing age.

In order to see where we are and to understand why this rapid feminization of poverty and worsening of women’s condition appeared, we need to rethink our past. Especially important is to rethink our recent past, which presents to us perhaps not an absolutely successful attempt for realization of gender equality and responsible society, but at least offering a model that can be critiqued.

Why “queer”?

Starting this text with a discussion about women’s rights, I would like to not remain there, re-affirming the stereotype that “once the conversation goes about gender, this should be something about women.” The re-evaluation of heteronormative binarism is a question posed quite long time ago, however it obtained its theoretical clarity recently, in Judith Butler’s texts from the beginning of the 1990s. She explains gender as “performative,” and “manufactured by sustained set of acts,” and what we understand as our “internal” essence is the “one that we anticipate and produce through certain bodily acts, at an extreme, a hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures.” (Judith Bulter, Gender Trouble, New York and London, Routledge, 1999, p. xv.)

This text is fundamental for queer theory, for understanding gender as something flexible, constantly changing and not defined by the restriction of patriarchal or binary heterosexual conventions. This theory makes possible rethinking feminism and rethinking the existence of people who do not fit in heterosexual norms. By stepping on this theory, it becomes possible that sexual and gender identity be connected with economic and social processes in society; it becomes possible to talk about solidarity between varieties of marginalized groups, based on their common demand for social and economic rights. Despite the “celebration” of diversities, which should be able to live together in contemporary society, if the efforts’ direction towards equality remain within the domain of “identity” and the “very personal” and never touch upon economic and social issues, we cannot expect solidarity between diversities.

We are witnessing hatred on behalf of poor heterosexual layers of society against “the gays” because they are seen as “the taken care of” by the new international politics and the NGOs, while the “straight whites” remain poor and neglected. At the same time nobody ever talks about the very specific economic problems that all these “gays” have. They are “given the right to be different” but are not given the access to jobs and social and economic rights, because they are not in the focus of NGOs and government initiatives even for the straights in Bulgaria. This separation of social rights from “the right to be different” already generated bad results. Looking for and revealing the connection between social rights and identity would have given an opportunity for new solidarity and this is how we could have avoided the already emptied from content propaganda of “love” among everybody at any rate.

This is precisely the reason why in Eastern Europe it is important to overcome one more binarism (besides the heterosexual), which is the political and the historical juxtaposition between what was “before” and what was “after” the end of the socialist period. Wide spread is the stereotypical statement that “the communists are against the homosexuals.” But equalizing political beliefs with specific attitudes to sexual minorities is shorthanded and unjust at the least. Recognition of gay rights around the world on a state level had began quite recently almost at the time when political binaries begun to be dismantled in mid-1980s, regardless of the politico-economic system of the country in which this has been happening. This process was induced specifically by leftist theories. Another not very well known fact that shakes equalization of “communists” with “homophobes” is that Soviet Russia decriminalized homosexuality between 1922 and 1933. Unfortunately, this period has not been researched and has been mentioned mostly in contemporary studies from the West,2 because of the very strong, but this time “capitalist,” homophobia in Russia. In Bulgaria, historically quite interesting is the research of Dr. Todor Bostandzhiev, who had opened the first institute of sexology in the country as early as in the 1960s and started to advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality. It would have been just if these facts would have lead us to the idea that we know very little about our own ideological past and about our own socialist history of interaction with the various sexual and gender diversities. Perhaps this is where much more useful ideas about contemporaneity could have come from, as opposed to transfer of foreign models of gender, sexual, and social equalities.

In this sense I would have to acknowledge the compromise made with the name of the forum. This forum is to a big extent a collectively conceived concept that must relate to processes outside its space. Therefore, despite the conversations about avoiding word borrowings, the word “queer” remained in the title to reflect the spread of the term and corresponding texts in academic and activist circles in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe.

It is very possible that after further development of the use of this term, it will remain in Bulgarian language, but will also multiply, like it happened with the word “gender” (“gender” is taken from English into Bulgarian) to reflect local issues through these variations. I personally hope that such a process will appear, and I also believe that it will be induced by events such as this forum, which are focused on local processes, reflected by local artists, for the sake of development of local discourses.

Why art?

As I have previously mentioned, the propaganda of the already “realized equality” during socialism, hand in hand with another one – namely, the propaganda of the centuries-long patriarchal customs, comfortably inhabiting the family – are fundamental reasons for the lack of self-awareness of women, as well as the lack of collective social resistance against inequality.

Nevertheless, the self-awareness or rather the critical female view can be found in art, film and literature. Sometimes it is hidden, as in the never publicly exposed sculptures by Vaska Emanuilova, which depict same-sex love scenes; and sometimes openly stated like in the books by Blaga Dimitrova Face (1981) or Detour (1967); or the films by Irina Aktasheva and Hristo Piskov, such as Monday Morning (1967), etc. Exactly this territory – the territory of art – which gives opportunity for expression, despite the common fear or the social apathy, is the reason I believe that art is what should and can start the new conversation about equality between gender and sexual diversities.

The art offers a territory, free for expression of thoughts, it changes the culture, it affects these sites, which are not controlled and cannot be controlled by legislation – namely the interpersonal relations, our thoughts, our beliefs. By giving these examples from the recent past, I hope that the readers of this publication, as well as the visitors and the participants in the forum, will pay attention to the importance of culture for transformation of society. I hope activists and theoreticians will be able to see that the laws for equality and respect are not applicable in society, which does not lay bare the corresponding to these laws’ value system and culture. If only everyday cultural practices transform and embrace equality as a value, only then these wonderful laws can become effective.

(Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.)