In Bulgaria the Enemy is “Gender”
Life & Language: the Dictionary of the Queer International (8/10)

In Bulgaria the Enemy is “Gender”

When a translator borrowed the term “gender” from English, the Bulgarian conservative right found a new word to weaponize.

Just a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought that an English word such as “gender” could move from academic papers to become a curse word in Bulgarian. But the unimaginable can come true in the blink of an eye. “Gender” is now a slur equivalent to “fag.” This happened in 2021 at the same time Bulgaria was supposed to ratify the 2011 Istanbul Convention, which was meant to be an international action to address domestic violence—especially violence against women.

Bulgaria is one of few European countries that did not ratify this convention. The principal problem was a mixture of our society’s conservative and misogynist tendencies, which started to grow intensively after 1989. Recently these tendencies combined with nationalist policies that looked for an enemy to blame for the nation’s problems. The specific words used by the Istanbul Convention, translated from English to Bulgarian, deepened these misogynist attitudes. The main word was “gender.”

In Bulgarian we have one word that simultaneously refers to the concept of biological sex and the concept of gender; that word is “pol” (пол). The difference between the two meanings has been theorized extensively in Bulgarian publications, and language to express this difference has been developed over decades. Nevertheless, the Bulgarian interpreters of the Istanbul Convention decided that the word “gender” should be used, as a loanword, rather than a more descriptive translation using the Bulgarian word “pol.” This foreign loanword was drawn from the section of the convention that outlined the problems with assigning traditional, fixed gender roles; because of that context, the conservative majority in contemporary society came to view the word “gender” as threatening to their normative expectations. This section of the convention also described the need for extending the notion of “violence against women” to LGBTQI people through educational programs that teach about “non-stereotypical” gender roles. A conflation of “gender” and “LGBTQI identities” developed right away.  Making the two synonymous presented the conservative politicians with a simple vocabulary, with a single word that they were able to weaponize and transform into a label for people who must be targeted as the enemies of everything “sacred.” Over the course of several days in 2021 the word “gender” was in the mouth of every Bulgarian. On television, words like “gender” and names like “Judith Butler” were rolling out of the mouths of Bulgarian Orthodox Church priests and people who had never read Butler’s work. This is how we came to understand what “gender” really is: The Enemy.   

Two people hold up a large magnifying glass, enlarging the face of a trans person. The sunlight breaking through the clouds focuses on a woman lying in the street, while other people recoil in fear.

During the bigger part of the year I live in the United States. I followed all these developments in publications and conversations on the Internet and with my friends. I saw how the word was quickly appropriated by the queer community in its new incarnation, and turned into a word of honour and irony. But when I came to Bulgaria in the summer of 2019, I was surprised by how much more this “gender” word had been able to do. People called each other “dirty gender” or were using “gender” with political connotations—calling politicians “genders” if they had been corrupted or become hypocritical. Several years ago I used the word “gender” (actually, the Bulgarian word “pol” in plural form “polove”) in one of my Bulgarian texts. I wanted to name the variations that can’t fit the gender binary. A friend of mine said, “People won’t understand it.” By 2019 everyone understood it! It was so quick and efficient! Except that the plural has been assigned to “gender,” not to “pol.” By 2022 this has happened, but it took a lot longer.

Now the situation is such that I live in a society in which everyone can potentially be called “gender” and fall right off any social hierarchy into the dark void of sin and debauchery—into the middle of hell fire! If only this were true—I would have a lot more friends down in hell! Including all those who appropriated the word “gender” to name their own identity.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Boryana Rossa is an internationally exhibited artist and curator (Bulgaria/USA). In 2004, with artist Oleg Mavromatti, she established UTRAFUTURO—an art collective focused on the social implications of technology and science. She is a co-founder/director of Sofia Queer Forum, with philosopher Stanimir Panayotov. Professor in Film and Media Arts, Syracuse University, NY.

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Hagra is an artist living in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. He was born in 1992 almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hagra is a transgender person and a pansexual, so naturally the study of gender and sexuality and their place in post-Soviet culture has become the main focus of his art.

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