Cross-Dressing in Bulgaria: Gay-Identity, Post-Communist Fear, and Magical Love
Issue #50, June 2000
A Chicago journalist once wrote that "Gay culture is absolutely uniform across the world. A gay bar in Ulan Bator is no different from one in Chicago or Berlin or Buenos Aires. You'll hear the same vapid dance music, smell the same cologne, hear the rustle of the same neatly pressed Polo shirts, and touch the same tanned, well-moisturized skin."
Buying into this idea, I expected no surprises from Spartakus, Sofia, Bulgaria's oldest Private Mix Club. When I first visited the disco, which friends billed as a gay establishment, in the summer of 1997, it was new and fashionable. Entry was restricted to people with exclusive membership cards. The music was indeed vapid, but it was not like any dance music popular in the United States at the time (or ever, for that matter). Scatman John, Era, and other European export bands sang in strangely accented, non-native English over the club's incredibly loud speakers, and the DJ occasionally announced singles by home-grown pop stars in rapid-fire Bulgarian. Though the club's patrons may have been wearing familiar colognes, my nose could not detect them through the thick clouds of smoke from cigarette brands called "Victory" and "Stewardess." I did not see a single Polo, but it is true that tanned skin peeked out from under every tight muscle shirt and microscopic mini-skirt. But it was only as much skin as was necessary to cover the lean bodies of a population whose government had plundered their wheat that winter, leaving them poor and without reliable sources of food, in an economy characterized by 1000% annual inflation and 20% unemployment.
A quick scan of the room revealed that Spartakus was by no means an entirely gay club. Although couples of carefully clad young women on the dance floor moved together to the music, the thick-necked men lining the walls kept a careful eye out to ensure that no one messed with their two girls. Later, threesomes left together in the dark BMWs that the men had somehow managed to park in the highway underpass where the disco is located. In the meantime, throngs inside the exclusive establishment blushed and looked away from the stage when the DJ introduced the male erotic dancers. Within a few minutes, however, secret peeks at the stage yielded to enthusiastic applause, and no one in the hall failed to watch the drag queen who came out to lip synch "I Will Survive" in fishnet stockings and a feather wig.
Who were these people? I asked myself. And what did the audience have in common with the transvestite on stage? Was this really a gay club? And weren't people afraid of a police raid? I had read in the Rough Guide to Bulgaria that "while homosexual acts between men over the age of 21 are not officially illegal, there are heavy restrictions on vague things like scandalous homosexuality or homosexual acts leading to perversions," which basically means that the authorities have the right to arrest you for any homosexual act. I feared that simulated fellatio and cross-dressing might be considered scandalous, especially in an Orthodox country, and I had heard rumors of a bar raid in Sofia in 1996. I was nervous all night, and I didn't understand why nobody else was as worried as I was. Mostly, though, I never understood whether the ubiquitous pairs of girls dancing close were really just pairs of platonic friends, both of whom happened to be dating the same Olympic wrestler. And I never understood why the club bothered to hire transvestite dancers if the whole crowd was as straight as it looked.
Two years later, I returned to Spartakus naïvely expecting time to have transformed the club into something approaching an ideal-typical gay disco with a new Western face. After all, ten years had elapsed since the fall of the totalitarian communist regime, and Bulgaria had experienced two years of relative success with economic and political reforms following the crisis of January 1997. Indeed, this time I found more standard European music, fewer bodyguards, and more youth in the disco, which has abandoned its members-only policy and is now open to any members of the public who can pass the "face control" and afford the cover charge of $1.50 (the average Bulgarian monthly salary is $111.) I also found an unusual underground culture and a loosely consolidated community of people simultaneously drawn together and atomized by a set of fears and hopes that is unique to the post-communist situation, and perhaps even to the particular social setting of fin-de-siécle Bulgaria.
Bulgaria has historically been one of Europe's most tolerant countries. In the early 1900s, Bulgaria accepted waves of Armenian refugees from Turkey whom no one else would take. During World War II, Bulgaria refused to send its Jews to Nazi concentration camps. In the mid-1980s, Bulgarian citizens demonstrated against anti-Turkish communist policies, and began a process that toppled the totalitarian regime and ushered in a transition to democracy by writing a constitution more liberal than any other in Eastern European. Despite what is written in the Rough Guide, homosexuality is legal in Bulgaria and has been since 1968. Moreover, law forbids discrimination based on sex or on HIV-positive status in employment or education. It is expected that the Parliament will soon ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
At the same time, though, Bulgarian society as a whole is atomized as a legacy of its totalitarian past, which fostered distrust and destroyed all but the closest individual ties in favor of corporate identities and loyalty to the regime. Consequently, the gay community has also remained unconsolidated. Traditional social values, especially among older generations, and a dire economic situation make public heterosexuality almost compulsory for young people who often continue to live with their parents until they are married. Indeed, one informant told me that his greatest fear as a gay man in Bulgaria is that his boyfriend will eventually break up with him in order to get married, even though they will still be in love. Despite de facto conservatism, however, Bulgaria is de jure one of the most tolerant and inclusive societies in Europe. Gay people there enjoy more liberties and protections than do their counterparts in Britain or France, so there is no pressing reason to unite politically. Finally, widespread poverty means that only a small segment of the gay population has access to the expensive clubs and private bars where people can meet and consolidate their community. The lack of economic resources also prevents the community from producing any printed literature that might bind its members together.
As the Bulgarian government is busy trying to meet the strict criteria for NATO and European Union membership, the country's populace is also doing its best to upgrade Bulgaria's image to meet what they think of as European standards. Although most Bulgarians cannot afford large or elaborate wardrobes, the self-styled aesthetic elite at clubs like Spartakus is trying to raise the bar on local fashion. Although it has cast aside its membership requirements, Spartakus still has a strict dress code. Other than sneakers and athletic shoes, which are explicitly forbidden in the club, it is not clear exactly what the busty, tattooed transvestite at the entrance is looking for.
Whatever her criteria may be, everyone hoping to get inside the club has to pass her scrutiny before being allowed entrance. In a way, this test unites the successful patrons in the knowledge that they are the best-dressed, most stylish Sofians. At the same time, though, it atomizes the gay community by alienating would-be clients who cannot afford or do not feel like wearing the required fashions. Monika, one of Bulgaria's few out lesbians, told me that she and a few female friends were once turned away from Spartakus for wearing jeans. "This is a gay club," the face controller told her. "That is why we're here!" my friend responded. The bouncer refused to let the women in, explaining that they were not appropriately dressed. After telling me the story, Monika sighed and said, "They can't expect lesbians to look as good as transvestites."
Bulgaria is the only country I have ever visited where transvestites are at the top of the hierarchy in the gay community. They decide who can get into the exclusive discos, they get reserved tables in private clubs, and everyone else wants to dance with them or be noticed by them. The founders of Spartakus envisioned their creation not as a gay disco, perhaps because almost no gay Bulgarians are willing to be out, even in specifically gay establishments.
Instead they wanted to found a Bulgarian version of Studio 54, a club for the aesthetic elite, which by definition includes actors, pop stars, artists, and designers, as well as ultra-hipster youth with avant-garde style. Just to be sure, the club's management hires predominantly transvestites to run the club and to set the visual tone. Aside from the face controller, at least five transvestites mill about Spartakus on any given night. Most of them are on the official payroll and make around $10 a night, hardly enough to cover the cost of their makeup, let alone their elaborate costumes. To earn their wages, some of the transvestites tend bar. Others put on the stage show, dancing and lip-synching to one or two songs apiece every night. All of the performances are well-rehearsed, although they have no paid rehearsal time, and the crowds cheer them enthusiastically, but cannot afford to tip them.
Indeed, the audience can barely afford to dress themselves in the style required for entrance to the club. Krâstina, a prominent Bulgarian fashion designer, explains, "It is interesting to try to make beautiful clothes in a country that doesn't really need fashion or designers, only clothes to wear." Indeed, the utilitarian clothing sold from tables on street corners is certainly more affordable to the average Bulgarian than is the haute couture produced by Krâstina, her partner Konstantin, and their estimated eight to ten colleagues working in the genre. But inside Spartakus, it is the high fashion transvestites who set an example that everyone else must follow.
Twenty year-old Persephone, Bulgaria's Miss Transvestite 2000, is lucky that her father runs a successful business and gives her a large allowance without asking her what she spends it on. Persephone competed against 15 other cross-dressers in the Miss Transvestite pageant this March completely on a whim. She had never cross-dressed before, and didn't expect to do so again. But after she won, the other transvestites pressured her into continuing, at least for the duration of her reign as queen. The 700 Deutschmark honorarium that she won helps a little, but it will be difficult to build an entire new wardrobe from scratch, especially considering the high standards within the community.
Bulgaria's most famous transvestite, Ursula, has it much easier. Krâstina and Konstantin, her adopted parents, are not only financially better off than the average Bulgarian, but are also supportive of Ursula's cross-dressing and capable of producing fabulously extravagant costumes for her in their own design studio. While Persephone designs her own costumes from inexpensive materials and has her mother sew them in secret when her father is not home, a typical costume for Ursula costs $200-300, is designed specifically for her, and is handmade by Krâstina from imported fabrics. It is no wonder that Ursula won the Miss Transvestite pageant two years in a row. Her proud parents want to raise the level of fashion at Spartakus to complement Ursula's beauty, but they cannot do it alone. Konstantin and Krâstina are the only designers who work specifically for transvestites, but they can not afford to absorb the costs for all of them. "We would like to have more than one transvestite," explains Konstantin. "But it is very expensive, and one family simply can't afford it. So we only have one. We put everything into Ursula. She is our only transvestite. The others have to dress themselves."
With such support, it is not surprising that Ursula is the most famous of the Bulgarian transvestites. What is surprising, however, is the fame that transvestites have even in mainstream Bulgarian society. Krâstina is among Bulgaria's best-received designers, and her transvestite models are accepted as vanguards of fashion for the entire country. At the after-party for the Miss Bulgaria pageant in April 2000 it was transvestite dancers, not the girls who had competed in the pageant, who performed on stage. In a club full of heterosexual businessmen and wealthy, middle-aged Bulgarian glitterati, no one seemed to question the choice of entertainment. And no one complained when Ursula whipped Miss Plovdiv, Miss Shumen, and even the new Miss Bulgaria herself away from the edge of the stage with her cat-o-nine-tails.
Transvestites can take over a Bulgarian stage even without whips, chains, and other sado-masochistic props, though. In fact, the average Bulgarian cross-dresser wants to be recognized for her beauty, tenderness, and intelligence. Before becoming Miss Transvestite, Persephone, who prefers to identify herself as a drag queen because she never intends to change her physical sex, got attention in public for wearing sado-masochistic costumes that she described as "avant-garde, abnormal, powerful, and new." But once she established a place for herself in the community, she began to design costumes for herself that presented what she thinks of as her true nature. "In private," she says, "I am just a gentle, tender guy."
It was the open manifestation of this private identity that helped Persephone win her title. Konstantin, one of four judges at the pageant, explained that the panel was looking for a combination of "cosmopolitanism, mysticism, femininity, philosophy, and magical love," in the winning contestant. Persephone's white minidress, feather boa, and softly curled platinum wig projected exactly that image, and her graceful, stylized dance to Sonique's "Feels So Good," in 9-inch platform shoes added an edge of sex appeal that drew both the audience and the judges in.
Not all of the pageant's contestants came close to the ideal that Konstantin described. The oldest contestant, the 35 year-old Countess, gave a performance that was more like a beer-bellied, Balkan version of Flight of the Bumblebee to the wild laughter and cheers of the audience. Is this what gentle, tender young guys like Persephone and Ursula can expect from their future? That is not the worst of their fears. Aside from the ordinary financial worries that every Bulgarian harbors, Persephone is also nervous that her father might find out she cross-dresses and throw her out of the house. When she is walking down the street in her unusual platform boots, she fears that she will attract negative attention or even be attacked. Ursula and her parents worry that Bulgarian privatization will never be completed and their fashion designs will never reach the world market. Still, Ursula dreams of becoming a fashion designer like Krâstina and Konstantin, and of having a career as a model. Persephone would like to go abroad to study. She is currently taking a year off from Sofia University, where she studied biology and genetics. If she can get a visa to study in the U.S. she would like to go back to school. If not, she says she is ready to embrace a career as a performer. Though Persephone does not see a sex-change operation in her future, Ursula does, and is saving money for breast implants.
Though the Bulgarian transvestite community is as diverse as any other community in the world, its members are tied together at the top of Bulgaria's aesthetic hierarchy. Most of them do not have many straight friends, and they are marginalized within the gay community as well. Still, somehow, it is transvestites, not gays, who can afford to be out in Bulgarian society. They support each other inside the community, and they are famous, well-liked, and respected by people outside of it. Bulgarians follow the trends that they set and conform to their aesthetic taste in order to gain entrance into their unique world of underground clubs and cafes. As a result, Bulgarian gay culture, and indeed Bulgarian culture in general, truly is a bit different from the universal stereotype.
Robin S. Brooks is a graduate student in Political Science at UC-Berkeley. She is currently living in Bulgaria and enjoying the nightlife while supposedly writing a dissertation. Maja Munk is a documentary photographer living in Bulgaria.