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Bulgarian Discovers a Third Sex

How a ratification debate, a translation misunderstanding, and social prejudices set the country on fire.

by Boyko Vassilev 23 February 2018

It is a reporter’s rule of the thumb: nothing bores audiences more than ratifications of Council of Europe conventions.


It turns out that Bulgaria (yes, Bulgaria) is an exception. There, a complicated legal document, known as the Istanbul Convention, produced a perfect storm. The scandal surrounding the text divided society, shook the ruling coalition, and made headlines for more than a month. Everything else faded in its shadow: a vote of no confidence against the government, issues of poverty and corruption, and even the first Bulgarian presidency of the EU’s European Council (not to be mistaken with the Council of Europe).


However, it was the presidency that triggered the whole thing. Eager to prove his European credentials amid unprecedented attention, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his center-right GERB party rushed to adopt the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – for short, the Istanbul Convention. Suddenly, they were caught off-guard.


The main culprit was GERB’s own coalition partner, the nationalist United Patriots. Their ministers were the first to raise the issue during the cabinet meeting dedicated to the convention. Journalists and pundits promptly followed. At a later stage virtually all religious denominations joined the bashing: the majority Orthodox Church, but also Muslims, Catholics, and with particular fervor, the Protestants.


The accusations were strange yet harsh. The Istanbul Convention, went the argument, had proclaimed the existence of “a third sex,” paving the way for same-sex marriages and “gender propaganda” in schools. The Council of Europe document was portrayed as a sinister plot to create a legal framework that would make one’s biological sex malleable and thus capable of being easily changed. There was even a quote that “every transvestite from Iran” would then claim asylum in Bulgaria on the basis of sexual oppression.


The whirlwind was so sudden, and then so huge, that proponents of the convention were slow to react. They started to point out that the text contains no such dangers and was conceived entirely to combat violence against women, few believed them.


Commentator Valery Naidenov tried to explain the misunderstanding simply as a translation gaffe. In Bulgarian there is no proper equivalent of the word “gender.” The Bulgarian version of the convention translates this term as “social sex,” which creates the impression that there are two kinds of sexes – a biological and a social one. Hence, the “third sex.”


But few believed them. “There is no smoke without fire,” the majority thought.


The confusion was particularly painful for a number of groups. Consider the genuine opponents of the convention, who had other arguments against it, different from those related to a presumed “third sex.” These conservative yet sensible people had to join forces with populists and experience Facebook echo chambers filled with hysterical shouting. No centrist can enjoy such positioning.


Take also the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which opposed the convention. Here comes the rub. The chief international promoter of the document is the Party of European Socialists (PES) – and its president is Bulgarian Sergei Stanishev, the former leader of the BSP. Bulgarian Socialists had never before obstructed the convention, argued Stanishev, sparring publicly with the current BSP leader, Kornelia Ninova. So Bulgaria’s main opposition party got a yellow penalty card from Europe and suffered an unpleasant inner rift.


Most prominently, the fuss resulted in a headache for the prime minister. Borissov had to step back and postpone the ratification indefinitely into the future. And his coalition was shaken, since the United Patriots are determined to make sure that moment never comes. Borissov’s reputed magic to convince and to connect has been brought into question. If the populist wave holds – and he is still on the losing side – he may have difficulties winning the next elections.


The mother of all problems, though, rests with Bulgarian society itself. Any normal, rational, and fruitful discussion seems as unlikely as an Iranian transvestite being mentioned in the Istanbul Convention. Passions have been quick to flare up – and fearmongers trigger-happy to ride them. Conspiracies blossom on both sides. Opponents of the convention blame the sinister, liberal lobby of “Sorosoids” – a derisive term for the supporters of Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, who are evidently plotting to turn Bulgarian kids into cross-dressers. Proponents see this as the mighty hand of Moscow interfering in the country’s domestic affairs. Libel follows libel, one public outcry follows another, in the midst of a debate characterized by the simplicity and emotion that are the staples of Facebook discourse. On the top of it, the West, which shone so brightly as a beacon 30 years ago, appears today as a land full of mysterious and dangerous surprises.


But where language can pose riddles, it can also bring hope. The tricky word “gender” first turned into an insult, then into a joke. “Gender will get to you,” some Bulgarians now ironically say, when describing a grave danger that is difficult to explain. And if you can turn the problem into a joke, there is always a way.
Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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