Can you imagine a European capital city where the annual LGBTI Pride event was being threatened by neo-Nazi dunderheads and the city stood by and took no action? Or a situation where the same thugs were encouraging their supporters to bring weapons to attack LGBTI people, and the authorities said nothing? No?
It's hard to believe, granted, but it's happening this week in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. Their annual Pride event is due to take place this Saturday, but a far-right group called 'National Resistance' have tried to wreck plans first by 'booking' the same public space used by Pride for four consecutive weekends in June, and now that this weekend's Pride is confirmed as going ahead, by organising on Facebook and secret online forums to get their supporters along in significant numbers this weekend. And yet the city is doing next to nothing to stand up to them.
The motives of National Resistance are clear. They have said that they plan to 'clear the garbage of Sofia', and told supporters that they are 'welcome to clear everything unclean from our capital and then Bulgaria'. In a video temporarily published online, and captured by human rights activists, National Resistance urge their supporters to bring 'brooms and shovels with long wooden handles' to 'cleanse' the city.
National Resistance's full statement said:
"We coordinated with Sofia Municipality and the Regional Office of the Republic of Bulgaria the beginning of our campaign "Clear the garbage of Sofia". We look forward to you on 10.06.2017 at 5 pm at the Soviet Army Monument. We saw that some sick people had decided to do the parade of sodomy, but this time they will have to miss it. Because they are constantly telling us about the campaign on June 10th, you are welcome to clear everything "unclean" from our capital and then from Bulgaria! Do not sit home, we do this all year round, let this day of the tenth anniversary of the Sodomites, WE WILL NOT HAVE A GAY PARADE IN OUR CITY! The law is on our side and everything depends on us !!!"
I met with Pride activists in Sofia back in January, along with other colleagues from the European Pride Organisers Association (EPOA). We'd decided to visit Bulgaria to meet not only the Sofia organisers, but also activists from across the Balkans - including Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. All the organisers we met told us of the challenges they face - including police brutality, state-sponsored homophobia, right-wing attacks and media apathy. And it's a signal of how volatile things can be in that region that, when we met in January, Sofia seemed to be the Pride that faced the fewest challenges.
All that has clearly changed, and Sofia Pride this weekend faces very real and very serious threats of violence. Activists there have told me that they have met with police, who have said they will protect people attending Pride - but that can only be once they reach the assembly area. LGBTI people - many young, many vulnerable - will have to run the gauntlet of getting to the assembly point without being spotted or attacked. Or worse.
Some people will decide not to go to Pride, fearing for their safety - and quite understandably. But just as we must not cave in to terrorists who want to change the way we live, nor must we allow neo-Nazi homophobes to force us into the closet and enforce our silence. Bulgaria's criminal code offers no hate crime protection to people who are LGBTI, and the thugs of National Resistance know this and are only encouraged by it.
The municipality could have banned the National Resistance events, just as police would have restricted or cancelled them in the United Kingdom had they been brazenly threatening violence. But there are complex legal reasons why they couldn't be banned, and so police are simply doing what they can.
The city's mayor, Yordanka Fandakova, is being urged by the international Pride community through EPOA and AllOut to not only condemn National Resistance's call to violence, but also to attend Pride herself and march to show her support. Fifteen thousands people signed the petition within twelve hours of it going live on Tuesday evening, and activists in Sofia will present the petition on Friday.
Fandakova's political party - that of the Bulgarian prime minister - is not known for its liberal attitude on LGBTI issues but that's not the point: this is about the freedom of assembly for LGBTI people living in the capital city of an EU country. She has a moral, ethical and almost a constitutional duty to stand with Sofia Pride this weekend, and denounce the thugs who stand in its way.
So, Mayor Fandakova, over to you. The right-thinking majority who care about equality and human rights will be watching closely to see what happens in your city on Saturday. It is absolutely within your purview to ensure that Sofia Pride not only goes ahead, but does so safely, with the rights and freedoms of LGBTI people protected and respected.
Mayor Fandakova, you could send the biggest signal possible by joining the march yourself, as many thousands of people have urged you to. I hope we'll see you there.