Billboards featuring LGBT+ couples and the slogan “It’s not scary, it’s just love—Different People, Equal Rights” have sparked controversy in Bulgaria.
The street posters were installed this week in various Bulgarian cities as part of a European Commission-funded project by a group of six Bulgarian non-governmental organisations, aimed at tackling homophobia.
They had the side effect of exposing anti-LGBT sentiment in the country.
The billboards featured LGBT+ couples hugging or holding hands in front of iconic Bulgarian buildings such as the National Assembly, the National Palace of Culture and the Ivan Vazov National Theatre.
They were due for display in the main cities in Bulgaria, such as the capital Sofia as well as Burgas, Varna and Plovdiv.
In Varna, one of the posters was covered in paint, as a picture widely shared on social media showed. The company who put up the billboards announced that it would be taking them down following complaints from the public.
Local media reported that some of the complaints were due to the billboards being displayed in the lead up to the Christmas festivities. In other cases, some people complained about the billboards being visible to children and forcing a conversation about LGBT+ rights.
Varna city councillor Kostadin Kostadinov denounced the billboards as “propaganda.”
“It is not acceptable to have frank propaganda for homosexual relations, and to do it in a way that will gradually be imposed on us as a norm,” he said, quoted in Bulgarian English news publication The Sofia Globe.
Bulgaria is one of 14 European countries which maintain a constitutional ban on equal marriage, although a Bulgarian court has backed the right of a lesbian married couple to reside in the country for the first time in a landmark ruling in July this year.
Bulgaria’s LGBT+ advocates were surprised at the reactions to the campaign.
“We did not expect it to cause such aggression, vandalism, and appeals to remove it. This is indicative of tolerance in society and the extent to which we are prepared to accept the different,” said Simeon Vassilev of the Glas (“Voice”) Foundation, one of the campaign organisers, quoted in Bulgarian news outlet BNR.
Vassilev defended the billboards from accusations of violating advertising codes.
“[The campaign] does not promote hatred, does not incite aggression, it is not pornographic,” he said.
“The reaction of hatred and vandalism on the other hand, the destruction of private property—It is this aggression and homophobia that escalates to such a high degree.”
Reacting to the controversy, Bulgaria’s LGBT+ campaigners wrote an open letter to the mayors of Sofia, Burgas, Varna and Plovdiv, asking them to show support for the campaign and to denounce and punish homophobic vandals.
“We also call for you not to lend to the public pressure to remove billboards, as this would be an unlawful restriction of freedom of expression. We hope to receive your support for the continuation and smooth running of the campaign scheduled for January 27, 2019,” read the appeal, which is open for public signatures.