Interview with Monika Pisankaneva, Chairperson of Bilitis Resource Center, Bulgaria
The topic of domestic violence against lesbians and bisexual women has not been discussed in public in Bulgaria so far. As an activist for LGBT rights, I completely understand how controversial would be the publicizing of information, which might negatively affect the social acceptance of lesbians and bisexual women, which is anyway too difficult. On the other hand, I realize how important it is to talk about existing issues in order to find adequate ways for addressing them.
Bilitis was founded in 2004 as a self-support group for lesbians and bisexual women, and especially in the first years of our work we were contacted by several lesbian women who had migrated to Sofia from small towns in order to avoid the violence from their parents or relatives. They had come across our organization as a result of seeing us in the media, or hearing about us from other people who knew us. There were a few distinct types of cases of violence against lesbians, exercised by parents or relatives, which have been shared with us.
1) A young lesbian couple living in a small town is separated by the parents of one of the women, who is forced to marry a man from the town in order to stop seeing her partner. The other woman is shocked by this and much traumatized, not able to find support from anyone in her town, and finally, in order to survive, she feels she needs to move out and start a new life. Before 2009, there was at least one such case per year. Recently, we have not heard of similar arranged marriages happening too often. The reason might be that the women these days find it relatively easier to migrate to other countries of the EU as a strategy to escape form family pressure and rescue their relationship.
2) The parents of one of the women in a lesbian couple do everything possible to stop their daughter seeing the other woman by creating different obstacles, sometimes even forcefully not letting her leave their home. In small towns it is difficult for the women to find support in cases of being trapped by parents or relatives. The only chance to stop this type of violence is again leaving the place and settling in a larger city, or abroad.
3) The parents react as victims of violence themselves, accusing their daughter that her way of life is the reason for neighbors or friends mocking at them. As a result, the young woman internalizes this feeling of guilt towards the parents and cannot reach internal peace. She constantly feels guilty of her parents’ unhappiness.
4) The parents start threatening the partner of their daughter; the most common threat usually is that they will inform the Police that their daughter is being followed. The strategy for dealing with this challenge is again leaving the town.
The violence against lesbians and bisexual women exercised by their parents/relatives is the result of the fear that the breaking of social norms will lead to stigmatizing of the woman and her family. This is especially strongly felt in small towns or villages where the traditional patriarchal norms are stronger than in the larger cities. It is not surprising that lesbian couples above the age of 18 are very rare in such places. Most women who want to live in a same-sex relationship migrate to one of the largest cities (Sofia, Plovdiv or Varna) or emigrate.
I do not think that cases of violence of the parents against their homosexual or bisexual daughter are non-existent in larger cities. At the same time, the lesbians, victims of domestic violence, coming to Sofia from small towns or villages are most vulnerable and need temporary support, such as a shelter and psychological counseling. Bilitis has always tried to help such women, although we did not have the institutional capacity to provide a shelter. We used the personal contacts of the people in our team to provide help with finding a job or a flat for rent. We also provided informal psychological support, and introduced the women to other lesbians.
The second question on the violence within the lesbian couple is an even more difficult one. This is a taboo topic, addressed only in private conversations among close friends. Neither the victim, nor the woman who has exercised the violence would seek professional help. Unfortunately, quite often the violence within the lesbian couple is being tolerated in the name of maintaining the relationship. Or being taken as part of the norm. „The partners in all couples fight with each other” is a common belief which has originated in the hetero-normative society. Empirical research shows that every 4th woman in Bulgaria is a victim of domestic violence. We could assume that the same percentage is characteristic of the lesbian couples too, although there has been no empirical research so far.
I have had some same-sex relationships in which the desire to maintain the closed (i.e. monogamous) character of the relationship has led to a very high level of jealousy and respectively, psychological violence. Most of my lesbian friends have been in such relationships too. In my opinion, the main factor which leads to putting up with violence in a lesbian couple, unlike in the heterosexual couple, is not the economic dependency of one of the partners on the other, or the stereotype about the traditional role of the woman in the family. It is the fear of loneliness, which makes lesbians tolerate relatively high degree of psychological violence in the couples. Most lesbians are still in the closet in Bulgaria, and finding a new partner is a very difficult task in the hostile towards LGBT people social environment.
The occurrence of physical violence in a lesbian couple is usually not shared even with the very close friends. Hence, we do not have any concrete data to discuss on this topic. It is hard to say how often it occurs.
What could be done to address adequately the topic of domestic violence against lesbians and bisexual women? In the first place, to start talking about it within the lesbian and bisexual women communities and groups. To raise their awareness that violence should not be tolerated, and professional help could be sought. Unfortunately, the services of the existing private psychotherapy centers, interested to work with LGBT clients, are too expensive for most of the lesbians, which makes the service inaccessible. Here, NGOs could help to attract resources, and also to raise the awareness of the institutions and public bodies dealing with domestic violence about all factors in the environment, which have led to complete lack of visibility of the violence against lesbians and bisexual women.
Sofia, June 1, 2015