Gabriella Bankova's hunger strike lasted 12 days. For nearly two weeks, she sat on the steps of Sofia's Palace of Justice and refused to eat. The protest was a spontaneous idea, Bankova told DW, yet, in a way, it had been a long time in the making.
Bankova is a transgender woman, but the Bulgarian state refuses to recognize her identity. And when a court refused to change the gender on her ID card from male to female earlier in November, Bankova despaired. She then decided to begin her hunger strike at the foot of Bulgaria's Palace of Justice.
She lost seven kilograms (15 pounds) during her 12-day protest, which ended on Saturday. Still, her fight is far from over. "I think it's time for judicial reform," the 32-year-old told DW.
No right to marry, adopt children or inherit property
Each year, the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) publishes an index ranking 49 European countries based on their legal and policy practices regarding LGBTI people. In 2023, Bulgaria came in 40th place out of the 49 nations ranked. In the EU, only Romania and Poland were ranked lower.
Five years ago, Deystvie, an organization that campaigns for social and legal equality for Bulgaria's LGBTQ people, examined 79 national laws. It found that LGBTQ people faced legal discrimination in hundreds of cases. Same-sex couples, for example, are not allowed to marry, cannot adopt children or inherit their partner's property.
In Bulgaria, there is no right to gender self-determination, which makes it impossible to formally change one's gender.
Bankova said she has often been denied hospital admission and medical treatment because her ID card lists her gender as male. She recently fell ill with pneumonia but was unable to buy antibiotics as she needed a doctor's prescription. She was refused a prescription, however, as Bulgarian health facilities believed she was using a fake ID and did not have health insurance.
She was refused work and rental contracts for the same reason, Bankova told DW.
Court rules no legal framework to change gender
In Bulgaria, discussions over the possibility of legally changing one's gender began in the early 1990s. Progress was made until 2017, according to lawyer and Deystvie chairperson Denitsa Lyubenova. Because there was no clear case law, transgender people were sometimes able to have their gender formally changed after going to court.
Yet in 2018, amidst the campaign against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women and domestic violence, Bulgaria's Constitutional Court ruled that gender should only be understood in the biological sense and that there are "only two genders."
Three years later, a statutory interpretation procedure was launched. In February 2023, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no legal framework governing gender reassignment, meaning people could no longer formally change their gender.
"In recent years, the Bulgarian judiciary's decisions mean we have been declared people who are not welcome in society," Bankova told DW.
There are no statistics showing how many people in Bulgaria find themselves in a similar situation to Bankova. Lyubenova, however, said Deystvie represents about 30 to 40 people who want their gender officially recognized.
Animosity and solidarity in Sofia
Bankova was arrested twice during her hunger strike, allegedly because she was unable to prove her identity.
"But whatever they do, they can't break me, mentally I am stronger than ever," she said.
During her 12-day protest, Bankova said she experienced some hostility from members of Bulgarian society. Some younger, male passers-by were insulting and aggressive towards her, she said, adding that she believes this hostility stems from nationalist, right-wing extremist and populist parties inciting hatred against LGBTQ people in the country.
Occasionally, this leads to hate speech and acts of physical violence. In October 2022, Bulgarian right-wing populist politician Boyan Stankov and 10 other people stormed Sofia's Rainbow Hub, an LGBTQ meeting place, and injured an employee in the process.
Many other passers-by, however, also expressed solidarity with Bankova during her hunger strike. Some wanted to find out more about the lives of transgender people, Bankova told DW. "And some people who didn't approach me smiled at me," she added.
Her hunger strike put transgender rights in the spotlight and underscored that people like Bankova have a right to lead a normal and dignified life, like everyone else in the country.
Bankova told DW her protest was just the beginning, "Now the real work begins."
This article was translated from German.