As a dancer and choreographer, Kosta Karakashyan has worked with everyone from Calvin Klein and H&M to Rita Ora and Years & Years. As a writer and director, he’s known on the festival circuit for his 2018 documentary short Waiting for Color, which confronted Chechnya’s ongoing persecution of LGBTQ+ people. But perhaps his proudest moment hasn’t been related to his impressive resume at all, but to his relatively recent decision to come out in his native Bulgaria on national TV. By doing so, Karakashyan has positioned himself as a queer role model in a country with few of them.
When I met Karakashyan in Copenhagen last summer, he had been attending the 2021 Human Rights Forum and I had been swimming in the 2021 Eurogames. While saddened to discover that this swarthy, soulful man wasn’t single, I remained enchanted by his intelligence, passion, and anthropologist’s eye for cultural specificities. What follows is the result of a series of interviews that we’ve conducted over the past year, all the while tackling both the state of the LGBTQ+ rights in Bulgaria as well as America’s growing rift with the rest of the world. At one point, he even began interviewing me.
Tell me a bit about your coming-out story.
I came out very publicly in Bulgaria. It was very recently, but it feels forever ago. I was visiting Bulgaria to present one of my projects, a film called Waiting for Color, a dance documentary about the LGBTQ+ persecution in Chechnya. It was a dance film using the firsthand testimonies of people. I had to do all these interviews on primetime TV and the radio. And I was thinking about the project and why I did it and what I can do in Bulgaria, so I said, ‘Oh, I can use this as an opportunity to also out myself, because a lot of people will see it. And I don’t have to stay in Bulgaria and deal with any negative backlash.’ And it was really empowering and has since allowed me to have a career in Bulgaria without worrying about anything, because everything about me is online, so it’s up to people to decide how they feel about it. It’s not my responsibility to babysit them. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot of responses and messages on social media from people in rural areas who say they’ve never seen a queer person on TV. And my parents have gotten a lot of phone calls from other struggling parents who say, ‘Oh, I saw your son, how do I support my child or how did you do this?’ And my parents have become activists, who lead by example and help other parents.
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[But] even now that I’m out, in interviews, I try to sneak in something about my boyfriend or me being gay. But sometimes I do feel like my voice is shaking. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m getting nervous about this again.’ And I think it’s a never-ending journey.
In Bulgaria, there are lot of queer artists who are successful, but they’re not out because they believe it will really impact them socially and financially.
I think this is really interesting, because so much of the way we look at being a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community is through a very U.S.-centric lens. I thought this week [at the Human Rights Forum], after talking with some activists from countries where it’s still very, very dangerous – and I always say this to people in Bulgaria as well – that coming out … It’s important, but safety is first. A lot of times we see American success stories, and it’s very much about like, “You should come out and be this way and tell your family and tell everyone and then you can live free.” And that’s still not a reality for a lot of people.
What is the next big political fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Bulgaria?
It’s going on right now with an NGO called LGBTI Organization Deystvie with a case called the Baby Sara case, and it’s about two women and their baby. One is Bulgarian, one is a British citizen, but she was born in Gibraltar. They’re married and they have a baby girl together. But because the child was born in Spain—and because Spain only gives citizenship if one parent has Spanish citizenship—their baby didn’t get Spanish citizenship. She didn’t get British citizenship because of a technicality: If the mother is from Gibraltar, which is not mainland UK, you can’t inherit the mother’s citizenship. So the family went to Bulgaria to grant their baby Bulgarian citizenship, but they were asked for proof that the Bulgarian mother is the biological mother. And since the Bulgarian mother couldn’t produce documentation that she was the biological mother, the child became stateless.
The case made its way to the Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the European Union who ruled that Bulgaria has to recognize the parentage of the child from her two mothers and must issue her an identity/travel document in which both wives are listed as parents.
A lot of times we see American success stories, and it’s very much about like, “You should come out and be this way and tell your family and tell everyone and then you can live free.” That’s still not a reality for a lot of people.
So now the Bulgarian court will have a ruling in a month where they will eventually have to recognize the marriage of the two women and the maternity so the baby can get Bulgarian citizenship. And it’s a big landmark case because we’ve always had to escalate same-sex marriage cases to European-level institutions. It’s a very roundabout way of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in Bulgaria. But the attorney working on these cases (Denitsa Lyubenova, part of the Legal Program of LGBTI Organization Deystvie) is very smart and resourceful! We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
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So if a same-sex couple were to get married in Bulgaria, it would not be recognized.
Yes, we have no same-sex marriage. The only times we recognize same-sex marriages is when it has to do with immigration, like if one spouse is an EU national. So there’s been cases where international law has forced Bulgaria to acknowledge same-sex marriage. But it still doesn’t exist in Bulgaria.
So they have rights as EU citizens, but not Bulgarian citizens. Are civil unions allowed?
No, but we’re working on that. I think with Bulgaria, we’re in a lucky position because we don’t have the same attacks as in Hungary or Poland. But things are happening slowly. And as activists, we have to be super patient with everything.
Is there a strong religious undercurrent that’s fueling this homophobia?
There is. The Orthodox Church is being asked to weigh in on things like the definition of gender, which is vague. In 2019 we were supposed to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which deals with protection from gender-based violence. A lot of countries have ratified it already, and it protects women and those who identify as women from gender-based violence. But Bulgaria got pretty hung up on the word gender. Politicians and society all collectively went, “Oh, the activists are trying to introduce a third gender, but we won’t let our kids become this third gender.” So [Bulgaria] didn’t ratify it. And then “gender” was very strategically used by the right-wing as a word to be weaponized against the community. So now “gender” has become a slur in Bulgaria. Like faggot. People are like, “Oh, that fucking ‘gender.’” And they don’t know what “gender” means. It’s become a word that’s been so detached from its real meaning. So Bulgaria is very much stuck between the very traditional, very historical mindset, all about the nuclear family. It’s not just impacting queer people, but anyone who wants a more relaxed form of partnership. Heterosexual couples also don’t have civil partnerships. It’s either marriage or nothing.
You live in Sofia. Are there gay bars?
There is one. The organization I used to work with, Single Step Foundation. They created a community space called The Steps, which doubles as a nightclub. It’s become the hub where queer people can, you know – during the day they can go have a coffee, meet someone for work, and then at night stay and have some fun. But we have had some incidents with harassment there by right-wing people: people hijacking the events and storming events and screenings during Pride month.
Interesting. So, I … Are you – Are you checking out that guy? Or do you know him?
I’m checking him out.
So … Oh God, now I’ve lost my train of thought … because now I’m checking him out. OK … So … Yeah … So it’s unspoken that … Oh wow, he is really hot.
He looks very straight.
Very straight, yeah. He looks like he’s from Jersey Shore. So … Um … Wow.
So, I know that in the States, it’s difficult because every state can make a lot of their own policies. Is it hard for queer people to stay [in conservative states] and try to make a difference? Or do you think most people just choose to live somewhere more progressive?
It’s common for there to be a gay brain drain from rural areas. And that’s how the metropolitan parts of the United States are getting packed with queer people. Most queer people end up moving [to cities] if they are trying to be successful in a traditional American sense, like getting a white-collar job, getting that apartment and the boyfriend and the family, all that stuff. But then it leaves behind more vulnerable members of the community who maybe don’t have access to good education or who come from families that have abandoned them and cut them off. So they’re left in pockets of the country that are more conservative. And they don’t have a significant number of local activists who are fighting for their behalf at a local level. So, yeah, they end up getting left behind, and it ends up just becoming like an underground community in those areas where people just have to look out for each other.
Yeah, we have a lot of the same trends, because a lot of people choose to move to the capital. But the queer community across the country, I would say, is quite connected online because Bulgaria is a relatively smaller country. The population is seven million people in total. So there are some Facebook groups for the queer community nationwide – we all connect there and they try to foster an online community.
Let’s get to the fun questions! What is your favorite and least favorite thing about American guys?
After having lived in New York and encountered the huge range of people there, I would say one factor that was a common denominator among all of them was a focus on status. That’s easily my least favorite. The status of your job. You know, that’s currency in New York City, or anywhere, really, where there are a lot of gay people. It ends up being a concentrated community and it’s easy to work your way up when the pool of people that you’re networking with is smaller than if you’re a straight person.
The Orthodox Church is being asked to weigh in on things like the definition of gender, which is vague.
The gay mafia.
Yes, exactly. Are you a member? No? You didn’t say no. So that means yes. (To recorder): This is when he winks at me and makes the gay mafia symbol.
And now everyone will wonder what the symbol is.
Yes, exactly. If you know, you know. But yeah, the majority of guys I’ve dated or hooked up with were American, so I don’t have a lot of people to compare them to. But I can also say there’s a confidence there that can only come from being from one of the brashest, most privileged countries in the world. And I don’t know, maybe I don’t prefer American guys. But I have been with both Americans and non-Americans who were very tender and very present. And I think I actually prefer that to the feeling of being detached and using sex as a transaction, which is a very common feeling I get in America. So … I don’t have a favorite thing about American guys. Long answer.
As a Bulgarian who’s lived a bit in the U.S., I can definitely agree with what you said about the confidence and the status as well. Like, when I do meet American guys outside the U.S., I do see how they have this air of like, “What I have to say is really important, and you should listen to it.”
Yeah. I’m sorry. I apologize on behalf of our country. Americans aren’t, like, inherently smarter or more talented than other people. They just think they are.
Yeah. They have more resources.
Yeah, exactly. We have more resources. So, we have more opportunities for success and we have a lot of factors that boost our egos throughout our lives that are built into American culture. And now gays can do that. They have access to that. So, what is your favorite and least favorite about —
Bulgarian guys or American guys?
I think with American guys, I dislike the same thing you mentioned. Sometimes it’s hard to establish a connection. There’s a very streamlined way of approaching things and experiencing someone. It’s either a hookup or it’s a date. And there’s not that space for two people talking with no defined outcome. I think in Europe, there’s maybe a little bit more of being open to just seeing where things will go. What I like about American guys, I think most of the people I’ve met are very socially aware. I don’t want to say “woke,” but they know that the personal and political are very intertwined in American society. People have a social conscience. They know that their rights and everyday life are something that they’ve had to work towards and fight for. Most people are quite familiar with the history of Stonewall. They know it’s something that didn’t just happen. I like that there is some excitement about the movement, even in people who are not activists, but who are just members of the community. In Bulgaria, there are a lot of people who identify as gay or bi, but they reject the whole community movement and they don’t see why their needs should be grouped with the solidarity for trans, lesbian, or intersex people.
We certainly have those people.
But about Bulgarian guys … What I dislike is that, as an effect of our culture, they’re not in touch with their feminine side. And I think having more feminine energy is really important to balance out the whole community and to help create different ways of being that are not just traditionally patriarchal. We need some of that softness in Bulgarian culture. I wish more gay men would embrace that. Actually, the things that really attracted me to my boyfriend were the things that I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not very Bulgarian.’ Bad patriot.
Yeah. And our culture is still developing. I can’t say that I see a very Bulgarian LGBTQ+ identity. I want us to work towards not just bringing the USA construct of Drag Race and Pride and copy-pasting them into our context, but see how we can develop our own traditions. I think that’s really important because a lot of the things that we see as staples of our culture did come out of some tradition in the U.S.
[But] there’s not one identity that works for the whole world just because it’s the loudest one. It would be interesting to see what the Bulgarian scene grows into.
In Bulgaria, there are a lot of people who identify as gay or bi, but they reject the whole community movement and they don’t see why their needs should be grouped with the solidarity for trans, lesbian, or intersex people.
What brought you to Copenhagen?
I was participating in EuroGames as a swimmer. I swam all throughout grade school and high school and I stopped doing it in my 20s because I was a mess. I was an alcoholic. I just stopped doing all of the things that I loved that made me healthy and productive and was just a wayward soul trying to find my way in the world—trying to find what gave me a reason to live, essentially. Then, I started taking up swimming during the pandemic as a way to distract myself from the difficulties of living in a pandemic. And I set a goal for myself to come here. It was my first competition as a swimmer since I was 18, as well as a goal post to signify that the worst part of the pandemic was over. I don’t know how it is in Bulgaria, but drinking is such a huge part of mainstream gay culture in the US.
Yeah, it’s the same with not just drinking but other types of drugs. And I think that’s universal because people use substances a lot to deflect their problems and distract them from the shame and the emotions they don’t want to feel. I also am sober. I felt that the way alcohol and being gay, the way they were conspiring, was not really conducive to me being as happy and healthy as I wanted to be. I was riding this emotional roller coaster and these expectations of who I should be. I felt like if I was this creative person I should be drinking and hooking up with people and doing this and that to really send a message that I’m OK with myself. And that really didn’t come from a place of genuine acceptance. It was more of a pressure to perform queerness.
Yeah, absolutely. It doesn’t help that half of the memes about gayness have to do with either drinking or drugs. How long have you been sober?
Three years now.
Oh, my gosh. I’m almost four years. And yours was because of a conscious effort to be healthier or?
Yeah. I remember one morning waking up super hungover and, you know, after a hookup and just being really over it. You know, nothing bad happened. But I felt like I made a choice that I didn’t want. I would have done better to just go to sleep and wake up fresh and go on with my day. I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this? It isn’t bringing me any happiness.’ So I just quit cold turkey.
Good for you. And now you’ve been able to achieve much more, I imagine.
Yeah, I feel a lot more productive. I know it’s not about always being happier, right? You go through your emotional journey and whatever. And there are a lot of times where you are unhappy, but when you don’t have substances to hide behind, you have to sit down with your emotions and figure out what it is that’s making you feel this way. You can make a more sustainable lifestyle change rather than the quick fix.
Absolutely. And being more present and being more aware of what you’re feeling can make you a better listener and it can make you open to more experiences and be able to recognize more opportunities that would make you happy.
Exactly. And sometimes if you’re really stressed out at work and you’re drinking, then maybe you need to change something at your job instead of drinking more. Or if you are doing it because you can’t interact with people without drinking, then maybe you need to find another space where you feel comfortable with people. Maybe you need to go to a board game cafe and the clubs just aren’t your place. You have to be open to those things and changes.
[But] in the queer community there is definitely so much pressure. You know, even when people find out you’re sober, there’s still pressure from them to drink, to let go because of their discomfort.
Yeah. Like, some people who know that I’m sober will still hold a drink in my face and ask if I want it. They don’t want to feel alone with their problems. They want to drag people down. And then other people, they just ask about my sobriety because they’re genuinely confused, because they’ve just never encountered a sober person before.
And then you realize that like 30 percent of what people talk about is what they’re going to drink, what they drank, or how drunk they got.
So how drunk did you get last night?
Not drunk at all. You?
Same. (To recorder): See how short that was? Now we can talk about other stuff.♦
Kosta Karakashyan is a Bulgarian-Armenian director, choreographer, performer, and writer exploring empathy through movement and storytelling. To find out more, check out his website at https://kostakarakashyan.com.
Evan Lambert (he/they) is a career copywriter, journalist, and short story writer who has been featured by the Santa Fe Writer’s Project. He has written for Mic, Queerty, People Magazine, and Out.com. He’s currently working on a novel and traveling the globe. You can follow him at @icantevannnn or read more of his work at www.evanlambert.contently.com.