The Origin of "Bulgarian" as a Euphemism for Sexual Minorities


Way back during the dawn of the web, one of the first pages I created had the header We can always call them Bulgarians. The name has several origins. First, about 1990, David Jason Kyle and I tried to form a social network within the lesbian, gay and bisexual community at CMU. When looking for a name, David said, "The term Bulgarians was used in the theatre to refer to queers, so why don't we call ourselves Bulgarians." I maintained a mailing list bearing this name that was created to keep us in contact.

 Later, I found a book in a local gay bookstore. The book was titled, "We can always call them Bulgarians"_ the emergence of lesbian and gay men on the American stage by Kaier Curtin.   Curtin quotes columnist Wilella Waldorf in the New York Post, September 17, 1937 about the play Wise Tomorrow:

It has been whispered the theme has a touch of Lesbianism about it, which sounds a little odd when you consider that the Warners, presumably, have in mind a picture version eventually.  However, as Samual Goldwyn or somebody once said, "We can always call them Bulgarians."

Why would Samual Goldwyn, or whomever, say such a thing?  Pure ignorance?  Perhaps.  But the theatre could get away with such deceptions.  As Curtin explains:

The lesbian as a character does not exist in English language dramatic literature until the third decade of this century. Still, such characterizations appeared in both English-language novels and in Broadway plays a whole decade before gay male characters were to be found either in such books or on the American stage. When lesbian roles were introduced to New York theatregoers in the 1920s, in translations from Yiddish and French, apparently many in the audiences did not recognize them as such.

The more sophisticated theatregoers did recognize the characters as lesbian and gay, and denounced the plays that contained such characters. In 1927, New York state passed a decency law that censored all overtly gay and lesbian characters from plays. The law prohibited plays "depicting or dealing with, the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion. During the four decades that the law remained in effect, more than a hundred Broadway shows with gay or lesbian roles -- but they were closeted.

I believe the title of the book reflects the need that playwrites had to find euphemisms to hide their gay and lesbian characters. Lilian Hellman's play, The Children's Hour does not mention the word lesbian once, although that is what the play is about. Instead, buying into the information at the time, it is referred to as a sickness, a perversion or a twisting of the mind.

Other writers chose other means to hide gay characters. Noel Coward's Design for Living concerns a love triangle of two men and a woman. Coward makes clear that the men knew each other first, and that the woman was the interloper. In the end, the three agree to live with each other in a "three-sided erotic hotch-potch."

There are many other examples, but never is a character identified positively as being gay or lesbian. Words and clever writing were used to hide gay and lesbian characters. But why Bulgarians?

According to the A QUEER READER: 2500 Years of Male Homosexuality, edited by Patrick Higgins.

"The word 'bugger' has its origins in the Middle Ages. Heresy had flourished during the tenth century in Bulgaria, and each new manifestation of unorthodoxy throughout Europe was described as one more branch of the Bulgarian heresy. Heretics were believed to be addicted to every vice, and their sexual practices were much sensationalised from the pulpits by friars as keen to draw an audience for their ideas by these means as any contemporary tabloid editor engaged in the same enterprise. 'Bugger' is just one corruption of the word 'Bulgar' that has passed down to our age, a perjorative label that has stuck."

I have checked the etymology of the word bugger in several dictionaries and they confirm this definition. The etymologies go so far as to say that the term literally comes from the word Bulgarian.

In e-mail, someone added the following:
...the term bugger comes from Bulgarian because of the (actual or rumored) sexual practices of the Bogomil heretics of the 10th-12th centuries, who were largely stamped out by various orthodox churches, like the related Cathars in southern France, and therefore it is hard to state what their theology included. But it appears that, because they considered it sinful to drag any more sparks of the one light into limiting and limited human incarnations, they advocated either total chastity, or else sex that would not lead to conception.

Others have also sent me mail about the use of the word "bugger":
The derivation of "bugger" from "bulgarus" has appeared in etymological dictionaries since at least the 1880's; the etymology was well known in the '20's.

Something you might like to include when you do an update of the above page is an account of precisely when "bugger" and "bulgarus" first came to refer specifically to anal sex, as distinct from general heresy. (Heretics were of course *always* accused of sexual deviance, but no one--at least not the judges--paid more than lip service to such accusations, since the only real crimes were religious and political.) Unfortunately for our purpose, there are few published documentary references to the sexual meaning of "bugger" and "Bulgarian" prior to the 19th century. This is quite understandable, since most of our standard sources for language usage prior to the late 18th century--chronicles, diaries, letters, poetry, and, at the very end of the period, fiction--rarely refer to anything sexual in anything but the most circumspect terms. The one source most likely to contain references to sex prior to the 19th century is court records, which in England survive in such massive quantities that even indexing them--to say nothing of publishing them--is impractical, so until there are more graduate students willing to research the field (and more thesis supervisors willing to back the topics), Heaven only knows what accounts of sexual depravity lurk in the pre-1800 records of Common Pleas and Queen's Bench ;-) Anyhoo ... The earliest reference I have found to "buggery" = sodomy is 1555 [_Shorter Oxford English Dictionary_ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), vol. 1, p. 231]; the earliest reference I have found to the Latin "buggaria" = sodomy is 1660 (!) [R. E. Latham, _Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources_ (London: British Academy, 1965), p. 58]. Since my sources are fairly old, they may not represent the current state of research, so I'll nose about the library in the next day or two and see if I can find anything more recent on the subject.

The reaction from soc.culture.bulgaria

On March 11, 1996 Dragomir R. Radev made this post to soc.culture.bulgaria. It was followed by several other posts, whose tone was distinctly sexist.

I engaged some of the people who were complaining. I wanted to understand the motivation for their complaints. Was there something anti-ethnic Bulgarian about my page? There certainly is no reference to ethnic Bulgarians on the page. Only the word Bulgarian appears, and that is clearly being directed toward gays and lesbians.

After exchanging some e-mail and netnews posts, I came to the following conclusions:

The first of these realizations is a historic fact -- one word came to refer to two disparate people. But this historic quirk is not isolated to Bulgarians. Christopher Columbus thought he had landed in India, and proud Native American cultures like the Sioux, Navajo and Mayan are misnamed Indians, though they were never native to the subcontinent of India. In some parts of Pennsylvania, Dutch refer to people of German ancestry, not people from the Netherlands. The words Greek and French refer to both sexual acts and to national groups!

The two notions above also played off each other. Many in soc.culture.bulgaria came to believe that their nationality was being attacked by being compared to gay culture. Many argued that being called gay in Bulgarian culture was a slur, and therefore my page slurred all ethnic Bulgarians!

Here are some particularly homophobic posts from posters to scb:

Not all the people who read soc.culture.bulgaria agree with the sentiments above. Several argued against the hatred expressed in these messages. Many had hoped that their countrymen were more enlightened, and expressed disappointment at the behavior over my web page. Those who spoke out against the hatred could also expect to be attacked, as in this post by Tamara Dineva.

The homophobia here is clear. Being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not a choice, just as heterosexuality is not a choice. It is not a disease, just as left handedness is not a disease. A person's sex role does not change simply because they have same-sex attractions. Gays and lesbians are not sexual pariahs who seek to force themselves on others without consent, like rapists or pedarests.

Societies where the fear of persecution is great for gay men and lesbian encourage their closeting. This hiding feeds the ignorance and the fear of the society. Being open about issues of sexuality breaks this cycle. Familiarity with gay men and lesbians demonstrates that we are valuable and productive members of society, with little or no difference from other people. This familiarity acts to combat homophobia.

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Last updated 3/26/96