Biser Alekov was born in Bulgaria. He is a Roma man, Muslim, and openly gay. He now lives with his partner in Brussels, works as a social worker and is a tireless activist. I was fascinated by his story, so we talked for an hour about his journey and his activism. We started with his childhood in Bulgaria. More specifically in the library of his hometown of Seslav.

Bruno De Lille: When did you first openly say “I am a man who falls in love with men”?

Biser Alekov: I knew since I was 12 that I wasn’t interested in girls. But I had no idea what that meant. So, I went looking for information in the library. I’m talking about the 1990s when the internet didn’t exist yet. That’s why I searched in encyclopedias and such. And then I found a booklet with a small paragraph about homosexuality. Just one paragraph, but I was so happy. I finally found something I could identify with. I wanted to have the booklet but was too scared to lend it out because I lived in a small Bulgarian village, in a Roma community of just 500 people. It was a very closed community that wasn’t accepting of gays. So, I took the book secretly. It was only years later that I dared to return it to the library.

I actually only dared to tell my parents when I was 34. Of course, my close friends always knew I was gay. But I only really opened up when I told my family. I didn’t want my parents to hear it from someone else.

During my studies, I did have boyfriends. And I think people could tell that I wasn’t straight. But I didn’t have the strength to be open about it in the society I lived in then.

And then I moved to Belgium. My parents came to visit me about 3 times every year. I was already over 30, and every time they saw me, it was “Are you getting married? When are you getting married?” In my community, people usually marry around their 20s, so I was already quite late in their eyes. So, during one of these visits, I said, “Mom, Dad, we need to talk tonight, I have something to tell you.” And that evening, I told them I loved men. Silence. And then my mother said, “but you were in love with Aysel.” I said, “Mom, I was six years old then.”

My father who always used to react very homophobically if anything with gays came on TV for example, looked at me and said “You’re a good person, it’s your life”. My mother’s blood pressure stayed above 160 for two days, but then she calmed down. For me, the conversation was a huge relief. Finally, I didn’t have to constantly watch what I did or said.

I could have made a difference

Bruno De Lille: How have other people in your community reacted?

Biser Alekov: As a Roma, it is not easy to be gay today, and it was even less so back then. It is somewhat more tolerated for women. In our village, there were women who lived together. Everyone knew they were lesbians. There were comments made and some laughed behind their backs, but otherwise, they were left alone. But for a man to openly live with another man… that was not acceptable.

Secretly, a lot could happen. For example, there was a young man in the village who everyone knew was gay. No one wanted to deal with him. But any boy who wanted to have sex would go to him. Everyone knew it but no one said it.

The social status of LGBTI+ people in our community is very low. It was different for me because I was one of the first from my village to go to university. I had a degree, I had earned my doctorate, and I had earned my status. I was less vulnerable.

When that boy’s mother heard her son was gay, she wanted to force him to marry. He was 16 or 17 and didn’t like that at all. He eventually committed suicide. That was a real eye-opener for me. I was 10 years older and could have told that mother, “This boy is gay, don’t make him marry.” But I didn’t do it. I think about that often. I could have made a difference. That boy’s death is one of the reasons why I no longer remain silent, why I now want to change things.

Bruno De Lille: Are you an activist?

Biser Alekov: Yes. I am both an LGBTI+ activist and a Roma activist. There are so many barriers for my community and even within my group that I feel I must speak out. Because even as a person alone, you can make a difference.

In the village where I grew up, there was a Roma man who studied to be a teacher in the 1960s. He eventually became the principal of a high school and made sure that a whole generation of Roma youth went to that secondary school.

In the 1990s, there was a father who decided to also send his daughter to that secondary school. She was allowed to continue her studies, went to the city, and came back home two years later pregnant. For years after, no girl was allowed to go to secondary school. Until around 2010, when another father sent his daughter back to the school. She did well and since then, nearly all our girls have gone on to higher education. They are obtaining more university degrees than the boys.

For a long time, the Roma in my village lived in a ghetto. There was a boy who wanted to become a teacher but felt excluded. So, he asked his father, “Dad, dad, we have the money, can’t we buy or build a house in the village itself?” The other men from the ghetto said, “Don’t do it. The Bulgarians will chase you away, they will throw stones at you.” That family did it anyway, others followed them, and today the village is much more mixed.

That teacher, those fathers, and that family have each changed the lives of many people in their own way. And that’s what I want to try to do. People need role models.

I am from the second generation of Roma activists. The first generation paved the way: they wanted to make their voices heard from their personal experiences, to show that there were things that were not just. We of the second generation have been fortunate enough to study more often. As a result, our perspective has broadened, making it easier to see through the system, we see the structural disadvantages and thus try to get the whole society moving, to change.

It’s not fair that you have to fight for your place

Bruno De Lille: Do you ever feel doubly discriminated against as a gay Roma man?

Biser Alekov: In 2009, I moved to Brussels. Through Gay Romeo, I met other Roma who were also gay. One Sunday, we decided to go to Le You, a gay nightclub in the center of Brussels. We arrived at the entrance, and the bodyguard told us, “You can’t enter, you need a reservation.” The website did not mention that a reservation was mandatory. Nevertheless, we left and returned the following week. This time I had made a reservation. Unfortunately, the same bouncer claimed that there was a private party that week, and again, of course, we were not welcome.

On the other hand, it was no better elsewhere. In Schaerbeek, there was a Roma disco. When our group went there, they quickly made it clear that gay behavior was not tolerated. So, we were excluded twice.

Bruno De Lille: What do you do then?

Biser Alekov: Because I anticipated something like this, I had recorded the conversation with the bouncer at Le You. We sent it to UNIA (formerly the Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism), and they made contact, and we had a discussion with the woman who was the manager of the nightclub at the time. After that, we were allowed in.

We also spoke with the Roma disco, and they eventually allowed us in too, without any subsequent problems.

It just feels unfair to have to fight for your place repeatedly. You want to spare others that ordeal. So, we created our own safe space. We suggested to the Rainbowhouse Brussels to organize a Balkan LGBT Party and it has become very popular. Meanwhile, we have also published a book, “My Story“, two years ago there was our documentary “My Life” and each year, we enthusiastically participate in the Pride. We make ourselves visible in many ways because this tells other Roma LGBTI+ youth, “you are not alone.”

Bruno De Lille: Isn’t that somewhat running away from the problems? You see that you’re being discriminated against, and then you create your own separate place?

Biser Alekov: Sometimes, you need to take some space to strengthen yourself in peace so that you can handle confrontations with the outside world. And we haven’t run away: we went to UNIA, we have talked with the nightclubs, and we make ourselves seen everywhere. But some young people need a place to grow first. A place where they see that there are other people like them. And hopefully, they can take that step one day.

Bruno De Lille: Has being Muslim influenced your gay activism?

Biser Alekov: Being Muslim often adds another layer of discrimination. As soon as people know you are Muslim, they assume you are very conservative. Combined with other layers, it becomes very complex. I feel like you have to fight on several fronts continually. But on the other hand, it’s also very challenging. It helps me to play with stereotypes and confront the people around me with their prejudices.

Talking to someone who understands you.

Bruno De Lille: Are things moving in the right direction?

Biser Alekov: I think so. There is still a long way to go, of course. I see many young people who cannot be openly gay; they have to keep up appearances for their homes, for their churches. And I do see them prostituting themselves in the park. There is nothing wrong with sex work but they often take a lot of risks with their health. They also often deny being gay, saying they only sleep with men for money. It’s hard to reach them, but we try.

There’s also a group of Roma gay men who are married to women and have children but don’t feel good emotionally. They contact us to go for a coffee. They don’t want to leave their families, but just talking to someone who understands them often helps a lot. Because our group exists, that’s possible.

Sometimes it goes further. After a Pride, I got a call from a 70-year-old man. He had seen me at the Pride and wanted to let me know that we had helped him to come out. He had been married to a woman, had children who now have children of their own, and had recently divorced. Now he lives with another man.

And a year ago, an imam came to me—among the Roma, you have Catholics, Protestants, members of Pentecostal churches as well as Sunni and Shiite Muslims—who asked me to talk to the parents of a boy who came to his mosque. He said, “I can tell from everything that this boy is gay, but his parents don’t want to see it. Can you convince the parents that being gay is not a problem?” That is something I wouldn’t have dared dream of until recently.

Bruno De Lille: May I provoke a bit? Here you are open, but could you do the same in Bulgaria?

Biser Alekov: Yes, I actually do. From the moment we created our LGBT group in Brussels, the members asked, “But how can we reach the LGBT Roma in Bulgaria itself? Because they are so closed.” We then contacted some Bulgarian LGBT people we knew, and they also started a Roma operation. And then we supported them by participating with our Belgian delegation in the Pride in Sofia.

I admit: that is, of course, Sofia, the big city. In the small villages and towns, it is much more difficult. Fortunately, they now have the internet and social networks, which makes them less isolated and able to find information more easily.

Bruno De Lille: (laughs) They don’t have to go to the library to find a booklet with information anymore.

Biser Alekov: No, it’s much easier now.

People say that all Roma are thieves.

Bruno De Lille: Society here is getting harder on people with different roots. Do you feel that yourself?

Biser Alekov: It has always been difficult for us. People say that all Roma are thieves or beggars, and they look down on us. There are indeed Roma beggars, but in Brussels, there are only about 30 families of them while there are some 13,000 Roma living here. These Roma go to work, live their lives, they are ordinary citizens like you and me. But because there are so many clichés about Roma, many people try to hide their origin. When I moved here, friends found an apartment for me. A friend’s mother lived on the ground floor and told me, “Biser, I know you’re an activist but please never say that we are Roma.”

Bruno De Lille: That’s terrible.

Biser Alekov: Yes, it is, but I understand why they do it. It’s exhausting to constantly have to fight against the clichés about your community or to always have to justify yourself. But a Roma woman who works in a bank knows nothing about the families that beg. Why should she have to explain or have an opinion about it? It makes no sense, but people ask all the time. So, they remain silent or try to assimilate.

I recently met a girl. Her father is a Roma man who has always worked for the police, and the Roma culture was never discussed in the family. Now she’s 22 years old and told me, “I am a Roma woman but I know nothing about that community, it’s a part of my identity that I have lost.”

And there are many young Roma like her. They struggle with this, wanting to find their roots. They just don’t have many positive role models. We must be careful not to lose an entire generation.

Proud and open to people who are different.

Bruno De Lille: What would you still like to achieve as an activist?

Biser Alekov: I would like there to be more attention in education for the Roma community so that people get to know us better and see that the clichés are nothing more than stereotypes that distort the truth. Share that the Roma also suffered terribly during the Holocaust, let people know that there are 13,000 Roma living in Brussels, and that there are likely Roma children in every school who could be your friends…

My ancestors lived in a ghetto; it was unthinkable for Muslim Roma to eat together with Christian Roma. Today, my best friends are Christian Roma and I am accepted as a gay man by my parents and respected as a Roma man by many people. I hope the next generation will not have to fight for this, will naturally be proud of their heritage, and also be open to people who are different.

>> Please note that this is a machine generated translation