From Skopje to Chicago, London to Toronto, his musical talent has spread across international borders. But Vasil Garvanliev‘s greatest achievement is yet to come when he sings for North Macedonia at Eurovision 2021. Performing “Here I Stand” on the Rotterdam stage, Vasil will be one of the first high profile figures in North Macedonia to come out publicly as gay.
In a new interview with Attitude, the North Macedonian superstar opens up about his identity as a gay man. He’s ready to stand up for his community and be a voice for LGBTQ+ people across the Balkans.
North Macedonia: Vasil tells Attitude he will be a voice for LGBTQ+ people in the Balkans
Vasil came to terms with his sexuality whilst attending high school in Chicago, and has now been out to his close friends and family for the best part of two decades. But the former child star has struggled with staying true to his authentic self, navigating life between the US and his home in the former Yugoslav republic.
“I was born and raised in Macedonia where it is definitely not okay to be gay”, he tells Attitude‘s Will Stroude. “Every time I came back home to the Balkans, to Macedonia, you feel this need to put on a mask. I sympathise so much with everybody here that lives in fear of judgement, discrimination, injustice, bullying… As artists, we have a responsibility to speak truth — especially if I’ve tasted freedom, which I have.”
Indeed, Vasil is now ready to share his truth on an international scale. The singer’s Eurovision 2021 entry “Here I Stand” is an anthemic ballad about acceptance and freedom. And what’s more, it’s 100% Vasil. “My gut feeling said this is the right moment to share everything about myself — to literally break down all my walls and give you me as I am”, he says. “I am gay.”
Prior to last year’s contest being cancelled, Vasil was set to sing “You” in Rotterdam. The song was the subject of much discussion amongst Eurovision fans, who criticised the music video for “straight-washing” Vasil and hiding his true LGBTQ+ identity. Fans picked up on some homoerotic sexual tension between Vasil and the bartender, yet later, he is shown dancing with a woman.
But Vasil didn’t have the liberty to express his sexuality freely. “Many of my fans — my Eurovision fans — were like ‘why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that?’ Because I can’t, is the answer”, he explains. “Do I want to do it? Yes, I want to do it, but you have to realise I don’t have the freedom to do it.”
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Now, Vasil realises that with his platform he has a responsibility to be a voice for those LGBTQ+ people in North Macedonia who need it the most. “I think having last year’s experience, having this [period of] contemplation and then having this change again with an original song that I’ve written, this is why I realised the responsibility I have to speak about this.”
LGBTQ+ people living in the Balkan nations face legal and political challenges that are less common in Western states. In North Macedonia, same-sex sexual activity wasn’t legalised until 1996, and an anti-LGBTQ-discrimination bill was only passed in October 2020 after years of heated discussions and legal battles. The path to LGBTQ+ acceptance in North Macedonia is a long and challenging road, but things are starting to look hopeful. In 2019, the country held its first ever Pride parade in Skopje. The small but groundbreaking event attracted around one thousand demonstrators.
But even with his star status, Vasil experiences swathes of hatred for his identity. Upon the release of the “Here I Stand” music video, the singer received backlash for including art depicting the Bulgarian flag. In what he described to wiwibloggs as an orchestrated hate attack, Vasil received countless hostile messages on social media from North Macedonian nationalists lobbying for his removal as the country’s Eurovision 2021 act.
“It came to a point where I couldn’t physically leave the house for about two weeks”, Vasil reveals to Attitude. “The main attack was homophobia. Still to this day I wake up to messages that are not the prettiest. I do not wish this on anybody.”
However, that’s not getting in his way. These attacks make Vasil more determined than ever to be a voice for LGBTQ+ people in his country, and remain open about and public about his identity. “To all the hate, I just say thank you, because you’ve inspired me to be even stronger.”
With just two weeks until Eurovision 2021 kicks off in Rotterdam, Vasil tells Attitude that he already feels like a winner. “To me, knowing that I’m going to be representing so many different facets, so many different groups, it’s one of the most rewarding feelings”, he enthuses. “I’m giving you my naked truth, and to me there is nothing more vulnerable and more powerful than that.”
You can read Vasil’s full interview with Attitude here.