Words: Will Stroude
When Vasil Garvanliev declares early on in our interview that being gay is probably the least interesting thing about him, it's hard to argue: Born in 1984 in the city of Strumica - then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - North Macedonia's 2021 Eurovision representative is a former child star whose family fled to the US in the late '90s at the onset of the war in Kosovo - only to find his refugee status revoked, along with many others, a few short years later in the wake of 9/11.
After an already difficult period as a non-English-speaking, closeted, once-famous musical prodigy thrust into the shark tank of the US school system, the expulsion of Vasil's family from the United States just as he was due to head to college sparked a nomadic, international lifestyle for the classically trained singer, who spent time performing opera in London, Toronto and Chicago before returning to his native country three years ago to pursue a pop career.
Here I Stand: Vasil is one of the first high profile figures in North Macedonia to come out publicly (Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi)
Despite being out to close friends and family for the best part of two decades, what is also true is that Vasil's sexuality will, inescapably, become one of the most interesting parts of the 36-year-old's story when he delivers anthemic entry 'Here I Stand' at the Eurovision Song Contest later this month. Why? He'll be taking to the stage in Rotterdam as one of the first high profile figures in North Macedonia to ever come out publicly as gay.
"The lyric that sticks in my mind is 'My walls are down, my heart is in your hands', Vasil tells Attitude of his empowering Eurovision entry, which he wrote shortly after the cancellation of last year's contest, where he had also been due to represent North Macedonia.
"My gut 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 - which happens to be the most uninteresting thing about me, the fact that I am gay."
Reflecting love: Vasil hopes to inspire LGBTQ people in the Balkans still living in fear (Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi)
Like much of the Balkans, North Macedonia lags well behind Western Europe when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance: Same-sex sexual activity wasn't legalised until 1996, and it took until October last year for any further legal progress to be made, when an anti LGBTQ-discrimination bill was passed after years of legal wrangling over the issue. It was only in 2019 that the country's first Pride parade took place in the capital, Skopje: a small but ground-breaking event that attracted around a thousand demonstrators.
"I was born and raised in Macedonia where it is definitely not OK to be gay, or any of that", reflects Vasil, who says the majority of the country's modern LGBTQ scene remains "hush hush."
"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."
That taste of freedom came after Vasil's temporary relocation to the US as an adolescent. Renowned throughout the Balkan region after releasing his debut album aged just eight, a long-haired, previously "happy-go-lucky" Vasil came to terms with his sexuality while at high school in Chicago, where he was immediately ostracised by his classmates as a "very androgynous", non-English speaking newcomer.
"My mother had told me we were going to American to do a tour – not moving, just going," he explains. "And then when we got to Chicago she said 'this is our new life, there will be no more singing'."
Vasil recalls attending his first gym class at junior high: with only the most basic grasp of English, he remembers the whole class pointing and laughing after he nodded 'yes' to a question from the teacher he didn't understand.
Sticks and stones: After bein subjected to homophobia in his youth and more recently online, Vasil is rising above the hate (Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi)
It was only years later, after getting to grips with English, he found out the question had been 'Are you a girl?'"
Despite his family's roots in conservative Macedonia, Vasil says received unconditional support when he came out to his "very modern" mother in a letter aged 16.
"She said that she already knew when I was young, which was very shocking, for somebody from Eastern Europe to be so open and aware. I’m very thankful for that", he says, adding tellingly: "She was very supportive because she never thought I would come back to Macedonia."
After brief spells in Milan and London following his family's ejection from the States, Vasil's vocal talents took him to Toronto, where he landed a full scholarship at the prestigious Glenn Gould School. He would remain in Canada for a decade as he established a career as a leading classical opera singer, all the while living as an openly gay man.
Standing tall: Vasil will take to the Eurovision stage in Rotterdam with his empowering anthem 'Here I Stand' this month (Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi)
Back in his native North Macedonia, his sexuality remained an open secret amongst relatives - albeit one that was never discussed or acknowledged directly.
"I was closeted to relatives [in Macedonia] until I was 27, 28", explains Vasil. "I would visit but no one would talk about it.
"When my brother got married in Macedonia, they had a huge wedding and my partner at the time sat at the main table, and it was amazing to me because no one really questioned it. But again... we did not go about screaming [about] it."
After navigating this uneasy international dichotomy for almost two decades, Vasil made the decision in 2018 to move back to North Macedonia permanently to focus on a career in pop music - something which immediately opened his personal life up to the ceaseless scrutiny of Macedonian tabloids and left him feeling "caged".
"I was like ‘holy smokes, I feel like I have to be closeted after living an open life for twenty-plus years’," Vasil exclaims.
A brighter future: Vasil says he felt "caged" after returning to North Macedonia full-time three years ago (Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi)
"If somebody asked me directly, I would have answered the question. But no one dares to say it."
The Eurovision hopeful goes on: "Often in Macedonia it’s hard because of grammar: you cannot say ‘I like somebody’. You have to say ‘I like this boy’ or ‘I like this girl’. So it’s very hard for people here. You can’t even say ‘I have a crush’, because in Macedonian you have to say ‘I have a crush on a boy’, that’s the way the grammar works. It's very hard for people to even bring up that topic."
Vasil adds: "I did not have to think about what a lot of these young people growing up [here] face, until I moved back. It made me really sympathise with people here who cannot even allow themselves to think about [being gay] or say it out loud.
"That is my main inspiration for why I want to speak out about this."
Having been privately out as a gay man for much of his career, speculation about Vasil's sexuality quickly began spilling into the public sphere when his involvement in Eurovision was announced in 2020, and the singer received online criticism when the video for last year's entry, 'You', featured him dancing with a woman.
Vasil, who readily admits he's been pressured not to give this interview, reinforces that in North Macedonia, being an out gay man in the public eye is almost completely unheard of.
"It’s interesting because our community, the LGBTQ community, was the one attacking with that fact of ‘why is Vasil not dancing with a boy?’," he comments.
"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. 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."
Vasil explains that the pause in day-to-day life prompted by the pandemic removed "the noise" and helped him realise that upon his return to Eurovision he wanted to provide a "voice for the voiceless" in Macedonia and beyond.
"I think having last year’s experience, having this [period of] contemplation and then having this chance again with an original song that I’ve written, this is why I realised the responsibility I have to speak about this," he explains.
Time for transparency: Vasil's sexuality has been the subject of tabloid and social media speculation since his return to North Macedonia (Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi)
"But still I have to be careful not to hurt the ‘big guy’, so to speak."
Vasil's decision to speak publicly about his sexuality for the first time comes hot on the heels of a fiery national controversy surrounding the video for 'Here I Stand'. Shot in the National Gallery of Macedonia, the clip included a shot of a piece of artwork which some perceived to represent the Bulgarian flag, sparking outrage in a region where ethnic and cultural conflict remains very much a part of the everyday political discourse.
The performer's status as a dual national and Bulgarian passport holder only heightened the fury behind what the singer calls an "orchestrated attack" by nationalist trolls: Petitions calling for his removal as North Macedonia's Eurovision representative amassed thousands of signatories, and Vasil was subjected to "hundreds" of hostile messages each day on social media; many of which were homophobic.
"It came to a point where I couldn’t physically leave the house for about two weeks," reveals Vasil, who adds that the artwork's resemblance to the Bulgarian flag was purely coincidental and that he is "probably the proudest Macedonian there is."
Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi
"The main attack was homophobia", he continues. "Still to this day I wake up to messages that are not the prettiest. I do not wish this on anybody. I thought ‘If I was 17 or 18 and got this, I see how little kids get silenced."
While some might have chosen to keep their heads down in the wake of such a heated controversy, Vasil says the attacks only made him more determined to speak publicly about his sexuality and become an "ambassador" for LGBTQ people in the Balkans.
"It made me think ‘I now wish to sing even better, to silence the hate with love, positive energy and beautiful music," he declares.
"To all the hate, I just say thank you, because you’ve inspired me to be even stronger."
With just two weeks to go until the Eurovision Song Contest gets underway in The Netherlands, Vasil admits he already feels "like a winner" - and with the support of the always-LGBTQ-friendly Eurovision family seems surely assured.
Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi
"I can hardly wait to do it", the 'Here I Stand' singer enthuses. "It’s a liberation for me, but hopefully and inspiration for others as well.
"Eurovision itself to me is beautiful because it is a tapestry of culture... To me, knowing that I’m going be representing so many different facets, so many different groups, it’s one of the most rewarding feelings."
I ask how he hopes those back at home in North Macedonia will react to seeing an out gay man representing the nation on a global platform at Eurovision. Vasil pauses momentarily.
"[I hope] that people will see me as a human being with a heart," he replies. "I trust deeply in my heart [that] this is the right decision because I’m giving you my naked truth, and to me there is nothing more vulnerable and more powerful than that.
United through music: Vasil says he'll be representing both North Macedonia and the LGBTQ community when he steps out on the Eurovision stage (Photography by Martin Trajanovski; creative direction by Jelmaz Dervishi)
"There’s a saying that I love: 'the ones who mind don’t matter, and the ones who matter won’t mind'."
As our interview draws to an end, and with the North Macedonian reaction to Vasil's public coming out still very much in the ether, the Eurovision star casts his mind back once again to the schoolyard bullies who targeted him as a closeted young refugee in Chicago.
"It happened only until I sang," he says wryly. "The moment I sang, it shut everybody up..."
'Here I Stand' by Vasil is available to stream and download now.
The Eurovision Song Contest Semi Finals air 18 and 20 May on BBC Four in the UK. The Eurovision Grand Final airs 22 May on BBC One.