What would a world ruled by Mike Pence look like? The vice president-elect has made it clear that he would like to reverse 40 years of progress on abortion, women’s rights, and LGBT rights in the United States. A similar worldview is making strides in less developed countries around the world, as the American religious right is aggressively exporting its ideas to countries such as Uganda, Peru, and our native Romania, in the process finding powerful local allies. At the same time, in Romania a grassroots LGBT movement has emerged and has received support from wide sections of society.
In Romania the international organization Liberty Counsel (the organization that defended Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex-couples) is working with the Coalition for Family, a group of conservative and religious nongovernmental organizations, and the powerful Romanian Orthodox Church. They are calling for a referendum to change the Romanian constitution and redefine marriage as between a man and a woman. This effort might seem futile, as the Romanian Civil Code already bans same-sex marriages and does not recognize those performed abroad. Even more, Romanian law does not offer any legal protection to same-sex couples, as civil unions are not recognized. However, defining marriage in the constitution as between a man and a woman would make it exponentially more difficult for same-sex marriage to ever be legalized in Romania.
In spring 2016 the Coalition for Family gathered 2.7 million signatures on a petition to amend the constitution. The signature collection campaign initially set a target of 500,000 signatures, the minimum required for the Romanian Parliament to consider a constitutional amendment, but soon gathered many more. The coalition’s proposal was validated by the Constitutional Court in July, but it must be approved by the Parliament with a two-thirds majority and pass a national referendum before it becomes law.
Liberty Counsel submitted a brief to the Romanian Constitutional Court, stating that “engaging in homosexual conduct is dangerous” and describing with graphic language anal sexual acts. Moreover, according to Liberty Counsel, representatives of the organization met in October with “members of Romania’s Parliament, lawyers, judges, pastors, students and other community leaders.” Considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Liberty Counsel and its leader, Mat Staver, have a long history of international anti-LGBT activism, in Uganda, Peru, and Malawi.
The campaign to ban same-sex marriage received support from the Romanian Orthodox Church. The church is heavily involved in elections and thus maintains powerful control over politicians. It is a wealthy institution, with extended public holdings, that still receives financial support from taxpayers, and any legislative attempts to chip away at its power have been unsuccessful. However, the church has been losing some of the trust of the Romanian public, with opinion polls from 2015 noting that fewer than 57 percent of Romanians saw it as a trustworthy institution, down from 90 percent in 2003.
In this context, the Romanian LGBT community is enjoying an unprecedented visibility, as well as emerging public support. As more young people are coming out, groups have formed in various parts of the country. Today, Romania has three major LGBT NGOs and a few smaller ones. ACCEPT, the oldest such group in the country, is focused on legal reform. MozaiQ is a newer organization focused on building community from the grassroots up. TRANSform fights for the rights of transgender people.
Community events are also becoming more common. Over 2,500 people participated in Bucharest Pride in 2016, the highest attendance so far. Last year, Stela, the Roma lesbian whose biography has been widely read online, symbolically celebrated her marriage to her partner, Dana, in a ceremony that brought together the LGBT community in Bucharest. Outside of Bucharest, Cluj Napoca has the oldest LGBT film festival in Romania, which has run every year since 2004, while Timisoara, another city in western Romania, was recently named European Capital of Culture for the year 2021, a winning bid that integrated queer culture.
The Romanian independent art scene has been quick to explore topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Visual artist Virginia Lupu’s photographs, which document Bucharest’s transgender sex workers; choreographer Paul Dunca’s Institutul Schimbării, a show based on oral histories of Romanian transgender people; writer Adrian Șchiop’s novel Soldații. Poveste din Ferentari, a gay love story set on the margins of Bucharest; and trans director Patrick Brăila’s short film Pieptiș are just a few recent examples of this trend.
The LGBT community has also been busy responding to the Coalition for Family’s campaign. In May, when the coalition submitted the signatures to Parliament, activists initiated a counterpetition, with the goal of collecting 1,000 signatures from public figures. They instead garnered 15,000 in just 24 hours. In July, when the Constitutional Court approved the coalition’s proposal to amend the constitution, activists took to the streets in an unauthorized protest. More recently, on November 19, one week into the campaign for the recent parliamentary elections, the LGBT community took to the streets again.
Romanian public opinion seems to be changing as well. Many mainstream journalists have publicly expressed their support for civil unions. Even the president of Romania chose to express his opposition to the Coalition for Family’s efforts. Summoned by the leader of an evangelical church to clarify his position on same-sex marriage, President Klaus Iohannis declared in October that he was “against religious fanaticism.”
“I believe in tolerance, trust, and openness toward each another,” he said.
Similarly unprecedented is the level of support for same-sex marriage among Romanians. According to a Eurobarometer poll from 2015, 21 percent percent support same-sex marriage, while 36 percent of Romanians support equal rights for LGBT citizens. In a country where homosexuality was criminalized until 2001, this counts as significant progress.
Other legal efforts are likely to undermine the success of the Coalition for Family. On November 27, the Romanian Constitutional Court again postponed its ruling on the marriage of Adrian Coman, a Romanian gay rights activist, and Claibourn Robert Hamilton, an American graphic designer, who wed in Belgium in 2010. They are represented by the LGBT organization ACCEPT. The court has asked for the opinion of the European Court of Justice — considered a positive development by supporters of marriage equality and by the couple’s lawyer. The case has been put on hold for now.
Of course, Romanian LGBT activists and their supporters still face an uphill battle in their struggle against the well-funded, international religious right and its allies. Even if legalized, civil unions may represent a compromise, at best — one that could solidify, in a different way, the status of the LGBT community as second-class citizens, and even delay full equality. However, an unexpected effect of the crusade against same-sex marriage led by Liberty Counsel, the Coalition for Family, and the Romanian Orthodox Church is the unprecedented visibility and support Romanian LGBT activists have gained in 2016. One can’t help but notice that a long, cold winter for the Romanian LGBT community has finally come to a much-awaited thaw.
VLAD VISKI is a Romanian gay activist and president of MozaiQ, a community-based LGBT organization. He received his master’s degree in political science from the Central European University, with a thesis on the history of the gay and lesbian social movement in Romania after 2001.
Originally from Romania, VOICHITA NACHESCU received her doctorate in women’s studies from the University at Buffalo. Her research and teaching focus on gender and sexuality in Eastern Europe and the history of feminism in the United States.