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Feature 17 May 17

LGBT Community Struggles for Acceptance in Romania

As the world marks International Day Against Homophobia, Romania has a long way to go in terms of respecting LGBT rights. 

Ana Maria Touma
BIRN
Bucharest
Romania decriminalized homosexuality in 2001, but the country still ranks low in the EU in terms of MGBT rights. Photo:CJF20/Flikr.

Pride Week is ongoing in Romania, where Vlad Viski, a spokesperson for the LGBT rights group MozaiQ, believes the community is finally mobilizing in defence of its rights.

He expects more people than ever to show up for the Bucharest Pride Parade on May 20. “Change happens in moments of crisis, when the community is under attack,” he told BIRN.

Viski, aged 29, says that ever since 2001, when homosexuality was finally decriminalised in Romania, until 2015, when the Coalition for the Family submitted its initiative to constitutionally redefine the family as a “consensual marriage between a man and a woman”, Romania’s LGBT community failed to come together.

“Until 2015, we were in a sort of lethargy, and suddenly there was a change in the political context. The appearance of the Coalition for the Family led to a stronger mobilisation of civil society and of the community,” he added.

In addition to the worrying constitutional changes that are now awaiting passage through the Senate, the upper chamber of parliament, attitudes towards the LGBTI population remain highly negative in Romania generally.

The community also faces poor access to health care while cases of violence are all too often not resolved.

The LGBT community in Romania has come a long way since 2004, however, when the first planned Bucharest Pride Parade had to be cancelled.

The next year, it was a struggle to win authorisation from the City Hall, with both nationalists and the powerful Romanian Orthodox Church opposing it.

For a few years, the number of people taking part in events was no higher than 300. Violent counter-demonstrations led to clashes with the police and arrests.

But last year’s Gay Pride drew no less than 2,500 people, including politicians, diplomats and even pop stars.

Romania’s LGBT community and the supporters of their rights were suddenly more assertive after their rights came under attack from the Coalition for the Family, Viski told BIRN.

The activist studied political science in France and the United States. In 2008, right after he started studies at State University in California, he married his partner, Nicholas. He returned to Romania in 2012 and founded MozaiQ with a group of friends to work on forming more cohesive LGBT communities across the country.

Romanians still hostile to gays, generally:

According to the 2015 Eurobarometer on discrimination, Romanians have the lowest rate of approval for sexual minorities in the whole of the EU.

The study showed that only 36 per cent of Romanians believe that gay, lesbian and bisexual people should have the same rights as heterosexuals and only 24 per cent believe there is nothing wrong with a relationship between two people of the same sex. Only 21 per cent think gay marriage should be legal across Europe.

Percentages are close to this in the EU only in Slovakia, where a referendum on banning gay marriage failed in 2015 because not enough people voted.

Romania is also among the last countries in the EU not to recognise any form of civil union between people of the same sex.

Former Green Party MP Remus Cernea, a staunch supporter of LGBT rights, came under fire from trying to push a bill to grant same-sex marriages the same rights as heterosexual ones.

Parliament rejected his bill heavily; only two senators and four deputies voted in favour of it.

A second bill on civil partnership has made through the human rights commission in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, and is set to be discussed in the legal committee.

However, the Coalition for the Family has collected 3 million signatures in 2015in support of its initiative to amend the constitution, redefining the family in strictly heterosexual terms.

After the lower chamber of parliament approved the amendment in late March, the Senate will discuss it after June 7. It will then put it to a national referendum within a month of that vote.

Activists hope the bill will be rejected in the Senate. In order to pass, it needs the backing of two-thirds of Senators.

LGBT and human rights NGOs claim the signature-collection process took place in schools.

The Ministry of Education has declared that the ministry instructed school administrators to respect the law that bans political activity in schools but there has been no follow-up on whether the instructions were respected.

As of October 2016, a lawsuit initiated by a Romanian–American gay couple who married in Belgium and want their marriage recognized in Romania is also still ongoing.

The Constitutional Court is hearing the case and has asked the European Court of Justice for a point of view. The ECJ has said it is still deliberating.

Discrimination and bullying remain widespread:

According to US State Department 2016 human rights report, although Romanian law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, numerous incidents suggest the country’s law-enforcement agencies tolerate violence against LGBT people.

The LGBT rights NGO Accept in 2016 noted tworeports of police failing to intervene or to receive complaints from LGBT individuals who experienced violence and abuse in Bucharest.

In both cases, the perpetrators targeted gay men or individuals affiliated with the LGBT community who were entering or leaving bars frequented by LGBT persons.

The report also says bullying remains a problem in high schools, in the absence of real discussion about diversity, equality, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Comprehensive sexual education programs are also absent from the curriculum.

In March 2016, Accept released a study on perceptions and attitudes related to LGBT students in Romanian high schools.

About 25 per cent of pupils said they believed gay persons were inferior while 50 per cent said they would not accept a gay classmate. Another 40 per cent said they believed gay persons should not hold teaching posts.

Of the LGBT pupils included in the survey, 71 per cent said they did not feel safe at school, particularly emotionally, while 61 per cent claimed they had been victims of or had witnessed anti-gay aggression. About 65 per cent said their teachers had made homophobic remarks.

Lack of public voices and cultural space:

Viski says the community needs more representation in the public sphere. “We have few voices for a country of 20 million people … and this is a vicious circle: until 2001, there was a history of arrests and violent state aggression, and this created a sort of fear that prevents many people from opening up, even after Romania removed article 200 [which criminalized homosexuality] from the Criminal Code.”

He also says there is also an acute need for specialised healthcare. After decriminalisation in 2001, there was wave of sympathy from Western organisations and governments and much investment was made in building a community.

This stopped in 2012, however, when the global fund for fighting HIV left Romania because it now considered it a “developed” country.  Its activities should have been taken over by the Ministry of Health, but no national strategy on HIV has ever been drafted.

Organisations filling the void in terms of counseling and support for vulnerable people in the LGBT community, such as HIV positive people, are short of funds.

Transsexual people are at a particular disadvantage because there are no medical personnel to meet their needs, whether they are for sex change surgery or a session with a qualified psychologist.

Since 1990, only six or seven transsexual people in Romania have managed to go through the entire process of getting a court order to change their names and social security numbers.

Another problem is that there is also no real space for the LGBT community to meet. Apart from a few clubs where people meet informally, no cultural or social spaces bring people together, Viski added.

He says his organisation has been working on this for the past five three years: trying to create cohesive communities with several centres in the country.

It is an uphill battle, but Viski remains cheerful. “I’m an optimist. Things did improve. Especially, the dialogue with the state institutions is more open and politicians are, more or less, reachable,” he concluded.

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