Romania’s LGBT Community Rallies Against Intolerance

Claudia Ciobanu

This year’s Pride Parade in Bucharest was the biggest ever. And for those who took part, it was probably the most defiant.

Members of Romania's LGBT community attend the Gay Fest pride parade in Bucharest, June 9, 2018. About 2,000 people attended the parade. Photo: EPA-EFE/Bogdan Cristel

Waving rainbow flags under a blazing June sun, more than 5,000 people marched down Calea Victoriei avenue in the heart of the capital in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, rights.

Earlier in the day, far-right groups had organised a counter-rally of a few hundred people to oppose the march in the name of the “natural family”, by which they mean a heterosexual couple, married and with children.

The parade has been growing steadily over the 10-plus years it’s been happening in Bucharest as more and more people are drawn by the festivities – but there’s another reason it has grown in recent years.

Since 2015, a coalition of religious and pro-life groups dubbed “the Coalition for Family” has been spearheading a campaign to change the Romanian constitution to spell out that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Such a change would replace the gender-neutral language now used that marriage is “between spouses”, effectively eliminating the possibility of legalising gay marriage in a country that doesn’t recognize same-sex matrimony.

In 2015, assisted by the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Coalition for Family collected three million signatures calling for the constitution to be changed in this way – more than enough to submit a citizens’ bill to parliament on the matter.

The lower chamber approved the amendment in March but the bill has been stuck in parliamentary proceedings ever since. Once approved by the upper house, it will be put to a national referendum.

Never before has Romanian society paid more attention to LGBT people. While reports of hate speech and physical attacks have gone up since the Coalition for Family’s campaign started, there has also been an unexpected effect: more LGBT people are standing up for their rights and more allies are closing ranks around them.

“We’ve had more protest actions and bigger participation in Pride marches, and there is more support expressed for the legalisation of civil partnership,” said Vlad Viski of LGBT advocacy group MozaiQ.

“This has — paradoxically — opened up opportunities.”

A week before Pride, the European Court of Justice ruled – in a case watched with interest around Europe – that EU countries must recognise the immigration rights of same-sex spouses whether or not same-sex marriage is legal in the respective EU country.

The case was brought about by the battle of one couple, Romanian Adrian Coman and American Robert Hamilton, who had married in Belgium and wanted Hamilton to have residency rights in Romania based on their Belgian marriage certificate.

The Romanian constitutional court had referred the case to the European Court of Justice because the couple’s request contradicted Romania’s Civil Code, which does not allow for the recognition of same-sex marriages conducted abroad. The constitutional court is expected to accept the EJC’s ruling.

Some LGBT activists say the decision brings Romania a step closer to legalising civil partnerships for same-sex couples: once you recognise spousal privileges for same-sex couples married abroad, why not do the same for couples living in Romania?

“Now we can look in the eye any public officer in Romania and in the whole EU, having the certainty that our family relationship is as valuable and relevant no matter which EU state we live in,” Adrian Coman said on the day of the ruling in a statement distributed by LGBT rights group ACCEPT. “Today, human dignity won.”

While Coman and Hamilton were busy celebrating their court victory during the Bucharest Pride (they were clearly stars for people in the crowd, many of whom who took selfies with them), the Coalition for Family was interpreting the ruling in its own way.

“The decision of the European Court of Justice refers exclusively to the right of residency and it reaffirms national competencies when it comes to deciding on the definition of marriage,” said Ana-Corina Sacrieru, a lawyer for the Coalition for Family, after the ruling came in.

“This is an invitation to a referendum.”

The European Court of Justice has reiterated that laws on marriage are up to EU member states and its ruling concerns freedom of movement of spouses.

The court’s decision coincided with a renewed push by the Coalition for Family to set a date for the referendum on marriage in Romania.

In March, 40 European parliamentarians rallied by international partners of the coalition sent an open letter to Romanian political leaders asking them to speed up the timetable for the referendum.

In May, the coalition organised a panel and roundtable event on traditional family values in Romania’s parliament, during which speakers said that ignoring the voice of three million citizens was reminiscent of dictatorial times in Romania.

Liviu Dragnea, leader of the ruling Social Democrats, said last autumn that the referendum would take place as soon as possible “despite opposition from European partners”. Then it got pushed back to spring, and now a new delay at least until autumn seems inevitable.

The coalition’s campaign for constitutional change has revealed a conservative Romanian society where many believe that “queerness” is a pathology. Politicians across the political spectrum are supporting the constitutional change.

Yet the campaign has also made LGBT people more visible, giving society at large a chance to get to know non-straight people – and like them.

This month, bisexual dancer Emil Rengle, whose trademark is performing on extra high heels, won the popular TV show Romanians Have Talent, in which winners are partly chosen by public vote.

Rengle’s performance on victory night was a metaphoric appeal to be embraced as Romanian regardless of his sexual orientation – a direct challenge to the rhetoric of the Coalition for Family.

Rengle celebrated his victory at this month’s Pride. “We love in different ways, because God made us different,” the dancer told a press conference before the march.

Claudia Ciobanu is a Romanian freelance journalist who specialises in human rights, development and the environment.

Fellow Bio

/en/file/show/Claudia.jpg

Claudia Ciobanu

Claudia Ciobanu is a Romanian freelance journalist who specialises in human rights, development and the environment.