The Transylvanian city of Cluj held its first Pride parade last weekend; the latest initiative by local campaigners to push back against right-wing forces.
In Romania in November 2015 an initiative to ban gay marriage in was published in the country’s Official Gazette (‘Monitorul Oficial al Romaniei’).
Since then, a conservative wave has been fanned by the so-called Coalition for Family, an organization spearheading the attempt to change the Romanian Constitution and define marriage as only the union between a man and a woman.
In Eastern Europe, similar movements have been developing since early 2000s. Even though the European Union has promoted LGBTI rights, including such rights as a priority for candidate for accession states, the relationship between gay and lesbian rights and Brussels has been a rather sinuous one.
At the same time, with the Eastern enlargement, we have seen a revival of conservative forces across the continent. On many occasions, LGBT rights have become the contested territory where nationalism and ‘Being European’ clash.
Across Eastern Europe
In 2004 and 2005, mayor Lech Kaczyński banned the gay pride in Warsaw, Poland, claiming to have done so in order to protect the city from ‘homosexual lifestyle’.
Kaczyński’s actions were not isolated: Conservative parties forged deals with the powerful Catholic Church in order to demonize LGBTI people.
These actions resulted in two outcomes. In 2006, Warsaw Pride attracted its largest ever crowd, with 20,000 participants. Although civil unions legislation has not been passed yet, a new, anti-corruption, populist party has adopted civil unions legislation as part of its official party platform.
A similar debate over the role of LGBTI people took place in Hungary in 2011, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban changed the Constitution to ban gay marriage and placed the so-called ‘traditional family’ at the core of his party platform. At the time, it held a large majority in the Parliament.
In 2006, Lithuania tried to ban ‘homosexual propaganda’, while in 2015 Slovakia held a referendum to ban gay marriages.
This led to a legislative-led ban on gay marriages in the Constitution. In 2013, Croatia held a similar referendum resulting in a 65% to 35% victory for the conservative movement.
In Romania, the initiative to ban gay marriages raised about 3 million signatures, using the outreach networks of the powerful Orthodox Church.
In July 2016, the Romanian Constitutional Court gave the green light for the initiative to move to the Parliament, while in October 2016 Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis came out against the initiative.
On 9 May 2017, the Chamber of Deputies approved the initiative with a large majority of over 70 percent. The attempted legislation to ban gay marriage in the Constitution lays now in the Senate, but some procedural hiccups are to be expected, as the Constitutional Court recently ruled that the constitutional proceedings had not necessarily been duly respected.
For the past two years, Romania has been going through a major, national debate surrounding the rights of LGBTI citizens. The LGBTI community has had to play a front and center role in this debate.
For the Coalition for Family and the extreme right wing, the strategy consisted of the constant demonization and pathologization of LGBTI people. They promote conversion therapy as a viable option; they claim gender identity is a hoax; and often compare homosexuality with pedophilia.
The same groups are behind a push against reproductive rights for women and sexual education in Romanian schools. Their connections with both Russian-backed and American alt-right and neoprotestantant groups have been uncovered by Romanian media.
Cluj Pride in Transylvania
On the other hand, the LGBTI community has seen an unprecedented show of solidarity coming from other parts of society. More and more allies are joining the fight and the community itself has been revived.
In July 2016, people took out to the streets in an unauthorized protest. In November 2016, the first political LGBTI-themed march took place, while in 2016 and 2017 Bucharest Pride has had over 2,500 people in attendance.
Then, last weekend on 1 July 2017, in the Transylvanian city of Cluj Napoca, the first Pride march took place. It was the first time that a Romanian city outside the capital, Bucharest, hosted such an event. It was a major step forward for the LGBTI community.
Over 1,000 people participated in Cluj Pride. Even though the local mayor initially refused to approve the march, the event took place after pressure from civil society groups. Cluj Pride is just the latest example of the opportunities for the LGBTI community to mobilize in the streets.
One recent interesting aspect about the public debate on gay marriage in Romanian society has to do with the Orthodox Church. The Romanian Orthodox Church has had to manage a series of internal sex scandals, with priests being accused of being homosexuals. Recordings of private conversations have been leaked to the media, and there have been reports of blackmail.
The fight goes on
I hope this provides insight into the adventures of the LGBTI community in Romania over the past two years.
The debate over banning gay marriage in the Constitution is not over yet. Politicians seem reluctant to move on quicker to a national referendum, but nevertheless they find trapped by the Orthodox Church, which brings in votes and still plays an important role in the political life of the country.
However, LGBTI activists continue to seek out opportunities to advance their right, including a possible legalization of civil unions. The fight goes on.
Vlad Viski is the President of the MozaiQ Association
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