How Romania became a battleground in the transatlantic backlash against LGBT rights

Romania decriminalised homosexuality in 2001. Today it is witnessing a backlash against LGBT rights, supported by US Christian conservatives.

Sian Norris
14 December 2017

Orthodox church in Bucharest.jpg

Orthodox church in Bucharest. Photo: Sian Norris.

“What you have to understand,” says a man in his late 30s, “is the influence of the Orthodox Church. It’s…” he puts down his beer, searching for the word in English. “Mind control.”

In a late night jazz club in downtown Bucharest, I’m sitting with a group of young musicians chatting in a mix of Spanish, Italian and Romanian. “This bar is like our home,” one tells me, when I ask how they are allowed to stay past closing time, swapping stories and discussing music and films.

It’s my mention of the anti-LGBT organisation ‘Coalition for Family’ – a self-described "civic initiative…open to those who share the values of the family" – that provokes a heated conversation.

The Coalition is “awful,” says one woman. “They come up with these crazy excuses against gay marriage – saying if we allow this, then people will be able to marry their dogs.”

Romania decriminalised homosexuality in 2001. Today it is witnessing a backlash against LGBT rights from conservative and religious forces determined to protect ‘traditional family’ values, led by powerful domestic groups and their allies in the US Christian right.

The Coalition is “awful,” says one woman. “They come up with these crazy excuses against gay marriage – saying if we allow this, then people will be able to marry their dogs.”

A European Court of Justice case, originating from Romania, could impact definitions of marriage across the EU. A national referendum is also expected next year, to challenge how marriage is defined in the country’s constitution, which could frustrate any future attempts to legalise same-sex unions.

In November 2015, the Coalition for Family published a ‘Citizen’s Initiative’ – the first step in a system that allows Romanian citizens to "directly participate in the law-making process." It demanded that the constitution be changed to define marriage as between a man and woman exclusively (it currently uses the gender-neutral wording ‘two spouses’).

Same-sex marriage is not currently legal in Romania. However, the constitution’s current wording means that it could be legalised in the future without necessitating a constitutional amendment. The proposed change is a pre-emptive strike: this is the ultra-conservative anti-LGBT lobby on the offensive.

In 2016, the Coalition for Family said it had collected 3 million signatures in support of their citizens’ initiative. This kickstarted a process that led to parliament agreeing to hold a referendum. Parliamentary elections then delayed the vote, and a date is still to be announced.

In Bucharest, I visited the Coalition for Family to learn more about their campaign. Their office is housed behind huge red metal gates, not far from the city centre. An apologetic woman told me that she was too busy to talk, and said that I should email her instead. (I did, with no reply).

At leading LGBT rights organisation Accept, I’m welcomed by two tabby cats. The office is blooming with pot plants, and on the walls are colourful posters with messages of equality and freedom.

Over mugs of fruit tea, programme coordinator Teodora Ion-Rotaru told me that Accept tried to oppose the Coalition for Family’s referendum campaign in multiple ways.

“We first tried to monitor signature collection to see what was happening,” Ion-Rotaru told me. “We had multiple reports of teachers collecting signatures in high schools, and we reported that to the Ministry of Education.”

Churches were collecting signatures by putting lists up in their doorways and asking people to sign. In a homophobic society, it is very difficult for people to refuse to sign publicly, as they fear being labelled as gay if they challenge anything,” she said.

The Coalition did not respond to requests for comment on the collection of signatures, or their goals for the referendum.

Accept also prepared submissions for judicial and constitutional committees, Ion-Rotaru said, but “political parties sent their most homophobic members to represent them at the committees...There was no possibility of dialogue or middle ground.”

When parliament approved the referendum, Accept established a platform called Respect, which united more than 100 civil society organisations against the proposed constitutional change.

Ion-Rotaru said the backlash against the LGBT population has made many groups realise “that signing a piece of paper agreeing with Accept’s aims wasn’t enough.” Instead they needed to “take action” and come together in solidarity.

Accept and the wider LGBT community face a powerful enemy in domestic conservative groups such as the Coalition for Family, the Orthodox Church, and evangelical churches in Romania, as well as their international allies – including US-based Christian legal charity Liberty Counsel.

Described as a ‘hate group’ by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Liberty Counsel calls itself an organisation dedicated to “restoring the culture by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the family.”

Coalition offices in Bucharest.jpg

Coalition offices in Bucharest. Photo: Sian Norris.

In July 2016, it sent an amicus briefing to the Romanian government presenting a case for a referendum to change the constitutional definition of marriage and protect ‘traditional’ values.

It makes for difficult reading: it suggests that gay parents are more likely to commit child abuse, and makes wild claims that children of LGBT parents are more likely to be gay or asexual, mentally ill, or develop substance abuse issues.

This year, the group also sent Kim Davis on a speaking tour of Romanian towns and cities. As a Kentucky clerk whose job it was to issue marriage licenses, Davis won fame when she was briefly jailed in 2015 after refusing to do so for same-sex couples.

Liberty Counsel lawyers defended her case; last month the group described her as “courageous” in her refusal to “compromise...her faith.” Like the Coalition, this organisation also did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Over nine days in October, Davis met the Coalition for Family and four of the six top archbishops in Romania’s Orthodox Church, as well as representatives from family rights groups.

The aim of the tour, said the Counsel’s radio show, was to talk about “what happens when a country… goes the wrong way on the issue of marriage.” (Referring to the US, where in 2015 the supreme court guaranteed same-sex marriage rights in all states).

Davis spoke to thousands of ordinary Romanians in churches, cathedrals and conference halls. According to the Counsel, the tour would show: “unless you define marriage in your constitution, then you invite activists, judges or runaway legislators to bring in same sex marriage in a very anti-democratic fashion.”

The involvement of organisations like Liberty Counsel in Romania’s battle over LGBT rights clearly frustrates Ion-Rotaru. Having failed to stop equal marriage from being introduced in the US, she says, “they come to countries that are a lot more vulnerable.”

“They come to Romania where you have LGBT people who are more vulnerable to public pressure...who are a lot more vulnerable to hatred, to being discriminated against in their daily lives, in their workplace, and in school.”

“I cannot understand how these people speak about Christian values,” she added. “They are actually just trying to spread hatred... to mobilise Christians against other human beings. What they are doing is so much against the values they are preaching.”

“They are actually just trying to spread hatred... to mobilise Christians against other human beings. What they are doing is so much against the values they are preaching.”

The involvement of Liberty Counsel, and the welcome they received from the Coalition for Family, also angers activist Vlad Viski. A founding member of the grassroots LGBT organisation MozaiQ, he believes that Liberty Counsel is using “the referendum as a tool to further their agenda.”

“These organisations see eastern Europe as fertile ground to spread their anti-LGBT ideas,” he told me. “Having got involved in anti-LGBT work in Africa, they are reproducing here what they did there and using our popular consultations as a tool.”

ADF International, the global wing of the controversial US legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), has also supported the referendum campaign. In April, it co-hosted a "referendum for the family" conference at the Romanian Parliament in Bucharest, along with the Coalition for Family.

"The union between one man and one woman is timeless, universal, and unique. It expresses the reality that men and women bring distinct, irreplaceable gifts to family life," said ADF International lawyer Adina Portaru at the conference. The group also filed a friend-of-the-court brief with Romania's constitutional court in favour of the referendum.

A spokesperson for ADF International told 50.50 this week: "We should respect the sovereignty of countries when it comes to family and marriage law. We should let the people of Romania decide how they want to live and let not Brussels impose on them.”

Initially expected to happen in November 2017, some commentators are now saying the referendum will likely take place next year. Whatever happens with the vote, the fight to defend LGBT rights goes beyond the ballot box.

“The work of the Respect platform is not only about being against the referendum,” Ion-Rotaru told me. “Because the pushback from conservative forces is not going to stop with that… This is just the beginning.”

Translation and research assistance by Alexandra Mitrofan-Norris.

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