Trans day of remembrance vigil in Bucharest. Photo: Sian Norris.
It was freezing cold outside the Italian embassy in Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, on a late November evening. But the sudden drop in temperature didn't put off a group of LGBT right activists who gathered here for Trans Day of Remembrance.
Holding candles, they stood in front of a rainbow flag with "TransMem" penned across it. On the pavement were photocopied pictures of a young Romanian trans women, Laura, who was recently murdered in Italy.
A couple of people held each other, tears in their eyes, as a trans woman in jeans and a jacket shared Laura’s story. “She could have been me,” the woman said, her voice clear and determined. “She could have been so many of our brothers and sisters.”
Why have you come here today? I asked a young man carrying a tote bag emblazoned with a rainbow, the symbol of LGBT pride. “Because it is important to show our solidarity with the trans community,” he said. “It is the first Romanian trans person that we know who was killed.”
“Because it is important to show our solidarity with the trans community,” he said. “It is the first Romanian trans person that we know who was killed.”
Handing out candles to the assembled group was Vlad Viski, founding member of the activist group MozaiQ. Two days after the vigil we met in a Bucharest cafe, to discuss the challenges facing the LGBT rights movement in Romania.
“I came back to Romania in 2015, having studied abroad,” he told me, as tinny Euro-pop blared out from the TV screen behind us. “And there was already a group of activists, artists and people from the corporate world coming together to discuss the need for a new LGBT rights organisation.”
“At that time, there was only Accept, who focused on the legal and lobbying side of things,” he said, referring to the established, leading LGBT rights charity. “We wanted to create a group that dealt with the community itself, and MozaiQ became the missing piece of that puzzle.”
Viski and his colleagues wanted MozaiQ to be a political activist group, but also to provide social and cultural activities for the LGBT community. From sports clubs to board game nights, it aims to “forge bonds between people and take a more social approach to issues,” said Viski. “Not everyone wants to get involved in direct activism.”
But, a few months after MozaiQ was founded, the atmosphere around LGBT rights in Romania became a lot more hostile.
In November 2015, the Christian ‘family rights’ group, Coalition for Family, published a ‘Citizens’ Initiative’ and collected 3 million signatures seeking a referendum to change Romania’s constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman exclusively.
Same-sex marriage is not currently legal in Romania; the proposed constitutional change would preempt efforts introduce marriage equality in the future. Last year, the Romanian parliament approved a referendum on the issue. However, the 2016 parliamentary elections delayed the vote and a date for the referendum is yet to be set.
This very public backlash against LGBT rights caused MozaiQ to evolve – and quickly. “On the day Romania’s constitutional court gave the green light to the Citizens’ Initiative,” Viski told me, “we went out in the streets to protest the decision.”
“A few months later, during the 2016 parliamentary elections, we organised a march called God Doesn’t Do Politics,” he added. “Our strategy now is visibility.”
But visibility in a country where homosexuality has only been legal for 16 years (same-sex relations were decriminalised in Romania in 2001) is not easy.
Bucharest. Photo: Sian Norris.
Since the Coalition for Family launched its citizens’ initiative, Viski said there has been “an increase in hate speech in the public arena from the Coalition and from the Orthodox Church.”
Viski said he and and his colleagues in MozaiQ have seen “an increase in violent physical attacks against LGBT people, with more people being beaten on the streets and coming to us.”
This has not forced the LGBT community into hiding. Rather, Viski believes that being confronted with an emboldened and vocal opposition “kind of gave a boost to the community and the movement itself. It shook things up.”
“More LGBT people are coming out to their families and in the media,” he said, and the threat of a referendum has given MozaiQ and its allies more public exposure and attention.
MozaiQ has worked with partner organisations to host public debates in town halls across Romania, inviting politicians to share their views on LGBT issues, equal marriage and civil unions.
Pride poster in Accept offices in Bucharest. Photo: Sian Norris.
Last year saw the country’s biggest ever Pride parade in Bucharest, with a sister march in Cluj. Viski became a familiar face on TV screens, keeping his cool as he debates conservative and Orthodox figures determined to, in his words, “trash gay people.”
“Before, maybe people were on the fence,” Viski told me. “Maybe they didn’t care about the issue. But having this public national debate has forced them to take a stand and join the movement. That’s the positive side of it.”
“Maybe they didn’t care about the issue. But having this public national debate has forced them to take a stand and join the movement. That’s the positive side of it.”
However, there’s a long way to go to create an LGBT-welcoming environment in Romania. There’s still a lack of LGBT voices in the media, where “conservative voices...are always present,” said Viski, adding: “we don’t have gay couples that are present in TV shows.”
We left the giddy Euro-pop behind us to go and sit on the upstairs terrace, despite the chilly weather. I asked Viski if he feels optimistic about LGBT rights in Romania. He smiled.
“I kind of have to be optimistic, it’s like – my job!” he said. But, he added: “We live in a regional context where you have a backlash against progressive rights in Poland, in Hungary, in Russia, in Turkey... you see this slip towards authoritarianism and that’s being done against gay rights.”
“At the same time, for the very first time since 2001 when homosexuality was decriminalised, we have this chance to tell our story. To shape our identity in the public arena,” he said.
The young man at the vigil told me something similar. He said: “Our greatest hope, whether we win or lose the referendum, is that the LGBT community will come together and be stronger. That we’ll be able to use that strength to one day win.”
Translation and research assistance by Alexandra Mitrofan-Norris.