The Latest Battle for the Future of Romania’s LGBTIQ Community
Romania’s proposed bill to ban mention of ‘gender identity’ across education is the latest assault on an already vulnerable community’s rights
“Who would have thought that, in the middle of a pandemic, the first to rise up would be trans people,” activist and founder of Romanian LGBTIQ rights organisation MozaiQ, Vlad Viski, told attendees of a virtual meeting organised by the UK’s Feminist Library. “Trans people have nothing to lose in Romania. They are ready to fight for their rights.”
The meeting was organised in response to a bill banning educational institutions from “propagating theories and opinion on gender identity according to which gender is a separate concept from biological sex”. It was passed by Romania’s Parliament on 16 June and is now being considered by the country’s President.
The ban is, according to Viski, “part of a global backlash against what the far-right and Religious Right call ‘gender ideology’” – a term coined by the Vatican in the mid-1990s to position progress on women’s and LGBTIQ rights as an ideological attack on traditional values.
Irina Ilisei, founder of feminist organisation FRONT Feminism Romania agrees: “It is coming from a heteronormative, conservative narrative that is sweeping Eastern Europe.”
Following the bill’s announcement, protests took place outside the Parliament building in Romania’s capital city of Bucharest. Taking the lead was the small but increasingly vocal transgender community who – despite facing death threats, rising transphobia and a global pandemic – came out onto the streets to expose how they will be most adversely affected by the bill’s proposals.
Activist and president of sex worker rights campaign SexWorkCall Antonella Lerca Duda argues that the bill seeks to “invalidate young trans people’s identity, and erase us”.
It will forbid conversation about gender in schools and civic education, so we will no longer be able to talk about harmful gender stereotypes and gender-based violence.Irina Ilisei
Academics and students are also challenging the bill on the basis that it is unconstitutional, claiming that it infringes academic freedoms, freedom of speech and educational freedom. The University of Bucharest issued a statement saying that it “contradicts some fundamental rights” and that it “is a blatant example of interference in education and free expression”.
“For the young transgender community it will be very hard if this law passes,” Lerca Duda explains. “A lot of young transgender people don’t know what is happening with their bodies and identity, and they don’t know where to access information. We know even before this law that the transgender community is not very okay. And now it will be harder for them.”
Although the LGBTIQ community is the bill’s primary target, it will also have an impact on women’s equality, in a country which already has high rates of violence against women.
“A lot of people have talked about the bill as a ban on gender studies,” Ilisei says. “But it is deeper than that. It will forbid conversation about gender in schools and civic education, so we will no longer be able to talk about harmful gender stereotypes, gender-based violence, or anything critical on how gender is constructed.”
Romania has a difficult history when it comes to women’s and LGBTIQ rights.
Homosexuality has only been legal since 2001, and gay and lesbian men and women were regularly imprisoned for their sexual identity throughout the 1990s. Although attitudes are starting to shift, Romania remains deeply conservative.
“There are still no laws formally recognising homosexual relationships,” Viski told the virtual event. “There is no HIV strategy and few protections for transgender people.”
The state’s fragile relationship with its LGBTIQ community has been thrust into the spotlight in recent years, with the Religious Right organisation ‘Coalition For The Family’ calling in 2016 for a referendum to amend Romania’s Constitution to define marriage as between “a man and a woman” as opposed to “spouse”. Its aim was to pre-emptively ban same-sex marriage, although the eventual 2018 vote was declared invalid due to low turnout.
The campaign had a positive impact in raising the visibility of the LGTBIQ community who came out to fight against the referendum. At the same time, it led to a rise in public homophobia, as the coalition and its allies in the Church used the campaign to spread anti-LGBTIQ messages in schools, on television, in congregations – even on bread packaging in the supermarket.
They were supported in their efforts by US “religious freedom” giants and designated “hate groups” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Liberty Counsel. ADF has spent millions of dollars in Europe over the past 10 years – including $410,000 in the UK since 2017.
Both the ADF and Liberty Counsel provided amicus briefings to the Romanian Government packed with anti-LGBTIQ disinformation, including that the children of gay couples are more likely to experience substance abuse and child neglect. Liberty Counsel also organised for former registrar Kim Davies, who was briefly jailed in the US for refusing to officiate at a gay wedding, to tour Romania’s churches in the run-up to the referendum. The tour was designed to spread the anti-equal marriage message and urge Romania to protect ‘the family’.
“These American conservative movements see that in Romania it is very easy to influence the people because we are a religious society and we are a new democracy,” Lerca Duda says. “They tell lies about the LGBT community because they want to eradicate our movement before we can even start to grow.”
Two years on, Romania’s LGBTIQ community is under attack again.
“With this law, the transphobia is double,” Lerca Duda says. “I get messages saying they will kill me – to get off TV, not to go outside or I will be killed. I didn’t have this before the bill.”
The rise in transphobia also has a dangerous impact on some of the most vulnerable people in the LGBTIQ community – transgender sex workers. “They are afraid to go to work because they are scared men will pretend to be clients, but are actually there to attack them,” Lerca Duda explains.
Romania is not alone in this backlash against ‘gender ideology’. Neighbouring countries are also pursuing a war against gender studies and identity.
In 2018, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban banned gender studies from being taught in the country’s universities. Weeks before Romania passed its bill, he went further and banned legal recognition of transgender identities. Further north, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda ran his successful 2020 re-election campaign with a promise to “ban the propagation of LGBT ideology in public institutions”.
The struggle is not confined to the east. UK groups such as Parent Power, Voice for Justice and the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child have also launched attacks on inclusive sex and relationships education – with backing from Westminster MPs.
Lerca Duda, Viski and Ilisei believe that the Romanian Government used the Coronavirus crisis to push the bill through Parliament behind closed doors.
“There was no consultation with NGOs and activists,” Ilisei explains. “There was no public debate. The pandemic is providing cover for the Government to pass anti-women, anti-LGBTIQ laws.”
Now, the hopes of the LGBTIQ community are pinned on Romania’s President, Klaus Iohannis, who can reject the bill and return it to Parliament, preventing the ban. Its opponents are determined to use the energy from the protests, alongside international pressure and solidarity, to force the President’s hand and protect their rights.
But, even if the Bill is rejected, the fight for LGBTIQ equality in Romania is not over.
“We need an intersectional movement to support the transgender community in Romania,” says Lerca Duda. “I stay here and I fight for my community, because we don’t yet really have a transgender movement. We are still at the beginning of our movement.”