Romania wants to restrict the definition of marriage to shut gay couples out

The world celebrated the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17th. In the USA and many European countries, Pride marches will be organized this weekend. It is not at all uncommon to see these initiatives supported by governments, institutions, companies, NGOs, and unaffiliated allies all over the world. However, one state in the European Union has been making rapid steps in the opposite direction by trying to change the definition of the family in its constitution. That state is Romania and this is the story.

Romania is a quite big, religious and homogeneous European country. At the last census, it boasted a number of almost 20 million citizens, with 87% declaring themselves Orthodox Christians. Romania is one of the newest EU member states, becoming part of the European family in 2007. Even so, poverty rates are very high, and so is youth unemployment. Since the fall of the communist regime in ’89, millions of Romanians tried their luck abroad, in Italy, Spain, Germany, Turkey, or even in the United States, or parts of the middle east, but the mentalities of the majority remained closed.

A long history of legal discrimination

Romania is a deeply homophobic country. The first law that discriminated against gay couples was issued during the authoritarian regime of king Charles II, before World War II, in 1937. For sleeping with a same sex partner and causing “public outrage”, you could land in prison from 6 months to 3 years. The communist regime only toughened the legislation, removing “public outrage” from the equation, and increasing prison times for the offence, to between 3 and 5 years. After the fall of the communist regime, both the discriminatory legislation and the public hostility towards gay individuals remained unchanged. Even if the Constitutional Court declared anti-homosexual laws as being unconstitutional, they were repealed only in 2001 (yes, that means only 16 years ago). In the early 2000’s, Romania adopted legislation that protected gay people from being discriminated against for their sexual orientation in education, health system and at work, but no recognition or protection was ever given to gay couples.

The social stigma

According to a study undertaken by Accept (the oldest and largest pro-LGBT organization in Romania), two thirds of homosexuals in Romania hide their sexual orientation in order to minimize the discrimination, abuse and violence that they would be subjected to otherwise. Just last year, a poll revealed that 71% of Romanians wouldn’t accept having even a gay neighbour, with 90% of them saying that they wouldn’t accept a gay person as a member of their family.

In the 90’s, gays and lesbians were even incarcerated and horribly abused in prison for their sexual orientation. After homosexual relationships stopped being illegal, the abuse was still perpetuated by society. Gay bars being raided by the police, prominent TV personalities speaking out against gay culture, gay people beaten, a lot of verbal abuse and stigma oriented towards LGBT students, and even shocking declarations from politicians, such as one claiming that “Gays have no right to hold hands on the street”, just last month. Opposition comes mostly on a religious basis, and on the “unnatural” character of homosexual attraction. Oftentimes, homosexuality is seen as a gateway behaviour towards pedophilia, bestiality or other sexual deviations that are not practiced among consenting adults.

The all-powerful Orthodox Church

On paper, Romania is a secular state. It doesn’t have an official religion and each religion should have the same standing in the eyes of the government. However, the reality is that in Romania, for the longest time, you were considered subscribed ex officio to Orthodox catechism classes, from the 1st to the 12th grade. In theory, the law demands that all pupils should learn about their own religion in school. In practice, this is often not possible for pupils pertaining to religious minorities because of the lack of teachers trained in their religions. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that around 90% of Romanian pupils go through school learning the ins and outs of the Christian Orthodox dogma. The state pays a large percent of the priests’ salaries, as well as the salaries of other church workers. They pay for chapels in hospitals and prisons, they pay for the construction and restoration of churches, for religion teachers and theological campuses.

In return, priests make sure that the names of whomever donated or allocated the funds are well known by the community. Iconic pictures represent the patriarch being present at the presidential investment ceremony (even if Romania’s current president is not Orthodox),

blessing state of the art medical equipment,

or the former president surrounded by high priests.

Politicians often perform religious rituals in order to gather image capital, such as bringing light for Easter from Jerusalem,

or worshiping the remains of local saints.

The fight over who gets to be called a family

As more and more european countries are giving either marriage or civil union rights to gay couples, the Orthodox church, and one of its most visible supporters, called The Coalition for Family (an umbrella of associations and NGO’s that try to push religious and traditionalist values in the society), are trying to get the constitution changed, so that marriage between gay couples would never be attainable. By November 2015, that coalition of NGOs managed to raise three million signatures for the initiative of defining the family as being based on the marriage between a woman and a man, instead of the current, neutral “marriage between partners”. The Parliament has moved the initiative back and forth between chambers, committees and commissions for one and a half years. This month, the first chamber of the Parliament approved the modification with a vast majority of votes: 232 “for”, 22 “against”. If the other chamber also approves it, a referendum will follow, where citizens can vote for the modification of the constitution. All this happened while blatantly disregarding the Romanian legislation concerning citizen initiatives, that states that the proposal should have been voted on within 6 months after being submitted to the Parliament.

But what about civil partnership?

Well, there was one politician that tried to push a civil partnership law starting from 2014. Again. And again. And his proposal was rejected two times, in 2014 and 2015, and now the proposal is waiting for the final vote in the decisional chamber. His name is Remus Cernea and he is one of the most prominent supporters of the secular-humanist values in Romanian politics. Romanian politicians not only want to restrict the so-called unnatural definition of the family, but they are also blatantly refusing to give gay couples equivalent rights to those that come from marriage, under any name whatsoever.

The Coman-Hamilton case: Romania’s refusal to recognize gay marriages keeps couples apart

In 2010, a Romanian man married his life-long American partner in Brussels where the Romanian was residing at the time. Adrian Coman and Clabourn Hamilton were already a couple for several years, but because the States did not remove the gay marriage ban in all states, they choose Belgium as the place where they could make their relationship official.

After some time, in 2013, the couple decided to move to Romania. However, they were in for a nasty surprise: even if Adrian is a Romanian national, with a valid marriage certificate issued by another EU member state, their marriage was not recognized in Romania. It took the Romanian justice system 3 years to decide who needs to rule on this case. After that, the case ended up at the Constitutional Court of Justice, that has been constantly postponing making a decision, since 2016, citing the complexity of the case. In the meantime, Adrian’s husband, Clai Hamilton, can stay in the country only for 3 months at a time, with a tourist visa.

Full speed ahead, against human rights

Today, the group of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (second biggest group) posted this image and comment on their Facebook page:

PSD (Partidul Social Democrat = The Social Democrat Party), the socialist party that has the majority in the Romanian parliament and government, affiliated to the aforementioned S&D group, is doing its best not only to reject the civil partnership law, but to restrict the definition of marriage in order to make sure that gay couples will never have the same protection from the state as straight ones. Recently, a senator from this party called Ioan Deneș declared that gay couples are not allowed to hold hands in public unless it’s expressly admitted by law. On the other side of the political spectrum, a liberal senator called Leon Dănăilă said that a homosexual couple cannot have children, they can only buy them or steal them. To this, we add a plethora of mayors of diverse political orientations saying either that they would downright refuse to officiate marriage for gay couples, should such a law be passed, or they would do it begrudgingly.

The last beacon of hope

…is represented by the civil society. Pro LGBT NGOs (like Accept and MozaiQ), some human rights NGOs, a few secular-humanist NGOs have come together to manifest their solidarity with the LGBT plight in Romania. Three of these organizations ( MozaiQ, TRANSform and Lindenfeld) is rallying social media support even now, by making it easy for people to frame their Facebook profile pictures with a rainbow, with the words “I support LGBT” written on it and using the hashtag #SustinLGBT (meaning #IsupportLGBT). Also, this Saturday, 20th of May 2017, a Pride march, hopefully the biggest one yet, will be organized in Bucharest, the capital of Romania. It is called the Diversity March and it will be covered on social media using the hashtag #bucharestpride. If you want to spread the word and show your solidarity, share this article and make sure the Romanian LGBTQA+ community does not suffer in isolation.