(UPDATE 11/9: Senate approved the referendum to change the definition of family on the Constitution, which will be held on Oct. 7)
June was the pride month in Romania, with a march in Bucharest on 9 June and one in Cluj on 23 June. While the demonstration was becoming increasingly crowded, with 6-7000 people taking part in the Bucharest pride and about 2500 in Cluj, hate speech in public debate and on social media is on the rise against both the LGBT community and activists campaigning for their rights. As Teodora Ion Rotaru from ACCEPT Romania explained, there is little difference between the two in people’s mind.
Romania has traditionally experienced resistance to the topic, but in 2015 a citizens’ initiative was initiated by Coaliția pentru Familie (the Coalition for Family) to change the definition of family in the Constitution, gaining the support of religious groups and political leaders. The Romanian constitution currently defines a family as the marriage between spouses, and religious groups are pushing to replace the term ‘spouse’ with ‘man and woman’ in an attempt to protect what they call a traditional family. In just 6 months, the campaign collected roughly 3 million signatures with advocates going door to door collecting support and stressing the idea that religious rights should prevail over LGBT rights. This campaign put a lot of pressure on the community and policy-makers contributed to spreading hate through controversial statements. According to Teodora, the initiative sparked hate against the minority and became “a license to kill.”
Together with an increase in hate crimes, the campaign is also creating formal and informal barriers for the community to access public debate and is reducing civil society space. For example, on 21 February 2018, the cultural institution People’s Athenaeum in Focsani withdrew support for hosting a conference on gender equality organised by high school students from the town, due to the participation of a transgender activist as a speaker. According to a local journalist, the pressure to stop the event came from members of the Coalition for the Family. The meeting took place in a different venue but the organisation ACCEPT launched a complaint to open an investigation on the episode. According to Teodora, the teenager who organised the conference and her family were also put under pressure by the church and the police.
Cases like this are not isolated and these issues do not find much space in the public debate. In May, the organisation Pride Romania – the most visible group that fight for LGBT+ rights in the region – applied to an open call to create an inclusive community by the municipality in Cluj, with three projects to share the experience of the LGBT community with the town. None of them was selected. In February, in Bucharest, a group of the extreme-right interrupted the screening of a documentary on LGBT rights. A similar episode happened in 2013 when a group gathered holding torches to stop a movie on the topic. The incident was never fully investigated by the police.
Harassment of activists is also recurrent. For example, in 2016 an activist received death threats for organising a street protest and in 2013, teachers received intimidating messages for discussing diversity in a positive light at school. The campaign on the family referendum surely contributes to ignite this harmful climate, while no mechanism still exists to monitor hate crimes and police do not receive any training on LGBT issues. Social media are the most common means to attack human rights’ defenders, especially those that are most exposed in the media, with harmful messages – a phenomenon that is on the rise according to ACCEPT. Nevertheless, the internet is not the only tool used to spread hatred: Andra Camelia Cordos from Go Free organization reported that hateful messages against minorities are popping up on graffitis in Cluj. So far, the municipality has still not condemned the action and the local police simply stressed that nobody should write on the walls.
In this context, organising the pride march is not an easy task. The first pride in the country was held in Bucharest in 2005, despite a petition by the Coalition for the family to prevent it. According to ACCEPT, the pride in Bucharest started as a very small event as people were scared for their life. During the first gatherings, the opposition was strong and was throwing objects and religious icons against the demonstrators. Even police officers protecting the march had to be hospitalised. In 2016, the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) found the Romanian government guilty for not investigating properly a case of violence in the metro, where a group of six people was attacked after the pride in 2006.
In following years, the march was carried out in areas of the city that were easier to protect, allowing more people to feel safe and participate and in 2018 the pride in Bucharest was granted a more central venue after an intense bargaining with the authorities, who tried to keep the gathering out of the city centre. According to Teodora, the mood was positive and people from neighbouring buildings greeted the pride. Despite the fact that fourteen other events were happening at the same time, including a parade organised by the government to rally political support, over 7000 people joined the celebration. While a counter-protest is still carried out in the city, the so-called Normality march, it gains less and less support every year.
Since 2017, the pride is also hosted in Cluj. However, Andra Camelia Cordos wrote: “In 2017 it took a submission of 22 applications from Go Free to the Town Hall of Cluj-Napoca and the participation to a series of negotiations with representatives of the local authorities so that the march would finally be approved, however on a marginal route, far from the town centre. This year, the Town Hall rejected again all our requests for a central route, and my colleagues decided to accept a route that came as an “alternative” from the municipality. On the other hand, in 2017 and also this year, the Town Hall allowed an extremist organization such as Noua Dreaptă [New Right] to organize a manifestation in a central square on the same day.”
While the pride in Cluj was peaceful, the night before the march, the New Right covered the route of the pride with stickers with hateful messages against the LGBT community. However, the demonstration is gathering increasing support locally – for example from the university, and abroad, from the Embassy of France, the Netherlands, and Spain. This year Andreas Wolter, vice-mayor of the city of Köln took part in the event contributing to bringing optimism among the organisers of the pride.
Featured image via evenimentar.ro