Modern Romania is a mix of new liberal ideas against a dense tradition of conservative rural customs. For the LGBT community, the conflict is significant as Romania moves into a new century, a new economy and new influences from the European Union with its forward-thinking pro-gay policies. The difficult culture clash is led by a small number of bold LGBT activists determined to pursue “Gay Life in Romania” in a more open and liberal future for themselves and all Romanian lesbians and gays.
By Richard Ammon
Updated April 2012
This story about gay Romania started in New York City talking to one of Romania’s best known activists, Adrian Coman. Under his leadership (1997 -2002) of ACCEPT, Romania’s main LGBT organization, significant changes were made in Romania’s discriminatory and oppressive laws against homosexuals.
Adrian and the ACCEPT LGBT Organization
While the USA has spent almost thirty-five years pushing for anti-gay legislation at the federal level, Coman and his dedicated companions established ACCEPT in 1996 and by 2002 had successfully persuaded the Romanian government to change its anti-gay statutes. Homosexuality is no longer a criminal offense in Romania and gays are legally protected by anti-discrimination laws.
Adrian is sinewy and soft-spoken with watchful eyes under a crop of blonde hair. He speaks with the calm assurance of a leader who knows well the political and social landscape of his native country. He is a former teacher of physics and chemistry; he quit teaching to do full time advocacy work when he realized the time was right for change in Romania. In 2002 he won a visa in the immigration lottery system that allows a small quota of Romanians to move to the USA.
During the repressive dictatorial years (1964-89) a gay person could expect no sympathy from the authorities and could well be jailed for years. Adrian was 18 in 1989 and serving his compulsory military time when the anti-communist revolution toppled Romania’s vicious dictator and set up a shaky democracy. Instead of finishing out his duty he was released after only six months. He knew he was gay at the time but it would have been dangerous to act on it or reveal it, especially in the heavy-footed macho army. Although such military repression was in the past, the hetero mentality toward queers continued to be brutal. The better part of survival was and is silence.
Adrian plays down his influence in bringing about legislative change for Romanian gays: “You know, in Eastern Europe many of the LGBT movements are not grass roots. In Romania, ACCEPT quickly became an organized NGO (non-governmental organization) with a full-time staff and funding mostly from the Dutch government. So we were quickly up. We were democratic and we were ready to lobby the government against discrimination to gays.”
In addition to being readily organized and functioning, the timing of ACCEPT’s birth was fortunate, as Adrian pointed out. Romania was eager to join NATO and the European Union (that happened in 2007), both of which have significant political and economic benefits.
But to the dismay of conservatives and religious orthodox adherents, the price of admission to the new Europe contained human rights standards that require, among other things, that homosexuality be decriminalized and anti-discrimination laws be put into place. “We were lucky. We had to push hard to make our point but it was also a favorable time and political environment. The EU had adopted the Treaty of Amsterdam of 1993 which included sexual orientation as a protected status.”
But of course, changing legal statutes on paper doesn’t easily translate into changing attitudes among a population mostly ignorant about closeted issues such as homosexuality. There is still dense homophobia in the moral and religious thinking in Eastern Europe. Despite an influx of western ideas, images, lifestyles, fashion and industry, homosexuality is still a strange phenomenon for most, especially outside the major urban centers. In Romania, LBGT activity is only evident in Bucharest and in Cluj, the two largest cities and, to a lesser degree, in other major cities such as Brasov, Ploiesti, Timisoara as well as Constanta on the Black Sea coast.
Romania‘s Human Rights Struggle
To see the frontline work in this struggle against cultural oppression I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania three weeks later.
An adventurous two-week drive around the fertile plains and spectacular verdant mountains of Romania is enough to get hooked on this country slowly muscling it way out of a brutal beating by fascists and communists.
Since the revolt in 1989 this ancient Roman Empire province is fast becoming modern despite being encumbered with defunct rusting cooperative factories but with rising per capita annual income (about USD$12,000). The changes are coming fast and, for the mostly rural population, often intrusively on their quiet agricultural life. Across Romania families can still be seen harvesting potatoes by hand or cutting hay with a scythe and plodding home in their horse-drawn wagons. The scene is sylvan and romantic—and outdated. It will be a hard edge shock for these people to compete with the high tech farming methods in Germany or France.
Most tourists, oblivious to such issues, cruise the country in packaged buses tours. They alight in picturesque downtown Bucharest followed by days of overdosing on the countryside frescoed Orthodox monasteries and wind up in one of the high-rise hotels along the Black Sea beaches. We preferred, instead, to rent a car and then drove about 1500 miles to all corners of the country. From small country villages with wood-carved fences and brightly costumed women to the massive ugliness of communist-designed apartment blocks in the cities, our drive was a pageant of ancient history, idyllic landscapes, onion-domed churches along with decrepit smokestacks of communist political stupidity and corruption.
Gay Romania According to Three Men
Gay Romania was a story told to me by three Romanian men old enough to remember Romania’s worst modern dictator and yet young enough to feel the fresh breeze of the future. In 2002 homosexuality was decriminalized and anti-discrimination statutes were passed.
Along with ex-pat Adrian Coman in New York, Florin Buhuceanu and Robert Vargas are well-known gay activists in Romania. ACCEPT was previously headed by Florin in Bucharest and ‘Attitude’, Romania’s second LGBT organization based in the university city of Cluj was previously led by Robert Vargas. Adrian still infuses his ideas into ACCEPT as the work continues the uphill work in a conservative culture where most people know little or nothing about homosexuality (60% of Romanians live in rural villages).
More recently, ACCEPT has a new executive director, Alina Oancea with Florin continuing to participate as President of the Board of Directors.
For a comprehensive and detailed review of gay Romania and Accept’s work see the report posted by ACCEPT earlier this year. It can be read on the ACCEPT web site or on the News & Reports page of this site (article #6).
Dinner with Florin
“Romanians are not people used to taking risks,” mused Florin Buhuceanu during dinner one evening at a trendy restaurant next to the elegant neo-classic concert hall called the Atheneum.
(The Atheneum was built to honor Romania’s most famous classical composer Georges Enesco. Every two years the country honors its native son, who died in 1955, with an international music festival and competition involving dozens of world class orchestras, soloists and conductors.)
Away from the magic in the Atheneum, the streets and farms of Romania are much more rude and sober for gays and lesbians. Florin continued, “people are accustomed to taking what they can get with their small means and not demanding more. It’s from so much repression, a mentality many people still have even though communism fell in 1989.”
After so many years of deprivation when a single 40-watt light bulb was allowed one room along with everyday apprehension–or worse: thousands of civilian ‘enemies of the state’ were arrested, beaten and disappeared by the secret police. As a result of such brutal tactics, a lot of Romanians don’t know how to think in new ways about improving their lives. Entrepreneurial ideas, creativity and ingenuity are new and unusual concepts for most working class people especially in the countryside.
“You know, 60% of our population live outside urban areas– a very rural country with rural ideas. So to think about something as strange as homosexuality is almost beyond their grasp,” commented Florin. In the country ignorance is the problem; in the cities homophobia is sometimes worse since it can be aggressive as it’s fueled by a biased press and a bigoted church.
“During the communist era (1945-1989) religion was suppressed and had very little influence on people’s behavior. The state dictated ‘right thinking’ and ‘right action’ and backed it up with prisons and bullets. Now since the fall there seems to be a rebound, noted Florin, and people seem to be more religious than before. “I think it’s because people feel the need for some kind of authority and the church feels like a good authority compared to the past government. I read that 80% of the people believe in the authority of the church; 80% believe in the military versus 60% confident that politicians are trustworthy leaders.”
“Whatever hierarchy they believe in, all three of these institutions are decidedly homophobic so Romanian gays face a lot of ignorance. “Our best hope remains with the external EU to bring some enlightenment in the future,” he said. Then with a sly laugh Florin continued, “but if Romania is in the EU in 2007, a lot of people are going to be shocked –they marry gay people in Holland.”
The mind set that homosexuality is some kind of alien crime will not easily or soon be overcome. Despite the recent legal changes all three gay leaders admitted that changing attitudes is the greatest challenge facing gay activists and their organizations. Homophobia is high in Romania and gay bashing is not unheard of.
“Gays have been attacked in the areas of known gay clubs or bars. Media coverage is usually sensationalized and slanted as to make the individuals involved appear foolish or less worthy than ‘normal’ people,” said Florin after dinner as we walked toward one of Bucharest’s’s gay venues, ‘Queens’ (it was not open yet for the evening).
Since it was still daylight the neighborhood was quite safe. To a visitor Queens was virtually invisible: the only clue was a small sign inside a doorway that led to the basement bar. We tried the door but it was locked. As we reentered the street a young man passed by and tossed the comment “‘it’s closed” without stopping for further word. Florin wasn’t sure if the guy was being helpful or trying to get rid of us.
Florin is a handsome, soft-spoken man in his thirties. With dark hair and eyes, in his balanced features one could see his Roman ancestry peeking down through the centuries. He was ACCEPT’s executive director for four years. The job demanded–and still demands–attention in many directions at once. While I was there, he had to confront a government health department, which wanted to mandate HIV testing of all children in orphanages. This would have stigmatized these already disadvantaged children and made them virtually un-adoptable.
Then there are countless organizational issues such as funding, staffing, conflicts and conferences with other organizations, education seminars for the university or businesses as well as on-going TV and radio appearances to answer endless questions about homosexuality in Romania. He was often the only guest on these shows as it is difficult to find other gays or lesbians who ware willing to be that far ‘out’. Most gay Romanians are not out to their families and many of them live at home to save money.
As a result the LGBT ‘scene’ in Bucharest is virtually invisible. There is no center, no pride march, only two bars and no publications—nothing that would draw attention. Instead, the work of Accept is polite, deliberate, sometimes vocal yet respected and very committed.
Almost the Ambassador
The former American ambassador to Romania, Michael Guest, was openly gay during his tenure in Bucharest (2001-04) when I visited. His appointment (accompanied by his partner Alex Nevarez) was greeted with disapproval by old-school officials in Bucharest. But Guest was a dedicated, intelligent, articulate and persuasive diplomat and has succeeded in winning over his doubting hosts with his genuine interest in Romania’s culture. By e-mail I invited him to lunch and his reply expressed willingness but regretted a full schedule. Florin respected Guest because the ambassador had not tried to hide or diminish his orientation and had spoken openly about it when asked; his partner appeared at official embassy functions. (See News & Reports #3 for a report on Ambassador Guest.)
Robert in Cluj-Napoca
Florin’s comments about Romania and gays echoed Adrian’s and were further backed up by Robert Vargas in Cluj-Napoca (Cluj for short). Cluj is Romania’s second largest city and home to one of the country’s best universities.
Over coffee at the outdoor café Diesel (the weather in September was still warm and pleasant) Robert offered his thoughts about being gay in Cluj and Romania. Although he spoke for himself, his words also represented many LGBT Romanians who have lived in the shadows of fear: “My being gay affected me more than the terrible politics of the past. It was not possible for me to express myself, to enjoy love or sex. It was always something secretive and illegal. I was illegal for just being who I was.
“That is a terrible thing for a person, especially a young person who is not yet strong enough to defend himself against the police and the church. It’s even worse at home if your parents don’t understand. My parents still don’t understand anything about gay feelings, so we don’t talk about it. My mother wants me to be happy but she is sad about it. My father and I have never spoken aloud about me and at first he was distant. But now, after a couple of years, he makes my evening meal so I guess that’s his way of saying he accepts me.”
At that time, in the early years after communists fell and before the law changed, there were almost no gay places, no Internet contacts, almost no one to contact. recalled Robert. “I don’t’ say things are good yet but now we are starting to be known. If someone wants to come out he can find out about our organization—Attitude—and can get some help and support.”
In Cluj, the gay activist organization is Attitude, a separate and smaller association than ACCEPT. Their web site is http://www.attitude.ro/ (in Romanian). They also have a Yahoo discussion group
Robert explained that Attitude is not as politically minded as the Accept organization in Bucharest. Started in 1999 Attitude “is still moving toward definition”–meaning it vacillates between being an informal organization focused on social events like parties and bar shows and being politically active with outreach programs to educate politicians, law enforcement and business leaders. Attitude does have organizational meetings and groups for support as well as social events. If serious counseling is need a professional therapist is available in Cluj. It works locally with the police to help calm hostile attitudes and coordinate liaison with the gay events, or sort out the confusion of a raid on a gay venue.
Robert clearly sees the enormous task for Accept and Attitude now that the pro-gay laws are in place; it will be an uphill (or up-cliff!) battle over a long time to implement the changes.
One of the first and most resistant professions are the police who usually have ‘hands-on’ (so to speak) contact with gay citizens.
There is little understanding and little tolerance toward gays so it is not unusual to be threatened, roughed up or coerced to pay a bribe. And virtually no gay Romanian can resist or protest since to do so would bring a public view to his private life. A person is almost certain to be fired from his or her job or place at university if exposed.
As an out leader, Robert had nothing to lose last year when he took a newspaper reporter to the Anti-discrimination Council for writing a slanderous article about him and one of his social events. In one of the first test cases of the new anti-discrimination law, Robert won his suit against the reporter who was forced to pay a fine for his offense. Reflecting on the daunting situation for gays in Romania he said, “it’s not enough to be quiet or to have these laws. I want to live free and relaxed without homophobia. We are everywhere and we want to be obvious and safe.”
He has considered living abroad, like Adrian Coman in New York, but he knows it’s a hard decision to live away from his culture, family and friends.
Aside from Attitude, Robert was quite frank about his own priorities at the present time in that he likes to organize parties or drag shows at downtown trendy venues such as Crema Café, Harley Club or Diesel Café. His informal Rainbow Group regularly stages parties and shows at these places. On occasion one of the drag shows is noted in the press but usually framed with a ridiculing view.
There are no gay magazines printed in Romania–and few western publications sold there. It appears there is little market for such publications. The cost is too high for most Romanians who generally make less than $200 a month. As well, to be seen buying or possessing a gay magazine would be very risky. (I promised to send some from California in a brown paper wrapper.)
To my surprise, the university, Romanian’s most prestigious, doesn’t have any LGBT groups or activity. At best, homosexuality is sometimes covered in ‘gender studies’ or ‘Euro-studies’ courses usually taught by lecturers from Western Europe, America or Australia.
Hidden: Gay Gypsies
More invisible than gay Romanians are gay Romas, commonly called gypsies. (The gypsy tribal name is based on an old myth that they derived from Egypt; more likely they came from India.) Homosexuality among the Roma, according to Robert, is even more of a stain on their family honor than for Romanians. Being gay or lesbian is a tough fate not likely to ever be accepted within the life of this ethnic group.
Robert has dated Roma men on occasion and has enjoyed their company–quite different from the harsh discrimination gypsies experience in most of Europe. Robert said if a Roma man or woman comes out it’s very likely he or she will be shamed and excluded from the family. They are a very impoverished minority with little political representation so family pride and tribal bonds are all the more important. When someone offends that fragile connection or upsets gender roles the reaction is vehement and rude rejection as the gossip spreads like wild fire. Soon everyone knows and there is no place to hide except far away. Usually the cities offer a better chance for survival.
There are some small glimpses of social change in Romania in that about 100,000 Romanians subscribe to cable TV where such stations as HBO, ShowTime and Bravo broadcast numerous gay-theme sitcoms, dramas and documentaries. “It only cost $4 a month but a hundred thousand out of a population of1 8 million is not what you call rapid transformation,” remarked Robert.
Further, as in countless other countries, the mushrooming use of the Internet has brought a silent technological revolution in communication for Romania. It’s estimated that more than 10% of younger Romanians use the Net frequently which exposes them to a much wider range of open ideas than their older counterparts who only read the ‘closed’ local newspaper.
Homosexuality may not be much in favor with these younger minds but it is also not an alien concept. It is hard to cruise the Net without encountering some form of sexuality and often hetero and homo forms are closely linked. A lot of Internet sexuality sites and video pornography derives from Eastern Europe thus bringing the issue closer to home.
(Local media don’t represent gay people with much favor–including a recent expose of male exploits by a Romanian Orthodox bishop. But since the bishop had too much authority and prestige within the city and church, the allegations could not hold and the matter was dropped.)
Indeed, in my travels around Romania I failed to find a town or city without Internet access. Some of the Net cafes and shops had anywhere from six to as many as fifty or sixty terminals. By far the vast majority of users were young men and older boys. But using them was a real challenge for me since nearly everyone smokes cigarettes and most of the places are poorly ventilated. In addition to enduring the smoky haze, not a single venue was absent of hard rock or rap or pop music played loudly. Needless to say, my e-mail check times were as short as possible even thought the cost was very low–sometimes less than a dollar an hour.
Four guys in Bucharest
The most informal gay experience I had in Romania was a chance encounter with four men–two couples–one afternoon at the National Art Gallery in central Bucharest. Having perused the extensive art collection, both western and Romanian, I was taking some photos of the enormous ornate building which is the former royal palace. Also outside were four men taking photos of each other, one of whom wore a T-shirt from the Gay Games in Amsterdam (1998). We engaged in conversation and went for a drink across the street where an outdoor ‘beer garden’ had been set up for the Enesco Music Festival.
Both couples had been together for five years. One couple lived together while the other pair were reluctant because one of them was an officer in the army and the risk was too high. His partner was a computer consultant. The other two, Emil and Nic, live together in a flat in Bucharest and mix with numerous gay and straight friends. Emil is a product designer and Nic is an opera singer in Brasov.
(I told Nic I had heard, the night before, the American soprano Cheryl Studer fill the opulent domed hall with the lush music of Wagner, Mahler and R. Strauss. After a couple of weeks of rough rap and throbbing pop music heard in virtually every café, taxi, restaurant, Internet shop and hotel lobby in Romania, Studer’s powerful lyrical and swirling voice was very welcome in my ears.)
I asked them all if they knew about ACCEPT. Only one of the four had heard of it somewhat and none had ever been to an ACCEPT function. Their lives in Bucharest, they said, were easier than they could be anywhere else in Romania. Indeed, the casual companionships, the unworried sociability of an afternoon at the art gallery with a late evening at the New Queens Disco were part of their discreet gay life. Gone are the days when they could be suddenly confronted and arrested by the secret police for seeming too friendly with one another. When I asked to take their photo they comfortably draped themselves on their respective partners–but preferred not to have it posted here.
As couples they were apart during the day for work and went home to be together at night. Some nights or weekends they met with friends for a drink or dinner or a concert. One of the four guys lived with his family while the others lived in the many anonymous apartment blocks, among two million people in Bucharest, which provides the cover of anonymity they needed to live peacefully and privately express their love.
This chance encounter was remarkable in its casual comfort, ease of open conversation and fearless trust in the downtown social milieu. We could have been sitting in any café in any Western European city with a large gay presence; such was the calm and ease with which the six of us exchanged ideas and e-mails addresses that sunny afternoon.
On that final day before departure, our meeting was a good counterbalance to the daunting politics, widespread ignorance and religious phobias that shadow gay life in modern Romania. It was, most notably, a brief window into the everyday life of urban LGBT folks in modern Bucharest.