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Romanian Same-Sex Couples Become Talking Point Ahead Of Key Elections

Florina Presada, the executive director of gay rights group Accept, told RFE/RL that "this year's Bucharest Pride drew 25,000 people and was the biggest ever…. The theme was visible love, visible families."
Florina Presada, the executive director of gay rights group Accept, told RFE/RL that "this year's Bucharest Pride drew 25,000 people and was the biggest ever…. The theme was visible love, visible families."

BUCHAREST -- When a mayor of a small Romanian town casually mentioned in an interview that she had voted in favor of a referendum that sought to ultimately ban same-sex marriage, it unleashed a maelstrom that now threatens to become a key issue in elections next year.

The problem was that Elena Lasconi was not a far-right populist or traditionalist but a member of the progressive Union to Save Romania (USR), the only parliamentary party in Romania to explicitly oppose a 2018 referendum that sought to redefine marriage as a union between a man and a woman and limit LGBT rights. She was also running for a seat in the European Parliament next year.

The referendum eventually failed due to a low turnout, but five years on LGBT rights have stalled and remain a divisive and touchy issue in the Eastern European country.

On November 23, Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu said Romania was "not ready" to grant more rights to same-sex couples despite a European court ruling against the country.

Tapping Into Voters' Fears

Romania is now one of the most restrictive countries regarding LGBT relationships in the European Union. Not only does it bar same-sex marriages and same-sex civil partnerships, but it also does not recognize same-sex partnerships registered in other countries.

Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia are the other EU countries that don't allow same-sex civil partnerships.

A participant flashes victory signs during a Pride parade in Bucharest on July 29.
A participant flashes victory signs during a Pride parade in Bucharest on July 29.

The Russian-friendly populist AUR party, currently polling third after Ciolacu's Social Democrats (PSD), taps into fears about granting more gay rights, as do the fundamentalist wings of the mainstream Romanian parties backed by the influential Orthodox Church. This makes more centrist politicians uneasy about pushing for more rights, commentators say.

The issue is so divisive that Lasconi's own daughter Oana Lasconi publicly disowned her mother after her comments and announced she would channel her passion into politics, adding fuel to the controversy. She later backtracked saying she'd been overly emotional, but the damage was done. RFE/RL contacted both women for comment.

Florin Buhuceanu
Florin Buhuceanu

"It was unprecedented in Romania to see a row played out publicly involving the immediate family," said Florin Buhuceanu, the advocacy director of gay rights group Accept in an interview with RFE/RL in late November. "She basically said that her mother wasn't fit to hold a seat in the European Parliament."

For the USR, Romania's only progressive party, which has lost popularity over in-fighting and poor communication, the outburst was embarrassing.

"It is inadmissible that a flagship candidate for European Parliament elections…is promoting, even inadvertently, Kremin propaganda," an USR lawmaker who requested anonymity told RFE/RL's Romanian Service.

"This referendum was organized by one of the most toxic regimes in Romania with the goal of taking us out of Europe," the politician said.

'Romanian Society Is Not Ready'

Liviu Dragnea, the then-chairman of the Social Democrats who opposed European-style reforms, called the referendum in 2018 that sought to redefine marriage as a union between a man and a woman to replace current wording in the constitution that is not gender specific. The Orthodox Church and the conservative Coalition for the Family also put their names to the referendum.

Dragnea, who was jailed in May 2019 for 3 ½ years on a corruption conviction, is no longer active in politics.

Elena Lasconi on November 8
Elena Lasconi on November 8

Yet some see Lasconi, 51, as a hero for speaking out in favor of what they consider traditional values, and there are even calls for the mayor of the southern town of Campulung Muscel to run for president in 2024. Social conservatives berate her daughter for publicly denouncing her mother.

After Lasconi was forced by her party to step down as a candidate for the European Parliament, the topic of LGBT rights gained traction and not in a favorable way for the community.

Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu dashed hopes for greater acceptance when he said on November 23 that Romania was not ready to uphold the rights of same-sex couples and his government would defy a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling.

"Romanian society is not ready for a decision at the moment. It is not one of my priorities and...I don't think Romania is ready," he told Europa FM, a Romanian radio station. He was responding to Foreign Minster Luminita Odobescu who days earlier wrote to the parliament and the government urging them to uphold the court's decision.

The ECHR ruled on May 23 that Romania had failed to enforce the rights of same-sex couples by refusing to recognize their relationships.

The judgment by the Strasbourg-based court followed legal complaints brought by 21 same-sex couples before the ECHR in 2019 and 2020 who argued they had been denied certain rights provided for married couples under Romanian law. The ruling could have led to greater legal protections for the LGBT community more than 20 years after homosexuality was decriminalized.

"Politicians can't invoke the phrase 'The nation isn't ready.' That isn't a legal term," said Buhuceanu, whose name headed the legal complaint at the ECHR. "It's the state's duty to prepare people. Politicians must pave the way to full equality," he said.

Decades Of Backsliding

Romania decriminalized homosexuality in 2001 as it prepared to join the EU. The last person imprisoned was released in 1998 following international pressure.

Initially it made progress. In 2006, it was named by Human Rights Watch as one of five countries in the world that had made "exemplary progress in combating rights abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity."

But there has been backsliding in recent years. The country has made several attempts to restrict LGBT rights, including trying to axe gender-identity studies at universities and schools.

A man tears up at a club in Bucharest as LGBT community members wait for the results of the October 2018 referendum.
A man tears up at a club in Bucharest as LGBT community members wait for the results of the October 2018 referendum.

In 2023, the advocacy group ILGA-Europe ranked Romania 26th out of 27 EU countries for LGBT rights protection, behind all member states except Poland.

The influential Orthodox Church, to which more than 85 percent of Romanians belong according to census data, has repeatedly spoken out against civil partnerships.

"Civil partnership is the toxic source (as seen in other societies) of the dissolution of the family's importance and morally formative authority," it said in a press release in May. "The civil partnership is the first step in legalizing marriage between people of the same sex."

Against this backdrop, however, society has grown more accepting of same-sex relationships, activists say.

Florina Presada
Florina Presada

"Romanian society understood the need for LGBT.... There is greater visibility, a better understanding…of the needs of LGBT families, and support is growing for them," Florina Presada, the executive director of Accept, told RFE/RL in November. "This year's Bucharest Pride drew 25,000 people and was the biggest ever…. The theme was visible love, visible families…. It was well received, went well and people feel more and more confident."

But three legislative proposals to change civil unions to include same-sex couples filed between 2016 and 2019 have not yet passed through parliamentary approval committees. Another proposal that reached the floor of parliament last week was postponed.

The year "2024 is a lost year for us, nothing will progress," Buhuceanu said on December 5.

LGBT rights groups, like Accept, blame politicians for the lack of progress. Many homosexuals have not come out except to close friends, fearing social and moral disapproval and discrimination.

"It's become a polarizing issue because it is not treated correspondingly at a political level," Presada told RFE/RL. "It is necessary for political parties to adopt measures…. It's the right time."

Participants hold banners during Bucharest Pride 2021.
Participants hold banners during Bucharest Pride 2021.

A survey commissioned by Accept in 2021 showed while 71 percent of Romanians said legal recognition of civil marriage for same-sex couples would not have any impact on their lives, only 43 percent were in favor. However, 68 percent of those polled think all families, including same-sex families, should have legal protection.

The dean of the Bucharest-based National School of Political Studies and Public Administration, Cristian Parvulescu, said topics such as LGBT rights and mass migration were likely to become election issues. He put Ciolacu's recent statement down to "a good relationship with the Orthodox Church." However, he called his comment about refusing to apply a court ruling "absurd."

"He's usually ambiguous about this topic (LGBT), but he has ultra-conservatives in the party who tell him what to say. The Social Democrats aren't really a leftist party; they are socially conservative," Parvulescu added in an interview with RFE/RL on November 24.

'Just Hypocrisy'

Buhuceanu wishes there were more people who would publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation.

"Even now there are few public voices. In the case of the 21 families who sued in the ECHR, many of them want anonymity," he said.

"We need real people with real stories to speak up," he said. "All voices should be heard."

That is easier said than done. Gabriel, a gay man in his 50s who is partly out, said he was generally optimistic. "The young generation is very open, and the older generation is more worried about money and the price of meat," he said.

However, there is a lot of hypocrisy, he said. "Some people who speak against gays are gay themselves. They do it but they don't admit it." He said AUR's anti-gay comments were because: "They are paid by Moscow and people know that. It's just hypocrisy."

Buhuceanu believes that even if the referendum failed, the issues are still festering, which is why Lasconi's comments caused such a stir.

"The loss of the referendum is an open wound. (Its supporters) were simply in shock. The Romanian Orthodox Church was in shock, politicians were in shock. The scab is still there, the wound is pulsating, and she touched that."

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