The struggle for gay rights in Romania

ACCEPT - Romania
ACCEPT – Romania

Romania is one of the very last countries in Europe which still discriminates against homosexuals. Radio Netherlands looks at the fate of gays and lesbians in Romania, and the efforts of the Netherlands and other E.U. countries to eliminate the legalised discrimination of a segment of the Romanian population.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 10, 1997


Wide Angle, the issues behind the news.

You should, of course, not discriminate against a part of your population in your legislation, in your penal code. By doing so, Romania is not acting according to the European Convention on Human Rights, is not acting according to Council of Europe declarations.

Romania is one of the very last countries in Europe which still discriminates against homosexuals. To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10th, this edition of Wide Angle examines the fate of gays and lesbians in Romania, and the efforts of the Netherlands and other countries to eliminate the legalised discrimination of a segment of the Romanian population. I’m Eric Beauchemin.

During Communist rule, homosexuality was banned throughout the former East Bloc. When democracy was restored in the region seven years ago, most countries scraped their legislation on homosexuality. But it wasn’t until 1996 that the Romanian authorities amended their laws. After an emotional debate, the Romanian parliament decided to legalise homosexual relations conducted in private. But, according to Adrian Coman, the executive director of ACCEPT, a non-governmental organisation, Article 200 of the Romanian penal code still makes certain homosexual relations between consenting adults a criminal offence.

The first paragraph is stating same sex relations perpetrated in public or resulting in a public scandal shall be punished by prison from one to five years. The problem here is that there’s no definition for the public scandal, and the term “in public” includes almost everything. The penal code states that a deed is considered to be committed in public when perpetrated through any means known by the perpetrator as susceptible to be noticed by the public. So from this, we can have everything in public.

When the Romanian parliament adopted Article 200 in September of last year, they also included a new paragraph, which makes it illegal to form associations or to proselytise or promote homosexuality in any way. The law not only makes gay and lesbian organisations illegal, in theory, it also bans gay and lesbian bars. The penalty for violating either of these two paragraphs can range from one to five years in prison. Several people, says Adrian Coman, are currently being held for violating Article 200.

Under the first paragraph, there are three people in prison: two of them are minors. They were in preventive arrest. We don’t know exactly what the court’s decision was in their case. They were caught in a type of empty house having sex with a third one and that was considered to be in public. The other third case is of somebody in Iasi, this is the north of Moldavia, which was caught in a public toilet having sex with another man. So he was sentenced for one year and six months to the Iasi penitentiary.

Many gays and lesbians in Romania, particularly those outside the capital Bucharest, live in fear of having their secret discovered. There’ve been numerous reports of police harassment in provincial towns and villages. Gays have been threatened and terrorised, and some have even tried to commit suicide because of persecution by the authorities. In Bucharest, plainclothes policemen regularly patrol gay cruising areas and entrap men who are forced to pay large fines on the spot to avoid being taken to the police station. Nonetheless, says Daniel Yorga, a gay man in Bucharest, public attitudes towards gays and lesbians tend to be more tolerant in the capital than in the rest of the country.

I came out of the closet 16 years ago. When I discovered that I am gay, I was 16 years old, and it was so strange. At first, I was not sure what means homosexuality, but when I felt that it’s the only way to live, I said OK, this is my life and this is my problem. In that moment, I told my family, my friends, my colleagues, my teachers, my neighbours. It was very interesting because every person tried to hide this secret to protect me.

To try to improve the position of homosexuals in Romania, the Dutch government has earmarked $350,000 over the next three years to support the gay and lesbian group ACCEPT. Since Article 200 of the Romanian penal code makes it illegal to form associations supporting homosexuality, I asked the political attaché at the Dutch embassy in Bucharest, Jan de Rooy, if the Dutch government’s support didn’t violate Article 200.

The point is of course that ACCEPT is a registered organisation. So that means it is accepted by law. It’s not registered as a gay and lesbian organisation. It’s registered as a human rights organisation. So from that point of view, it’s not illegal. What ACCEPT will do especially as a human rights organisation and for which it gets the funding from the Dutch government is giving information about homosexuality and giving a shelter to homosexuals in Romania. I don’t think that that will be in conflict with the notorious Article 200 of the Romanian penal code, which in fact states that promotion of homosexuality is prohibited. But I think that ACCEPT can organise itself to stay within the law and not in promoting homosexuality but maybe in giving information about homosexuality, I think, especially in Romania, there should be a difference between those two things.

The Netherlands is one of the countries strongly encouraging Romanian society and the authorities to abolish the legalised discrimination of this minority. In the 1980s, the then Dutch prime minister even raised the issue with the country’s leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. More recently, Romania’s treatment of gays and lesbians has attracted widespread international attention because of Romania’s application to join the European Union. Jan de Rooy of the Dutch embassy again.

The Romanian government and the Romanian people are well aware about how the Netherlands are thinking about homosexuality and the discrimination of homosexuals in Romania. That is not something new. It was a topic during the accession of Romania to the Council of Europe which was raised not only by Dutch parliamentarians but also by parliamentarians of several other countries. It’s also in our bilateral relations always raised by our ministers, by our parliamentarians. So Romania knows how the Netherlands is thinking about this subject. We should not forget, of course, that discriminating a part of your population in your legislation, in your penal code is contrary to what we are used to to countries that are members of the European Union and NATO or even the Council of Europe. You should, of course, in your legislation not discriminate against a group of people. That’s the most important thing. By doing so, Romania is not acting according to the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s not acting according to Council of Europe declarations.

The Council of Europe monitors the observance of human rights throughout the continent. While its real powers are limited, the Council has great moral authority. When Romania was admitted to the Council of Europe in 1993, it pledged, among other things, to modify Article 200. Since the Romanian authorities have dragged their feet for so long, the Council of Europe passed a resolution earlier this year giving Romania an ultimatum.

Within this resolution, the Council of Europe requests the Romanian authorities to amend without delay the provisions of the penal code and the judiciary act. That includes Article 200. The Council of Europe states that it also knows that certain provisions of the penal code now in force are unacceptable and seriously imperil the exercise of fundamental freedoms, especially Article 200 on homosexual acts. Well, the good thing of this resolution is that it should be implemented by the Romanian authorities within one year, so until 24 April ’98.

If Romania’s penal code is not changed by then, the Council of Europe will send a monitor to try to increase the pressure on the Romanian authorities. If the monitor is unable to convince officials of the need to modify the legislation, he or she will report back to the Council of Europe, which will then increase pressure at a higher level. Despite the strong moral and financial support from the Netherlands and the growing international criticism of Romania’s policies on homosexuality, Adrian Coman of the non-governmental organisation ACCEPT believes it won’t be easy to establish a movement for gays and lesbians in Romania.

It’s very difficult to be different in this country. All minorities have problems from this point of view. It is the same case of Hungarians or the Roma people, and homosexuality seems to be the most delicate issue at this very moment. So it isn’t surprising that there isn’t actually a gay community and a gay and lesbian movement in Bucharest. What we are doing is to offer a space for express themselves, a space where they can feel free, where they can be themselves. Through this, little by little, to try to change society’s mentality because it is not only the law which is a problem. It’s also the mentality.

One of the most ferocious opponents of the full legalisation of homosexuality in Romania has been the Romanian Orthodox Church. Its leaders have campaigned publicly to keep Article 200 in the penal code. 80% of Romanians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, but as elsewhere in the continent, the church’s role in society is decreasing. Adrian Coman believes that the Romanian authorities’ refusal to acknowledge gays and lesbians as full-fledged citizens in society lies in the legacy of 50 years of totalitarian, communist rule.

Communism wanted to create this type of model person to be followed by others. Unfortunately, this thing hasn’t changed yet in our mentality and actually is the problem of the mentality of the authorities since they are making the law. Of course, it’s also our responsibility as part of the civil society to try to change this, but it has been and it will be very difficult. Apart from this, in this current moment, the whole attention is focused on the economic problems. So there is no time and money left for other issues.

Nonetheless, gays and lesbians in Romania are trying to bring the issue to the attention of the authorities, the media and the general public. In late October, Romania’s first conference on homosexuality was held at the state-run University of Cluj in Transylvania. The conference was widely reported in the local and national press, though much of the coverage was negative. A local radio station also organised a 3-hour live call-in programme with several Romanian and foreign gays to discuss homosexuality and answer listeners’ questions. The fact that the conference and the call-in programme took place, despite Article 200, is a sign that the situation in Romania may finally be changing. But many gays and lesbians, like Daniel Yorga, are disappointed that their struggle for recognition and acceptance has made so little progress, particularly when other countries in the region were able to put their past behind them and open the closet door.

In 1991 in Russia, Yeltsin legalised homosexuality there after only a few months after he came in power. But in Romania after seven years of democracy, nothing happened. I’m very disappointed. You know: sometimes, the hope has a limit. In my case, I’m thinking that my limit was passed. I saw only a few results, not what I expected.

Nevertheless, several European countries, most notably the Netherlands, are determined to use their diplomatic and political clout to end the discrimination of Romania’s gays and lesbians. The reason that the Netherlands has taken such a prominent role on this issue is quite simple, says Jan de Rooy, the second man at the Dutch embassy in Bucharest.

I think it has everything to do with the fact that the Netherlands wants to fight discrimination of any group in society by trying to create circumstances in those societies in which then change can take place. This is not only with homosexuals, but I think with any group in a European group which is discriminated can count on Dutch solidarity. The Netherlands is of the opinion that discrimination of groups in society, especially official, legalised discrimination is something which should be banned from any legislation, especially from the legislation of a European country, which wants to integrate in our Union.

Jan de Rooy, the political attaché of the Dutch embassy in Bucharest, bringing an end to this edition of Wide Angle. I’m Eric Beauchemin.

Wide Angle is a presentation of Radio Netherlands’ current affairs team.