Romania: Living with coronavirus

Pandemic is a battleground over gender studies, writes Dr Ana Alecsandru

The World Today Updated 29 March 2021 Published 1 August 2020 2 minute READ

It is challenging to be an LGBTQ activist in Romania. Conservative and nationalist groups supported by the Orthodox Church have waged a long campaign against sexual and gender minorities. During the coronavirus pandemic, the LGBTQ community has come under attack again.

The pandemic has forced advocacy groups, like many businesses and non-profit organizations, to close their offices and adapt to the virtual environment. But fighting for LGBTQ rights cannot be done sitting at a computer: many activities in the LGBTQ community ‘require direct contact, and community cohesion is affected by the current situation,’ said Vlad Viski, the activist and founder of the Romanian LGBTQ rights organisation  MozaiQ.

On top of that, on June 16 the Romanian parliament passed a blanket ban on gender identity studies, provoking condemnation from NGOs, activists and educational institutions. If signed into law, the proposed amendment to the education law will make Romania the second country in the European Union, after Hungary, to ban gender studies.

The amendment would prevent schools and universities from ‘spreading theories and opinion on gender identity according to which gender is a separate concept from biological sex’. Discussions on any topic related to gender identity and equality among teachers, academics, social workers and NGOS would be banned. The effect of this change would be to contribute to gender stereotypes by eroding women’s rights in a male-dominated country.

Activists say that Romanian members of parliament took advantage of the pandemic to adopt the amendment, which was passed behind closed doors without any public debate or consultation with experts and NGOs. So it was no surprise that when it was announced protesters wearing masks gathered outside the office of the Romanian president, the centrist Klaus Iohannis, urging him to reject the ban.

The change needs to be signed into law by Iohannis, who is thought to oppose the ban.  On July 10, the president lodged  an appeal with the Constitutional Court, arguing that the law would contravene several fundamental rights. On this basis, activists see a chance of a favourable outcome from the appeal.

‘In general, the court is a rather conservative one, but from our point of view, the bill goes against a series of constitutional articles regarding the rights to education and freedom of speech, so we are optimistic,’ Viski said.

Regardless of the result of the appeal, this is not the first attack on LGBTQ rights in Romania, and it is unlikely to be the last. Over the years, the LGBTQ community has had to learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Romania until 2001 and same-sex civil partnerships and marriages are still not legal. Romania received one of lowest scores in the Rainbow Map 2020, a report from ILGA-Europe’s, the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

The amendment is an early indication of conservative ambitions to suppress what they call ‘gender ideology’, a derisive term used by religious and conservative leaders to portray gender equality and progress on LGBTQ rights as a plot to destroy the traditional family.

Campaigns to spread anti-LGBTQ messages are often seen as a way to deflect attention from the political problems in Romania. With local elections taking place in Romania at the end of this year, Viski argues that ‘conservative politicians  are doing their best to find a scapegoat  for their failures and justify their inaction for the past four years.’

The implications of the new amendment to the education law  will directly impact an already vulnerable community. Even during a pandemic people who are serious about diversity and inclusion should engage in the debate and ensure that the people can be a source of resilience to safeguard democracy.