Gay community in Romania fears fallout from marriage referendum

The referendum aims to make it impossible for them to marry in future, by changing the constitution to stipulate that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Growing up gay in overwhelmingly Orthodox Romania was never easy for Cosmin Olteanu, but the 18-year-old student fears life could get worse when the country votes in a referendum to narrowly define marriage.

Romanians go to the polls at the weekend to vote on whether the constitution can characterise marriage as explicitly between a man and woman, an initiative that aims to block same-sex partnerships.

Human rights groups and some European lawmakers have criticised the referendum for breaching human rights standards and discriminating against LGBT people. Gay activists worry the divisive poll encourages hatred.

“I personally feel that they are trying to label us, to make us second-class citizens,” Olteanu told AFP alongside his partner Robert in the northeastern city of Bacau.

Under Romanian law, same-sex couples are not allowed to marry. Currently, the constitution states simply marriage is between “spouses”.

But the referendum — organised by a civic initiative called “Coalition for the Family” and backed by the Orthodox Church — aims to make it impossible for them to marry in future, by changing the constitution to stipulate that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Daily humiliations

Florin Buhuceanu, a 47-year-old gay rights activist from Bucharest, says the pro-referendum rhetoric adds to the daily humiliations gay people face in Romania — from being ostracised by neighbours to having homophobic graffiti scrawled on front doors.

“On the one side, there are the ‘honourable’ people who defend family values, and on the other, those who ‘threaten’ those values and must be punished,” he said.

His partner, Victor Ciobotaru, fears increased verbal attacks from critics on social media in recent weeks could easily translate into physical violence.

“I’m sure that if we met, they wouldn’t hesitate to act”, he said.

Amnesty says the referendum fails rights standards and discriminates against homosexuals. Some European parliament members have also condemned the plebiscite as contrary to Romania’s rights commitments.

In the face of such criticism, the ruling Social Democrat party has been careful not to be seen taking sides and Prime Minister Viorica Dancila insists that “this referendum is not against sexual minorities”.

‘Yes’ vote likely to win

Nevertheless, party politicians have been shown in pictures by local media campaigning alongside Orthodox priests for the “yes” side of the referendum.

In the devout eastern European country, which only decriminalised homosexuality in 2001, there is little doubt the “yes” vote will win.

Last month, the government announced that the referendum would be held over two days — October 6 and 7 — to ensure maximum turnout.

Some 18.9 million Romanians are eligible to vote, but a turnout of at least 30% is needed for the result to be valid.

A campaign to boycott the plebiscite gained traction on the internet. But at the same time, the anti-gay marriage lobby also ramped up its rhetoric.

“If you don’t vote, two men will be able to adopt your child”, read one billboard in the western city of Timisoara.

Some critics worry such propaganda is heading in a dangerous direction.

Liliana Popescu, professor of international relations at Bucharest University, compared the campaign to the persecution of minorities in Nazi Germany.

“How are the Romanian decision-makers different from the Nazis who fed the fear of Jews, Roma and homosexuals?” she asked.

Unholy alliance?

LGBT activists and critics of the vote worry it will open the door to more socially conservative campaigns — such as on sex education and abortion — with the express backing of the Orthodox Church.

Romania’s Patriarch recently called upon voters to go to the polls and do “a patriotic act” by defending the “sacred gift of life”.

In the current climate, gynaecologists in dozens of hospitals have refused to carry out pregnancy terminations for religious reasons.

Pro-choice campaigners fear a return to the days of the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu where all forms of contraception were banned and more than 10,000 women died as a result of complications arising from illegal abortions.

“Romania has already embarked on the path of illiberalism,” university professor Popescu said. “This referendum will only confirm this direction.”

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