Romania: Bucharest Pride Under Siege

Bucharest, Romania – For the first time in 15 years, the yearly pride march organized by the LBGTQI+ NGO Accept has faced cancellation. Romania, the former east bloc European country whose claim to fame is a highly restrictive communist dictatorship followed by a televised revolution in December 1989, only de-criminalized homosexuality in 2001. Despite joining the European Union in 2007, the country is still not part of the Schengen Area international trading space, with its people occupying a liminal state of second-class citizenship that supplies agricultural and menial work for wealthier western EU states.

The move to cancel Bucharest’s 2021 pride parade is the latest iteration of a nationalist, right-wing sentiment that has been taking up steam over the past 7 years, using talking points like ‘tradition’ and ‘family values’ to promote a highly bigoted agenda. Dressed up in technocratic, neo-capitalist sheen, Romania’s current center-right government is working towards dismantling the last vestiges of the socialist-era safety net, like universal healthcare. This already hostile environment is augmented by the overwhelming power of dominant Greek Orthodox Christianity, embodied by the highly conservative BOR (Biserca Ortodoxa Romana, aka the Romanian Orthodox Church.)

Overtly anti-LBGT sentiment first came into the mainstream when an independent neo-nazi group called Coalitia pentru Familie (‘The Family Coalition’) proposed a referendum to modify the constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, instead of just between two spouses. Currently, both marriage and civil unions between same-gender people are not legal in Romania, but the right wing’s extended media campaign seems to have struck a nerve in the rest of the ultra-conservative, Christian population. Just last year, a law proposed in the senate (which failed to pass) sought to ban any gender education from schools and universities.

The attacks on the LGBT community have been on the rise since the pandemic because people have been taking advantage of the lockdown context and our inability to go out and protest because of the virus. This is when the community was first targeted by a law proposal that would ban any mention of gender both from schools and public speech”, trans Roma activist and sex worker Antonella Lerca tells me over the phone. (Both of these anti-gay measures have already taken effect under Victor Orban’s autocratic government in Hungary, Romania’s westward neighbor and former Hapsburg sovereign.) “I managed to organize a protest in the midst of the pandemic”, Lerca says, “but the threats have not stopped there”.

Only a couple of months later, the extreme-right church-backed party AUR (Alianta pentru Unirea Romanilor aka Alliance for United Romanians), which Lerca describes as an “ultra-conservative, utra-fascist, ultra-racist and ultra-nationalist party,” has just been voted into Parliament. AUR is now seeking to implement another Orban-inspired law that would ban any mentions of the LGBT community from public speech and television.

This first-ever, last-minute cancellation of the scheduled yearly pride march, the sole visibly queer public event for both the LBGT community and their families and allies, comes on the heels of this growing tension.

This party wishes to obliterate the LGBT community and move us closer to Poland and Hungary, wishing to move as far away from the EU as possible and look how now even at Pride the authorities have tried to throw a wrench in our plans

– Trans Roma activist and sex worker Antonela Lerca

Using the pretext of having to move the pride march to the bike lane of a busy boulevard without stopping traffic, Bucharest’s new mayor Nicușor Dan claims he has done his best to negotiate with the pro-LGBT NGOs, who he says are just being difficult. However, considering this was a regular yearly event, the mayoral office could have denied their initial request instead of springing for a last minute cancellation. Meanwhile, the right wing anti-LGBT counter-protest is set to go on as scheduled.

Romanian press claims NGO representatives are playing the victim by accusing Mayor Dan of homophobia, an angle that editorials from several mainstream outlets are pushing. Radio Free Europe has slightly more accurate reporting with the headline reading – “Tensions between the LGBT community and the capital’s mayor. After 15 years, the pride parade is denied its permit“.

Board members of Accept denounced Bucharest authorities for moving against the 2021 pride event. Florin Buhuceanu, organizer of the first Bucharest Pride March, states “we believe that the authorities’ abusive gesture denies two fundamental human liberties earned with the fall of the communist regime – freedom of speech and the right to assemble”, while Accept’s Executive Director Teodora Ion-Rotaru says that the mayor’s decision represents discrimination and they are ready to take them to court.

The Public Order Commission has not taken into account neither the COVID situation, nor the attendance number. In Bucharest and the rest of the country there have been various cultural events, festivals and religious happenings with tens of thousands of attendees. It’s only protests and demonstrations that have been capped at 500 participants. Within the current pandemic context, there is no justified reason to halt the Bucharest Pride March 2021

– Accept Executive Director Teodora Ion-Rotaru

After a second negotiation on Monday afternoon and faced with growing pressure both from the local media and small protests organized over the weekend, the newly-elected neoliberal mayor has since approved the initial pride march route, while capping the number of attendees at 500.

However, Accept is still running an online campaign trying to fight this decision. “We’ve reached a consensus and we can finally have Pride in Romania this year, the Bucharest Pride 2021, and we are very happy that we can use this Pride edition to raise awareness on all the transphobic, homophobic and conservative attacks going on”, Lerca says. “I can tell all my comrades from the Romania LGBT community that we have to fight and the fight will not be easy from now on because we have a fascist party in power. The fight has just begun.

Title photo by Andra Nikolayi