BUCHAREST — Romania is gearing up to hold a referendum to amend the constitution to prohibit gay marriage, a move that civil rights groups warn could put the country on an “illiberal” path alongside the likes of Hungary and Poland.
Romania’s civil code forbids same-sex marriage, and civil partnerships — whether between heterosexual or gay partners — are not legal. But the constitution’s gender-neutral formulation on marriage, which defines it as a union “between spouses,” has left the legislative door open to legalizing gay marriage.
“This is an issue of immense depth,” Liviu Dragnea, leader of the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the most powerful politician in Romania, told reporters last month, pledging to quickly amend the constitution. “Even if some of my colleagues in Brussels are unhappy with what is happening in Romania, we will make it happen.”
The planned vote — which could be held as early as November — is the result of a campaign by “Coalition for Family,” which brings together more than 40 groups, many of them religious or describing themselves as “pro-life.” With the backing of the influential Orthodox Church, the organization collected 3 million signatures (Romania’s population is 20 million) in just a few months in 2015, enough to take the initiative to parliament.
“We have the constitutional right and moral obligation to defend the family from those tendencies of modern society which diminish its importance and accelerate its degradation,” says the Coalition for Family’s website.
All major political parties in Romania have expressed support for the constitutional change, with the exception of newcomer Union to Save Romania (USR), and the initiative is expected to be approved in parliament. The government has said it wants to call a popular referendum as soon as November, but the Constitutional Court’s announcement this week that it would analyze the law’s compatibility with the rest of constitution may push back the date of the vote.
As long as participation exceeds 30 percent of the electorate, a vote in favor will give the green light to constitutional change, undoing decades of campaigning by LGBTQ groups in Romania and possibly putting the country on a collision course with Brussels.
“This referendum is evidence of Romania’s moving in an illiberal direction,” said Vlad Viski, the president of MozaiQ, one of Romania’s largest LGBTQ rights groups.
Romania’s referendum against marriage equality is not the first of its kind in the region.
In Croatia, a group called “In the Name of the Family” collected 750,000 signatures in 2013 to launch a referendum that successfully amended the country’s constitution to stipulate that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman.
In 2015, the “Alliance for Family” mobilized Slovakians to trigger a referendum to restrict the family rights of gay people, but the vote eventually failed because of low turnout. That same year, Slovenia’s “Children are at Stake” group used a referendum to block the government’s plan to legalize gay marriage. (The country passed the legislation this year.)
Efforts to prohibit gay marriage also tend to go hand-in-hand with campaigns to remove sexual education classes and restrict abortion rights.
Similar efforts to mobilize citizens to restrict gay rights have taken place in Georgia, Bulgaria, France and elsewhere across Europe. In many cases, U.S. religious groups have played an active role in their campaigns.
Romania’s Coalition received legal assistance from the international chapters of several U.S.-based conservative Christian groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Liberty Counsel. In the U.S., both have been designated as anti-LGBTQ hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The international chapters of both organizations submitted pro-referendum legal opinions to Romania’s Constitutional Court while the body assessed whether the civic initiative could be considered by parliament.
In response to repeated requests for comment for this article, the Coalition responded with three internet links — one to an article about alleged attacks on pro-lifers, another to a video of a kink festival, and another to an article about propaganda. It gave no further information.
Liberty Counsel’s vice president of legal affairs, Horatio Mihet, said his organization “provided legal support and shared lessons we have learned while advocating for natural marriage in the United States and elsewhere.” Andreas Thonhauser, a spokesman for ADF International, said that the group also gave legal expertise to other countries in the region that requested help.
Local churches — be it the Orthodox Church in Romania or the Catholic Church in Slovakia or Croatia — were also involved in recent anti-LGBTQ rights campaigns.
Efforts to prohibit gay marriage also tend to go hand-in-hand with campaigns to remove sexual education classes from school curricula and restrict abortion rights.
Academics from Central and Eastern Europe, including feminist historian Andrea Peto from the Central European University in Budapest, have argued that this type of initiative constitutes an “anti-gender movement” that targets not only LGBTQ people but also takes aim at women and people who don’t fit into their conception of a “natural, traditional” family pattern.
“They do politics, they are lobbyists,” Peto said of the movement’s campaigners across the region. “They rely on transnational know-how, borrow talking points and transfer symbols, concepts and ideas.”
“The American groups have been promoting these themes for a long time, also outside of Europe, but in the last five years or so they became very active in Eastern Europe where they seem to have found fertile ground,” said Viski, of MozaiQ.
Despite Eastern European countries’ accession to the EU, most are still plagued with social inequality and have not attained the prosperity they expected as European citizens. The resulting frustration has made them a fertile breeding ground for conservative social and political movements.
Self-styled illiberal regimes such as Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński’s in Poland have honed a political formula that strategically builds support among lower-income classes with targeted economic measures and pushes a socially conservative agenda rooted in a nationalist narrative of defending the nation from outside threats: refugees, gay people, feminists.
The fight against “gender ideology” — or “sexo-Marxists,” as liberals defending gay rights in Romania have been labeled — fits into this narrative, with illiberal regimes claiming to be protectors of traditional family values.
Since Orbán became prime minister in 2010, Hungary has changed its basic law to protect a fetus’ life from conception and to restrict the definition of marriage to a union of a heterosexual couple.
Earlier this year, Orbán hosted the World Congress of Families, a U.S.-founded global coalition of religious groups that opposes gay rights, abortion and sex education. It was the first time a government hosted the annual congress, which has taken place since 1997 and is widely thought to be the influence behind stringent anti-gay laws in Russia.
The Coalition for Family and its Christian conservative backers have already changed the terms of the debate.
In Poland, the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has declared war on what it calls “gender ideology” — which it portrays as an imposition from Brussels — and has introduced an education reform bill that would eliminate anti-discrimination education in schools and promote “education for family life.” The government has also cut support for female victims of domestic violence.
Last year, conservative legal group Ordo Iuris collected close to half-a-million signatures to further restrict Poland’s abortion legislation. The proposal was rejected in parliament after tens of thousands of women took to the streets in protest, but Poland still has some of the most restrictive abortion laws on the Continent.
Unlike in Poland and Hungary — where a push for “traditional family values” is part of the ruling parties’ conservative agenda — the Romanian group’s effort to block same-sex marriage is a novelty in the country.
Romania is, overwhelmingly, a conservative country. Until 2001, it was illegal in Romania for same-sex couples to hold hands or express any other sign of affection, which was considered indecent exposure in public. The law changed as part of Romania’s EU accession process.
The Coalition for Family describes itself as a “pro-family group,” saying its main objective is for Romania to have “as many families as possible, as long-lasting and numerous as possible, and to ensure to their members a proper economic, social, psycho-emotional environment … and to ensure the continuity and demographic, economic, social and cultural development of the nation.”
The group has proposed measures that would increase economic support for traditional families, including subsidized housing for young couples and early retirement for full-time mothers, and would cut state funds that go toward elective abortions.
No matter the result of the upcoming referendum on the definition of marriage, the Coalition for Family and its Christian conservative backers have already changed the terms of the debate by portraying it as a fight between those who defend “the natural family” and “the Brussels-supported, [George] Soros-financed” NGOs, said historian Dan Cirjan.
“In Poland and Hungary, the political space has been defined in a similar way,” Cirjan said. “As an opposition between the ugly forces of globalization and the white cavaliers of tradition and ‘Christian Europe.’”
An illiberal turn
In Romania, the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD), by far the most popular party, has been cutting its teeth on the illiberal formula. The party ramped up the nationalist rhetoric in the run-up to the 2016 general election and since coming to power, it has tried to bring the judiciary under its control in order to safeguard the interests of corrupt party members.
“There’s a high risk that Romania will go the way of Hungary,” political scientist Cristian Pirvulescu, the founder of Respect, a campaign opposing efforts to outlaw gay marriage, said in an interview published on Respect’s Facebook page.
“We cannot separate the referendum from the Romanian government’s judiciary reforms, which would transform judges into terrified agents of the state,” he said, noting Romania has also become susceptible to rhetoric demonizing philanthropist George Soros and has started looking at tightening control over NGOs, much like in Hungary.
“These are all attacks on the liberal philosophy of democratic states and they come together. What happened in Russia is being reproduced here, in Hungary, Poland and Romania,” he warned.
Some effects of the referendum campaign in Romania are already visible. LGBTQ rights group MozaiQ reported an increase in violent attacks against gay people since the referendum campaign started in 2015.
Still, the group’s leader struck a note of optimism.
“The LGBTQ community and its allies have been forced to mobilize more,” said Viski. “We’ve had more protest actions and bigger participation in Pride marches, and there is more support expressed for the legalization of civil partnership.”
“This has — paradoxically — opened up opportunities.”