BUCHAREST -- Romania is considering a bill that would ban minors from being exposed to so-called "gay propaganda" in schools and in public life, despite warnings from rights groups that it would "fuel Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns" and reinstate censorship in the former communist country.
Seven lawmakers from the ethnic Hungarian UDMR, a junior ruling coalition party, initiated the bill under the guise of preventing child abuse and promoting child rights. The Senate tacitly approved the bill on April 27 and parliament's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, which has the final say, is due to vote this month.
The parliamentarians supporting the bill have said Romania was under threat from gender theories that have "taken Western Europe by storm" and are "endangering Christian values and the traditional Christian family."
But activists say the bill harms the very people it claims to want to protect.
"If censorship becomes acceptable in Romania, we will all suffer. If children's right to information and education can be censored in this brutal way, all youngsters will suffer," Teodora Ion-Rotaru, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Accept, told RFE/RL.
Similar legislation in neighboring Hungary that passed in June 2021 drew sharp criticism from the European Commission, which began legal steps against Budapest. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a "shame."
Many in Romania share similar feelings of disgust and outrage.
"This is an absolutely inhumane draft law against a community that has the same rights as the majority," said Catalin Tenita, a lawmaker from the liberal Save Romania Union party and a member of the Human Rights Commission who voted against it.
"It is an illiberal policy following in the steps of [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban," he said, claiming that the law would be "used as an instrument against the LGBT community, which will become a scapegoat…. [If] there are cases of pedophilia, [the law] will be used against them."
RFE/RL contacted the bill's co-initiator, Zakarias Zoltan, but at time of publication, the lawmaker had not responded. Botond Csoma, another lawmaker from UDMR, told RFE/RL that the bill wasn't specifically backed by the ethnic Hungarian party, although he declined to comment further.
Rights activists also say the proposed law is unconstitutional and could have wide-ranging effects.
"If a child is on the street and sees a Pride march, or if he or she sees a story about gay issues on television, or watches a film approved by the Romanian authorities that has LGBT issues," these would all be illegal under the law, Ion-Rotarau said.
"This kind of censorship affects our community, of course, but also it affects journalists, people in the advertising industry, medics, mental health experts…. LGBT people are everywhere," she added.
Activists worry that the bill, which amends a 2004 child protection law, is too vague and could be used by zealots to crack down on the LGBT community.
One article of the proposed law says that a child "has the right to be protected against the spreading of content through any means about the deviation from sex which is established at birth (by a doctor) or the popularization of sex change or homosexuality."
Octavian Cristea, an IT project manager from Bucharest who has an 8-month-old son, is also opposed.
"It is completely idiotic. I don't see any point in it. The LGBT community is part of our community. You can't wipe them out," he told RFE/RL. "For a European country in the 21st century, it's too much.
"It's like forbidding the color blue -- as if you can't tell children about blue. It's ridiculous."
Some activists and lawmakers have said that the proposed law is a weapon from the Russian propaganda arsenal.
"This level of [Russian] interference has been going on for six or seven years, fueling fears about the traditional family," Tenita said. "I can't prove the [ethnic Hungarian lawmakers] are on the Russian payroll, but their interests dovetail with Russian interests."
In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law against the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors. As a result of the law, films and advertisements have been censored, activists targeted, and groups offering support to the LGBT community shut down. Russian rights activists and international watchdogs have said that the law has encouraged discrimination and abuse against Russia's LGBT community.
Hungary's Orban has had a close relationship with Putin in recent years. Orban's battles with the European Union have made the Hungarian prime minister a useful ally for Putin. The two leaders have found common ground on hot-button social and cultural issues such as the role of the media or LGBT rights.
While Orban has criticized Putin's attack on Ukraine, he has not backed energy sanctions on Russia and has refused to allow the delivery of arms to Ukraine via Hungary.
We are treated like we don't have traditional values and the family doesn't count for us. But the family counts for us in the same way as it does for everyone else."-- Teodora Ion-Rotaru, executive director, Accept
Florin Buhuceanu, the advocacy director of Accept, says the bill comes "in the context of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which makes us become vulnerable. It's not the moment to mutilate laws which were adopted to protect rights."
"LGBT people face hostility. It is easy to deliberately use this instrument of hatred…in a society which is changing, but changing slowly," he said.
Despite the hostility -- often among the over-50s and from those in rural communities -- a 2018 referendum on amending the constitution with regards to same-sex marriage did not pass due to low turnout.
In Romania, marriage and civil partnerships for same-sex couples are already banned, but supporters of the referendum hoped that by changing the wording of the constitution to say that marriage could only be between a man and a woman rather than "partners," as it currently stands, they would prevent gay marriage from ever becoming enshrined in law.
Buhuceanu sees the bill currently being considered as a drive to weaken support for the types of values promoted by EU bodies.
"It's an anti-EU agenda, and I refer to all the legislative attempts to modify human rights laws. It is using children to attack…. It is the same type of illiberal philosophy which intends to break up ideas and values which we consider essential for Europe and for Romanian democracy."
"Russian soft foreign policy has an agenda of promoting traditional family values through Central and Eastern Europe," Ion-Rotaru added. "It aims to polarize and stir up society that serves certain aims: to create an illiberal and authoritarian society. It also weakens the relationship between ordinary people and the government and creates distrust…and promotes ideas which run counter to the needs of Romanian society."
Socially conservative Romania decriminalized homosexuality in 2001, decades later than in some European Union countries. The last person to be imprisoned for being gay was released in 1998.
The Romanian Orthodox Church, which backed the 2018 referendum, and to which more than 85 percent of Romanians belong, is a driving force with its support for the "traditional" family.
Forty-four members of the European Parliament's LGBTI Intergroup on June 16 signed a letter to Romanian officials slamming the "shameful" bill and urging parliament's lower house to kill it.
"We view this bill as a particularly worrying development, given its resemblance to the Hungarian bill…and to the Russian 'anti-LGBTQ' propaganda law," the letter said.
The bill isn't even compliant with the Romanian Constitution, the signatories and activists argued, stating that it goes against articles that give civilians the right to equality and to access information without restriction.
They added: "It is not compliant with European human rights standards, does not seek to further extend protection, but rather to reverse already secured rights, and further seeks to ostracize LGBTIQ people by seeking to relegate them to the shadows."
But the bill doesn't just roll back rights, it marginalizes and discriminates against a community that has fought long and hard for small gains -- and is often met with vitriol.
An opinion poll carried out by the Avangarde pollster in 2021 found that only 12 percent of people in Romania thought that the LGBT community should have more rights, and 57 percent said they shouldn't. Sixty-two percent said that the role of the traditional family should be strengthened with a special law.
Another poll, taken in 2017 by the Pew Research Center, found that some 74 percent of Romanians were opposed to same-sex marriage, with 26 percent in favor. And in 2020, a poll carried out by the LGBT advocacy group Accept found that 53 percent of young transgender people had considered suicide at least once.
"We are treated like we don't have traditional values and the family doesn't count for us. But the family counts for us in the same way as it does for everyone else," Ion-Rotaru said.