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Romania's 'Family' Referendum Stirs Fears Of Past In Gay Community

A young Romanian protester holds up an anti-LGBT sign at a rally ahead of the country's divisive upcoming referendum on the country's constitutional definition of marriage.
A young Romanian protester holds up an anti-LGBT sign at a rally ahead of the country's divisive upcoming referendum on the country's constitutional definition of marriage.

As a would-be man of the cloth, 30-year-old Victor Ciobotaru might appear to fit more comfortably among Romanians preaching for "yes" in this weekend's "for the traditional family" referendum than in the camp of those strongly opposed to redefining marriage.

The October 6-7 referendum on changing the constitution to state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman is an Orthodox-backed initiative seemingly aimed at heading off eventual legislation to allow same-sex partnerships.

However, Ciobotaru not only opposes the vote; he says he and his family feel "personally threatened" by it. That's because Ciobotaru is not a Christian Orthodox priest but a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church who trained to become a pastor. And he's gay.

Ciobotaru grew up and was educated in the countryside near the northeastern city of Iasi. His might be regarded as a typical traditional, churchgoing family in rural Romania. Strict rules. Respect for the elderly and the priests. All by-the-book.

But the young Ciobotaru realized, with discomfort at first, then with guilt, that he was different.

"I lived in an environment where I involuntarily absorbed a lot of prejudice about my own person, and that was a huge drawback," Ciobotaru tells RFE/RL. "It was actually one of the main obstacles preventing me from accepting who I actually was."

'Personally Threatened'

His was a long and difficult journey toward coming to terms with himself that took him years. Although Romania had shed communism, it was taking much longer to shed prejudice against minorities. He left Orthodoxy, studied theology, and, in the end, came out. It was a tough and psychologically bruising journey. But Ciobotaru settled into a semblance of normal existence that he fears is under threat once again.

"I feel personally threatened by this referendum, because I can't help feeling it is about me and my family," says Ciobotaru, who lives in Bucharest with his 47-year-old partner. "I don't consider us to be a threat to anyone in this country. I'm just a citizen, like anybody else, who has the right to be respected and deserves it."

The push for the referendum has enjoyed continuous backing from Romania's Orthodox Church and the ruling coalition.

Hate And Debate Ahead Of Romania's Gay-Marriage Vote
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The church and many Romanian politicians have appeared to be at pains to consistently reject the notion that the referendum is aimed at any specific group, as opposed to simply backing "the traditional family," which they claim comprises a man and a woman and should have procreation as its ultimate goal.

The head of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Daniel, has urged his countrymen to vote and perform "an act of patriotism" by defending the "sacred gift of life."

'Perverse Attitude'

Currently, the Romanian Constitution simply defines marriage as a union between "spouses," although lower legislation permits neither same-sex marriage nor civil partnership for such couples.

The referendum, which needs a 30 percent turnout to pass, was initiated by a civil-society alliance called the Coalition for Family (CPF), which said the term "spouse" could open a door to civil partnership for gay couples and eventually marriage. The CPF gathered 3 million signatures in three years to push for the vote.

The plebiscite has been criticized by rights watchdogs and EU lawmakers for violating human rights standards and discriminating against the gay community.

Ciobotaru argues that organizing the vote is a waste of money in one of the European Union's poorest countries and won't improve the lives of ordinary Romanians.

"It's enough to open a dictionary to find out the definition of the word 'spouse.' I don't think that 43 million euros should be spent to translate the word 'spouse ' from Romanian into Romanian," he says.

Victor Ciobotaru (file photo)
Victor Ciobotaru (file photo)

Ciobotaru is also critical of the Orthodox Church, which he says has "a perverse attitude."

"This whole campaign, by the church, by some media, is meant to mobilize people not in favor of the family, as they claim, but against a category of people -- namely, the gay minority," Ciobotaru says.

Ciobotaru also points to disinformation on some campaign posters and ads urging people to vote "yes" or risk seeing their children adopted or even stolen by gay couples.

Meanwhile, Alex Andronic, a gay 25-year-old Bucharest bar owner and novelist, says the media campaign for the referendum sporting Orthodox clerics, politicians, and some public personalities has pushed Romanian society toward confrontation.

"It resulted in people being full of hatred," Andronic told RFE/RL. "A waste of money, banning a right which is already banned."

'Wave Of Hatred'

Andronic says he fears an onslaught on civil liberties that doesn't stop with the referendum, leading to the cancellation of subsidies for contraceptives and elective abortions, as well as forcing parents of minors to undergo counseling if they want to divorce.

The CPF declined to respond to repeated requests from RFE/RL for comment.

Homosexuality was decriminalized by Romania in 2001, decades after other countries in the region.

"The worst consequence [of the October 6-7 referendum] seems to be a forced return to communism, which we left not so long ago," Andronic tells RFE/RL.

A study by advocacy group ILGA-Europe ranked Romania 25th out of 28 EU states based on legislation, hate speech, and discrimination against homosexuals.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights groups have voiced serious concern about the referendum and its timing.

Vlad Viski, the director of Mozaiq, one of Romania's main LGBT rights groups, says the vote is being used to distract society's attention from the serious problems facing Romania – including a rising wave of anger in society.

"In the run-up to the referendum, a wave of hatred has been released in Romania, especially in a country where the LGBT community has always been discriminated against, marginalized, and isolated, with a history of repression even after the fall of communism," Viski says.

Ciobotaru claims to have noticed an increased intensity in the run-up to the referendum that has included a slippage toward hate speech, which he fears that at some point could turn into violence.

"I've received direct threats on Facebook since the beginning of the referendum campaign, including from former theology colleagues who told me that if, God forbid, they could lay their hands on me, they would beat me until they exorcised all this crap out of my head -- 'crap' meaning my being gay," Ciobotaru says. "Such threats were backed up with Bible verses."

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