BUCHAREST -- It should have been the happiest development in their five-year relationship.
But when Florin Buhuceanu and Victor Ciobotaru went to a district town hall in the Romanian capital in March to apply for a marriage license, they got a most unfriendly reception.
Accompanied by their lawyer and a representative of the LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender) advocacy group Accept, the two men were naturally nervous, as same-sex partnerships are not recognized in Romania.
Joined by another same-sex couple seeking a marriage license, the four men were hopeful that even if their requests were denied they would at least be treated in a respectful, professional manner.
At first, the marriage clerk misunderstood the situation and assumed she was dealing with a petition for a heterosexual marriage.
But when it became clear that the request involved same-sex couples, the clerk yelled “Whaaaat!?” and accused them of plotting to have her lose her job, sue the town hall, and deliberately provoke a disturbance, said Accept's executive director, Teodora Ion-Rotaru.
A tense, three-hour encounter ensued in which the clerk accused the couples’ lawyer of willfully misleading the men and of not knowing the law.
"I felt utterly humiliated," said Nicu, one half of the second couple that was at the town hall seeking a marriage license. "As a Romanian citizen, I am allowed to make a request for anything and it has to be dealt with properly."
In the weeks following the incident, a total of seven Romanian couples joined in a lawsuit against the Romanian state that was filed at the European Court of Human Rights. The suit claims the government is violating the European Convention on Human Rights in denying them “a private and family life.”
Moreover, they say the prohibition of same-sex marriage in Romania amounts to state discrimination against its citizens.
“This episode strengthened us to go against the Romanian state,” Nicu’s partner, Radu, told RFE/RL.
Romania decriminalized homosexuality in 2002, five years before it joined the European Union. Despite that action, same-sex couples still face widespread prejudice and discrimination in the socially conservative Eastern European nation of 19 million.
Like EU members Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Latvia, Romania doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages or even civil partnerships that were established in other countries.
A survey by the Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy done in November-December shows that homophobia in the country is rampant: three-fourths of those polled say they don’t trust homosexuals, 59 percent wouldn’t accept a gay relative, and 52 percent wouldn’t be friends with a homosexual.
Although there are signs of growing public acceptance of same-sex couples in some quarters, Romanian authorities have done little to promote acceptance or debate and, in some cases, have moved in the opposite direction under the influence of the powerful Romanian Orthodox Church, which opposes same-sex relationships.
More than 85 percent of the population belongs to the Romanian Orthodox Church.
The church, other Christian denominations, and leading politicians in Romania supported an October 2018 referendum that sought to redefine marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
That would have replaced current wording in the constitution that is not gender specific, something conservative pro-family groups warned could open the door to legalizing same-sex partnerships.
The Evangelical Church of Augustan Confession, a German-speaking Protestant group in Romania, was the only major religious group to publicly oppose the referendum, calling it “anti-EU” and pointing out that marriage was already defined within civil law.
The government's decision to hold the referendum alarmed Brussels, with the EU Commission's first vice president, Frans Timmermans, reminding Bucharest of its commitments to human rights.
But the then-leader of the ruling Social Democrat Party, Liviu Dragnea, said the referendum was necessary because Romanians were alarmed by stories of men "marrying animals" in other countries. Other politicians said if Romania ever legalized same-sex unions, gay men would be able to adopt children.
Many same-sex couples dreaded the thought of the referendum passing.
“I had our luggage packed and ready to move,” said Radu, an IT specialist who’s been together with Nicu for 15 years. The pair -- who insisted on using pseudonyms to protect their identity -- have still not "come out" to their family or co-workers.
Radu said that in the run-up to the vote “there were people on television from the [far-right] New Right [party]. I thought we were going back to the 1940s when Jews, Roma, and homosexuals were persecuted.”
But the alarmist anti-gay talk by the country's politicians apparently failed to scare Romanians.
In the end, just 20.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, well below the 30 percent threshold required. Gay-rights groups and more liberal-minded Romanians hailed the country's rejection of the referendum.
Radu called the failure of the referendum “a huge surprise and a relief.”
One recent evening, Radu was devouring a sour soup sitting next to his partner in a discreet corner of a Bucharest restaurant. But the pair refrains from holding hands or other public displays of affection and reflect on the ways they are marginalized in society.
“Instead of protecting me, the Romanian state created an atmosphere of false fear,” said Radu, adding that he and Nicu are still afraid they will be exposed, hounded, and ultimately forced to leave Romania.
In theory, Romania should be moving to legalize same-sex partnerships.
A landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice in June 2018 said countries could not use the illegality of same-sex marriage to stop an EU citizen from bringing their non-EU spouse to live with them, which gave gay activists hope.
But little has changed, despite vague promises from Romanian politicians about legalizing same-sex partnerships as 23 members of the EU have already done.
The Romanian Orthodox Church is largely behind the reluctance by the government to grant more rights to same-sex couples.
Church officials recently called for a theater play with gay themes to be banned, claiming it mocked religious feelings and had a "deliberately blasphemous" message. They said organizers should be prosecuted under a 2006 law that prohibits "religious defamation" or “public offense towards religious symbols.”
Organizers of the play insisted they weren’t intending to denigrate Christianity but were instead poking a finger at “religious extremists” and the “fake religiosity” that some use to attack the vulnerable LGBT community.
Openly gay couples like activist Buhuceanu and Ciobotaru, a gender and political science student, are extremely unusual in Romania, where most LGBT couples keep their relationship secret.
But the couple says legal discrimination impinges on their everyday lives as there is no recognition or protection of same-sex families.
That means situations such as Ciobotaru being unable to pick up his partner’s mail at the post office, despite sharing the same address; or the couple not being able to get a joint mortgage. Equally frustrating is if one of the men is seriously ill, the other is barred from coming as a relative to visit in emergency care.
And should one of them die, the partner would not be allowed to identify the body at the morgue or benefit from aid for a funeral because, by law, the couple is not a family.
“I can’t pick up a parcel [for Buhuceanu] at the post office because we aren’t family, but they will give mail to someone’s mother-in-law,” said Ciobotaru, who is 31.
"I heard [the mail clerk] say ‘that homosexual’ is asking for his partner’s mail," he said. "It was humiliating [for that to be said about me] in front of everyone else there."
The March visit to the town hall for a marriage license was the first step in a legal action by the couples to show the legal discrimination that same-sex couples face in Romania.
Accept official Ion-Rotaru said she expects even more couples to join the lawsuit.
Only Buhuceanu and Ciobotaru have thus far agreed to have their names used as the other couples in the lawsuit want to remain anonymous for fear of being exposed as LGBT members.
The men say change must also come from within society, pointing to a leading member of the Social Democratic Party who recently said there isn’t a “social demand” to legally recognize same-sex civil partnerships.
"I stayed in the shadows [for so long]. I disturbed no one," lamented Radu. "It is my fault that I never went out to demand my rights. Society doesn’t have the courage to take a stand. People stay neutral.
"We live our lives undercover and it’s not fair," he continued. "We have to demand more, but I don’t know what the consequences will be.
"And I am scared."