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Romanian journalist speaks about country's struggle for LGBT rights

by Heather Cassell

A Romanian journalist spoke out against radical United States religious activists' intervention in his country's politics with a planned referendum that could stall progress for LGBT rights in the Southeastern European country.

Gabriel Sandu, 29, is the founding editor of Brrlog and a playwright. He is visiting the United States this month to research LGBT teachers, discrimination, and how they protected their right to teach children as a part of a story he's working on about two closeted Romanian lesbian teachers who are a couple.

He was able to travel to the U.S. through a digital journalist program offered by the State Department. He is one of 16 other journalists from around the world working on their own projects across the country, he said. He returns to Romania October 21.

The Bay Area Reported had an opportunity to speak with Sandu last week about the anti-marriage equality constitutional referendum, anti-gay Kentucky clerk Kim Davis' recent tour of Romania, and attitudes toward the LGBT community and LGBT rights in the country.

Davis was on a nine-day tour of Romania with Harry Mihet, vice president of legal affairs and chief litigation counsel of the Liberty Council. The organization defended Davis, who spent six days in jail for contempt of court for refusing to sign same-sex couples' marriage certificates in Rowan County in 2015.

Mihet was also born in Romania and grew up under Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship until democracy came following a violent revolution that overthrew him in 1989.

Davis was speaking at Romania's National Theatre Bucharest when Sandu stopped by the B.A.R.'s offices October 12 to talk about the constitutional referendum that could ban same-sex marriage, restricting marriage to between a man and a woman.

Homosexuality isn't illegal per say in Romania, Sandu explained. But homophobic attitudes toward LGBT Romanians remain high, though within the last five years that has started to change, he said.

Romania's nearly 21.5 million citizens are mostly Eastern Orthodox. The country joined the European Union in 2007.

Fighting for Romania's LGBT movement
Sandu, who declined to state his sexual orientation, has been on a mission to educate people about the LGBT community's issues. It's proved to be a challenge, particularly with the teachers he has talked to there. He didn't want to risk the teachers' careers, so he had to disguise many personal facts about them while remaining true to how they live and love while deeply closeted.

"They normalize living in the closet and lying about their private life," said Sandu.

Sandu explained there is no middle ground in Romania for LGBT people. They are either out as a "professional gay" or they are deeply in the closet, only out within their close circle of friends. People who come out are no longer seen as a person with a profession and a whole life, they are minimized to simply being gay by others.

LGBT teachers are protected by anti-discrimination laws, so they can't be fired simply because they are queer, however, once found out by administrators or families, alternative reasons are often used to terminate their employment, said Sandu.

"They will not fire you because you're LGBT and you work with minors - they will find something to fire you," he said.

"I need a way to let the public understand that the fact that these women are such 'ghosts' in the article is not all right," said Sandu. He was struggling with balancing not inadvertently outing the women in the article but getting the message across to his readers that these women aren't living openly and fully as who they are.

Yet, the referendum could be a blow to Romanian LGBTs if it's put to vote and passes.

Sandu called the referendum "purely homophobic" and he was critical that it's going to cost Romanians upward of nearly $24 million (20 million euros), he estimated, just to vote that they "hate the gays."

Romanian lawmakers passed another law to lower the percentage of public votes needed to pass the referendum from 50 percent to 30 percent, he explained. They are pushing to pass the referendum backed by the Romanian Orthodox Church, which gathered 3 million signatures during a 2016 campaign.

Sandu told the B.A.R. that a vote isn't expected until sometime in the spring 2018, due to legislators still making changes to the law. Media reports state it could be put to vote before the end of this year.

LGBT activists believe politicians are pushing to pass the referendum before the European Court of Justice rules on a case lodged against Romania by a U.S.-Romanian gay married couple. The court is anticipated to hand down its decision sometime next year, he said.

"The moment the ECJ says these guys are right, Romania should do something to make this thing right, then marriage is legal," said Sandu, noting that France and Italy were forced by ECJ decisions to change their laws about civil unions and same-sex marriage. "That's why they want to change the constitution before it happens."

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who has publicly supported the gay couple whose case is with the ECJ, warned against religious fanaticism, reported the Washington Times.

"It's the only cause in the world that American money and Russian money are given for the same cause, which is anti-LGBT policies. That's just insane," said Sandu.

Romanian LGBT rights activists are appalled by Davis' tour of their country touting "liberty of conscience," and publicly denounced it.

Vlad Viski, the president of MozaiQ, an LGBT group in Romania, told the New York Times, "It is extremely worrying that a person who broke the law in the United States is being brought to Romania and presented as some sort of hero of Christianity."

In an open letter to the National Theater Bucharest the Romanian LGBT group Accept asked the theater to dissociate itself from Davis' speech, stating that she "falsely" promotes herself as a "heroine of religious freedom," reported the Times.

Sandu agreed with the LGBT activists as he spoke out against her visit with the B.A.R. He was critical about the press not being allowed to cover Davis and Mihet's speeches at the theater.

"They can say they will not allow press there. They can't say it's not legal, even though what they are doing is propaganda for a national referendum that's not only concerning the religious people, it affects the rights of all people," said Sandu.

However, he also believed there was more to the push for the referendum.

He believed the ruling Social Democratic Party leader Liviu Dragnea was using the LGBT issue as a mechanism of political distraction to turn attention away from an investigation into his party by the Anti-Corruption Division.

Every time the investigation heats up, Dragnea brings up the LGBT issue and the referendum to distract the public, said Sandu.

"We have a huge anti-corruption issue going on. These are the politicians who are using it just to take out the attention for what they're really doing," said Sandu. "They really don't care about human rights. They are not religious people. They just are people who want to steal as much as they can."

Sandu estimates that 70 percent of Romanians don't know what the referendum is going to do or how it's going to affect more than the LGBT community, such as single parents and other non-traditional families, he said.

Currently, legislators are attempting to fix the single parent family issue by writing a clause focused on so-called mono-parental menage, he said.

Romanians fear that if LGBT people gain the right to marry they will eventually gain the right to adopt children and then abuse them, said Sandu.

"They don't know what the constitution is for. They don't know what the issue is. They're just against gays because they have for centuries hated gays," said Sandu, talking about how the politicians and anti-LGBT groups are playing off the fears of highly religious, poor, and uneducated citizens, particularly in the countryside. "Romanians don't know what's going on with this referendum and they would find out when they are forced to go to vote."

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell or .


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