An Unsettled Saga – Queer in Romania Photo: Andreea Chirică

An Unsettled Saga – Queer in Romania

August 26, 2020

Written by:

Eugen Rădescu

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Throughout the history of the study of humankind there has been a fundamental opposition between those who believe that progress is to be made by a rigorous observation of actual human behaviour and those who believe that such observations are interesting only in so far as they reveal to us hidden–and possibly fairly mysterious underlying laws–that only partially and in distorted form reveal themselves to us in behaviour. Freud, for example, is in the latter class, most of American social science in the former. Man/female are social constructs–normative and restrictive. My sexual truth is behind your personal beliefs.

When is love limited to a single cultural compound? When all the gear of hope is lost and replaced by fear and oppression? Repression refers to the process of blocking informational, cultural contents that no longer enter the rational spectrum. In other words, repression is a cry from the inside out and is accepted by a society that is seduced by its own non-values, by its own aberrant constructs that replace free thinking with a consumerist and mindless thinking devoid of any desire for revolt or real value.
Many gay and lesbian Romanians hide their sexuality, particularly if they live outside Bucharest and other major urban areas. As is the case elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the rural areas are considerably more traditional and conservative.
<em>Queer. Istorii ilustrate</em> – Eugen Rădescu & Andreea Chirică
Queer. Istorii ilustrate – Eugen Rădescu & Andreea Chirică • translated from Romanian: "Although in the past years I became more relaxed, in public, the gesture of tenderness are never spontaneous, for a second I look around, there is a constant evaluation of the context."

What is the deal with queer?

…And what are we supposed to understand (or not) from this term?

Queer theory is a post-structuralist critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of queer studies and women's studies and includes both queer readings of texts and the theorisation of 'queerness' itself. Heavily influenced by the work of Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler and Laurent Berlant, queer theory builds both upon feminist challenges to the idea that gender is part of the essential self and upon gay/lesbian studies' close examination of the socially constructed nature of sexual acts and identities. Whereas gay/lesbian studies focused its inquiries into "natural" and "unnatural" behaviour with respect to homosexual behaviour, queer theory expands its focus to encompass any kind of sexual activity or identity that falls into normative and deviant categories. Queer focuses on mismatches between sex, gender and desire.

The idea that I have in mind is about what constitutes male-ness, female-ness and what constitutes “normal” are all socially constructed. It's just like your parents who tell you about what is wrong and what is right and all the stories when you are young. And then queer theory comes along and screws with your morals and your parents’ narratives.

Queer has been associated most prominently with lesbian and gay subjects, but analytic framework also includes such topics as cross-dressing, hermaphroditism, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery. Queer theory's debunking of stable sexes, genders and sexualities develops out of the specifically lesbian and gay reworking of the post-structuralist figuring of identity as a constellation of multiple and unstable positions. Karl Ulrich's model, he understood homosexuality to be an intermediate condition, a 'third sex' that combined physiological aspects of both masculinity and femininity.

I want to create a small glossary to see how the genre is redefined. This is only a very personal idea:

Gender binary: Gender is a choice between male and female, based on gender identified at birth. Gender binary is limiting and problematic for those who do not identify with one category or another.
Gender fluid: a person whose identity or sexual expression is fluid from female to male palette or is another spot of gender spectrum.
Genderqueer: a person whose sexual identity is not masculine nor feminine, but is in some point which is beyond gender/or is a combination between genres.

Queer is a product of specific cultural and theoretical pressures which increasingly structured debates (both within and outside the academy) about questions of lesbian and gay identity. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. 'Queer' then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionally vis-à-vis the normative.

Queer is political. Queer is also personal. But in terms of cultural perspective, everything that is personal (or public) becomes political and gender discussion is a political strategy for disrupting the heteronormativity narrative - this is why the queer theory is all about breaking down norms and institutions, specially those who violently destroy the social normality of acceptance and integrations.

Queer theorist Michael Warner attempts to provide a solid definition of a concept that typically circumvents categorical definitions: "Social reflection carried out in such a manner tends to be creative, fragmentary, and defensive, and leaves us perpetually at a disadvantage. And it is easy to be misled by the utopian claims advanced in support of particular tactics.

Queer theory was originally associated with radical gay politics of ACT UP, OutRage! and other groups which embraced "queer" as an identity label that pointed to a separatist, non-assimilationist politics. Queer theory developed out of an examination of perceived limitations in the traditional identity politics of recognition and self-identity. In particular, queer theorists identified processes of consolidation or stabilisation around some other identity labels (e.g. gay and lesbian); and construed queerness so as to resist this. Queer theory attempts to maintain a critique more than define a specific identity.

Acknowledging the inevitable violence of identity politics, and having no stake in its own ideology, queer is less an identity than a critique of identity. However, it is in no position to imagine itself outside the circuit of problems energised by identity politics. Instead of defending itself against those criticisms that its operations attract, queer allows those criticisms to shape its – for now unimaginable – future directions. The term will be revised, dispelled, rendered obsolete to the extent that it yields to the demands which resist the term precisely because of the exclusions by which it is mobilised. The mobilisation of queer foregrounds the conditions of political representation, its intentions and effects, its resistance to and recovery by the existing networks of power.

But the range and seriousness of the problems that are continually raised by queer practice indicate how much work remains to be done. Because the logic of the sexual order is so deeply embedded by now in an indescribably wide range of social institutions, and is embedded in the most standard accounts of the world, queer struggles aim not just at toleration or equal status but at challenging those institutions and accounts. The dawning realisation that themes of homophobia and heterosexism may be read in almost any document of our culture means that we are only beginning to have an idea of how widespread those institutions and accounts are”.

Queer theory's main project is exploring the contesting of the categorisation of gender and sexuality; identities are not fixed – they cannot be categorised and labeled – because identities consist of many varied components and that to categorise by one characteristic is wrong. Queer theory said that there is an interval between what a subject "does" (role-taking) and what a subject "is".

And much closer: Romania

<em>Queer. Istorii ilustrate</em> – Eugen Rădescu & Andreea Chirică
Queer. Istorii ilustrate – Eugen Rădescu & Andreea Chirică • translated from Romanian: "Romania is not sodomy."
After the fall of Communism, Central and Eastern Europe became the arena in which domestic civil societies began to thoroughly challenge political authorities to reflect human rights values and norms on their decision-making agenda. The newly born democratic regimes had to create the legal framework in order to guarantee human rights, but they also had to confront stereotypes that had largely legitimised discrimination and marginalisation of different minorities during the communist era. The LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) movement arose almost simultaneously in all the former communist countries, struggling to provide legal protection for discriminated individuals based on their sexuality and identity, and to raise cultural and social awareness within the heteronormative society.

The politicians and the Orthodox Church’s opposition to the elimination of the controversial piece of legislation (Amnesty International, 2008, 17) was soon counterbalanced by the foreign policy of the state and its intention to become a member of the Council of Europe and the European Union. For the Romanian government, the electoral stake of the LGBTQ issue consisted in following the suitable path. Its political decisions should have reflected the discriminative perception on homosexuality existing within society (Danish Institute for Human Rights 2009; Nachescu 2005) and the necessity to create an antidiscrimination legal framework.

Created in 1996, Accept became the first NGO advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people and played a decisive role within the movement. By that time, its activities concentrated on three main directions: lobby for the decriminalisation of homosexuality; campaigns and social intervention in dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis by promoting safe sex and the use of sterilised needles; and raise-awareness campaigns and cultural education on diversity, tolerance, human rights and equality. Its presence on LGBTQ rights scene and struggle against political and religious conservatism have been recognised later on by the European Commission which offered it the EGALITE prize, the highest distinction for promoting equality for queer people (ACCEPT 2017).
<em>Queer. Istorii ilustrate</em> – Eugen Rădescu & Andreea Chirică
Queer. Istorii ilustrate – Eugen Rădescu & Andreea Chirică • translated from Romanian: "We didn't know how many had the courage to join us when the protests were announced. 20? 50? Maybe 100?"

Our generation did not come with the manual for use in the package.

I wrote a book (“Queer. Istorii ilustrate" - together with artist Andreea Chirică) based on idea that the Romanian mentality is changing and people are much more tolerant and positive constructive to the subject of what means to be/part or not/queer. The idea wasn’t to be a sociological report of the real situation of LGBTQ+ people in Romania, but to raise the questions about their opportunities and situation. Despite the legal support in place for the LGBT community, the social situation for gay people in Romania is still very challenging.

The Romanian Orthodox Church plays a huge role in society there and has publicly spoken out against LGBT. 81% of Romanians identify as Romanian Orthodox, and the church also is heavily involved in education. Unsurprisingly, given these circumstances, many think of the gay community as ‘sick’ or ‘immoral.’ Many of the organisations campaigning for the constitutional amendment frequently cite their adherence to ‘traditional family values,’ seeing LGBT people as a threat to these.

Many gay and lesbian Romanians hide their sexuality, particularly if they live outside Bucharest and other major urban areas. As is the case elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the rural areas are considerably more traditional and conservative.

Queer – istorii ilustrate is a book about the reinterpretation of some stories about personal experiences, about those who have lived and contemplated. Is an artistic practice, and above all, a graphic exercise accompanied with personal stories, rendered in the form of interviews of some subjects who wanted to express their personal tales. Here's an extras of three personal stories in social media vs. reality.

“The only dating app I use is Tinder, but I couldn't call it a favourite one, because I do not consider it a necessity for my social or sexual life, but rather an auxiliary which, I admit, I use in short moments of solitude or need for validation. Online dating would not necessarily say that it is better but more efficient from one point of view: time. Otherwise, it may become more superficial than the classic way of meeting people”, says Andreea R.

“Honestly, I would rather prefer not to use any online dating application. I use only Grindr and Tinder, Grindr is my favourite, because besides the fact that I try to find people ok, I can have sex at any time and I know that at least I satisfy a physiological need. One thing is certain: from Tinder you can get a phone number faster than Grindr. Online or old school? I prefer to have a romantic way, a classic way of meeting someone, because I know that even us men, we know how to be decent and to have a civilised conversation”, says Radu-Cristian.

“I stay to the opinion that Grindr is an application where you can get a cool date, and Tinder is the place where the world pretends that it needs a more stable interaction with deeper emotional and social implications. But you can also use Instagram or Facebook for dating online. Truly, I think that the brain has remained the best application so far. And what attracted me sexually”, says Marian.

<em>Queer. Istorii ilustrate</em> – Eugen Rădescu & Andreea Chirică
Queer. Istorii ilustrate – Eugen Rădescu & Andreea Chirică • translated from Romanian: "Our favourite spot for meeting was the Berlin brasserie, the common place for the more upper class gay people."

Social Structure

At the beginning of the 90s a strong and understandable desire to escape communism made Romanian society an easy place for religious propaganda. The political incoherence of the state made way for a rise in power of the Orthodox Church, strongly re-affirming in society the nationalistic core of the identity politics.

“One of the few Romanian institutions untainted by communism was the Orthodox Church, which, after 1989, strongly emerged in the public sphere, with the presence of several priests becoming de rigueur at all public events. The Orthodox Church became very active in politics too, and it also managed to partly appropriate the discourse on Romanian values. Orthodox values immediately occupied the production of culture in most local institutions, by then in the process of reconfiguration. The context was favorable for mainstreaming in culture a generation of abstract mystics, supporters of strong conservative values, in line with the Christian ideology. Their presence in culture was based on a rising myth: the inner resistance against communism through cultural means. But the church-culture love affairs were interrupted by new generations of “capitalist artists” at the end of the first decade of the nineties. The artworks that started provoking the religious triviality of Romanian art easily turned out” (Valentina Iancu, Revista ARTA, June 2020)

The social structure has changed, but not enough to talk about a total freedom of expression of who you are as a queer individual/persona. You don’t have to be defined as persona by what kind of sex you like, this is the large conclusion that popups from many discussion that I had with gay people in Romania. The main problem is that the Romanian state intervenes and restricts the freedom of choice of its citizens and this is unacceptable. As artist Jenny Holzer said, “the abuse of power comes as no surprise”, and because of that we have to stand up and to oppose any gesture of moral aggression that comes from the state.

My freedom is much more valuable than their politics.

While the stigma of homosexuality quickly spread into public discourse, the LGBT reality remained invisible many years after the establishment of democracy. After it became legal, the first ever initiatives for building a queer identity through artistic means started to emerge. This is the context in which the term queer is appropriated along with its positive meanings added through the assimilation of the word in the activist discourse. Meanwhile queer has partially entered the cultural scene’s vocabulary, it has become a self-referential-identity term for some members of the LGBT+ community; and in recent years, some feminists working in the academic field have extended their preoccupations in this direction as well.
Like EU members Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Latvia, Romania doesn’t recognise same-sex marriages or even civil partnerships that were established in other countries. According to RFERL (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty), a survey by the Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy done between November–December shows that homophobia in the country is rampant: three-quarters 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. According to the 2011 census on religion, 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 legalising 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. 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”.

*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Eugen Rădescu

Romanian writer and curator, co-editor of Pavilion – Bucharest based journal for politics and culture and co-director of Bucharest Biennale. Author of How Innocent Is That? and QUEER. Istorii ilustrate. He is professor at University of Bucharest and Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca.

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