Roma and Queer in Romania

How gay, trans and genderfluid experiences are redefining activism along intersectional lines in the conservative society of Romania

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Bianca Varga was a regular at Queens, Bucharest’s only queer club. Nestled between a communist block of flats and a more modern office building, Varga felt it was one of the few spaces in the Romanian capital where she could express her gender fluidity and let loose on the dancefloor, surrounded by people like her.

One evening, she decided to go as Iosif, her masculine gender identity—dressed in not-so-flashy clothes and without any makeup on. A couple of drinks into the party, as Iosif was starting to get into the mood, two bulky bodyguards approached him and his friend.

A phone had been stolen, they learnt, and the bodyguards wanted to search them. After not finding anything on them, they proceeded to kick them both out of the club. Iosif called the manager—whom he knew from his nights at the club as Bianca—and told him to come and sort out the situation. He felt that he and his friend were only suspects because they were Roma. The manager realised the bodyguards’ mistake and, embarrassed, asked the pair not to call the police.

 

“I’m used to being accused of stealing, but the most frustrating thing is that it happened in an LGBTQ+ club,” says Varga, who is Roma and has Hungarian roots. “Being the first one who was checked when something was stolen, in an LGBTQ+ club that was supposed to be an inclusive space, really bothered me.”

Varga is genderfluid, alternating between her feminine identity as Bianca and masculine identity as Iosif. Her gender identity and ethnicity have always made her a target for discrimination. The fact that she grew up in Romania’s post-communist orphanage system only made those experiences worse. “I know my family, but I have no attachment to them,” she says about her childhood. “The system was my family.”

While in the system, Varga became a vocal activist for public support. She managed to increase the amount of money for clothes, food and rent that people like her, who were no longer minors, received after leaving the state’s care. “I started being an activist before I even knew what activism meant,” she says.

After 20 years in the system, she had trouble adapting to social conventions. “I didn’t know how to behave; it was like I came from a jungle.” After many failed attempts to hold down a job, she was hired by the Romanian social services—the same institution that she grew up in. No longer having to worry about making ends meet, she started exploring—and better defining—her gender identity. This made her want to help other queer Roma people in the country navigate the minefield of discrimination she was all too familiar with.

About a year and a half ago, she started a Facebook live show with another queer Roma, called Două Pupeze Negre (“Two Black Hoopoes”, referring to the bird with a long downturned beak and a wide crest). The goal is to create entertaining and educational content for queer people from disadvantaged backgrounds—helping them to better understand and accept themselves.

Varga is part of an intersectional movement of activists that is trying to redefine what it means to be queer and Roma in Romania. Known for its conservatism, the country is the most religious in Europe, according to a 2018 Pew Research Centre study. Being a visible activist didn’t come easy to Varga at first. But after she came across MozaiQ—an organisation that seeks to foster strong ties between queer Romanians—she gained the confidence and support to define her gender identity and help others in similar situations to hers. “I didn’t know what being genderfluid or LGBTQ+ was,” she says, “I just knew how I felt.”

Roxana Marin, a grassroots activist and educator working for MozaiQ, has been focusing on strengthening the community and creating the spaces they need to thrive. From football championships to professional skills classes and finding shelter for people in emergencies, Roxana, who is also queer and Roma, has been working to make MozaiQ a place of refuge for people like her. “I don’t have time to waste on working to change the laws and doing advocacy,” she says. “I want to make people’s lives better today,” she adds, stressing that helping the community is more of a priority to her than fighting the government.

 

Roxana is a busy woman. An English teacher at a Bucharest-based high school by day, she makes time between classes to organise an annual LGBTQ+ job fair, bringing together employers and prospective employees. But it’s not easy to convince companies that what she does is a worthwhile endeavour. To create job opportunities, Roxana runs pro bono training for their human resources departments and organises public speaking events for the community. “I spend so much time trying to create strong relationships with these companies and help them understand the value of inclusivity,” says Roxana. “You have to build it little by little every day.”

Varga credits MozaiQ for having helped her gain the confidence to do activism and improve her professional skills. But despite initiatives like Roxana’s, queer Roma people in Romania continue to experience a particular type of discrimination, specific to the intersection of their two identities.

Besides the day-to-day discrimination they encounter, the absence of gender identity laws and a hate crime registry in Romania doesn’t make it easy for gender non-conforming people to integrate. In early 2021, Romania was found to have violated the European Convention of Human Rights due to its lack of clear legal frameworks for gender recognition. This trickles down to how society treats people who are not cisgender, often leaving trans people without a home or a job. Because of that, many practice sex work to survive, which doesn’t bode well with landlords, the majority of whom decide not to rent their flats to trans people. Gender non-conforming Roma people like Varga bear the violent brunt of interwoven discrimination, adding a deep-rooted tradition of anti-Roma sentiment to widespread homophobia.

 

On a scorching summer day in 2003, Antonella Lerca Duda, then 14, was feeling anxious. She was living with her six siblings and mother in a state-owned house in Iași, a large city in eastern Romania. Their only source of income was the government stipend her mother received, and whatever daily jobs her siblings could get. But it wasn’t her family’s economic insecurity that troubled her. In a week, Antonella would be getting married.

“What should I do?” she pens in her autobiography. “I’m going to follow what my mother says … even though, within myself,

I know nothing will come of it.”

A week later, on their wedding night, the couple did not consummate the marriage. This triggered an uproar in the community, with both families edging towards a violent resolution. But once the reason for the union’s failure surfaced—that Antonella, the groom, identified as a girl and not as a boy—any chances of reconciliation vanished into thin air, and the bride’s family took their dowry and walked away. Antonella remembers those events as her coming out, and even though her family and community did not understand, she was relieved she had gotten out of the arranged marriage.

She would have to pay a hefty price. She was excluded from her community, rejected by her family and had to undergo psychiatric evaluation for a “behavioural disorder.” There was no place for Antonella’s trans identity within a Roma context. “My gender and ethnic identity have brought only discrimination upon me,” says Antonella.

The chain of unfortunate events did not end there. At 16, lured in by the promise of a better life, Antonella accepted an invitation to move to Italy with the man she loved. Months after her arrival in Italy, she realised it was a plot to traffic her into sex work, much like tens of thousands of other Romanian women duped into prostitution in the southern European country. In 2020, it was estimated that out of about 30,000 Romanian women practising sex work in Italy, half were minors—just like Antonella had been at the time.

She reclaimed her freedom after sustaining six months of physical and psychological abuse. However, to survive in Italy, she had no choice but to continue practising sex work—this time on her own terms. Throughout Europe, many trans women like Antonella find themselves with few options for work, mainly due to biased hiring processes and the workplace discrimination they face when they do get a job. For a trans Roma woman in Romania, where an estimated 90% of Roma people live on or below the poverty line, job opportunities are almost non-existent.

 

Right after the 1989 revolution that put an end to communism in Romania, Marian Zamfir-Enache was an 18-year-old geography student in Bucharest. Walking past a newsstand, his eyes fell upon a paper featuring an article about the origins of the Roma community. “It was an extraordinary moment of discovery and understanding of who I was,” remembers Marian, whose family didn’t raise him with the Romani heritage, tradition and language, in an attempt to shield him from discrimination. Despite that, he grew up with a sense of shame—“I didn’t know what it meant to be Roma, I just knew it wasn’t good, so I wanted to hide it.”

From the moment he read that article and understood who he is, he started to be open about being Roma, even though people broke off relationships with him due to his ethnicity, or on the contrary, over-sexualised him because of it. “The stigma traumatised me, I really suffered socially.” Years after making peace with his Roma identity, he accepted his homosexuality. This, too, was a fraught process, owing to the social pressures that came with homosexuality in Romania, where, until 2001, all non-heteronormative sexual orientations were criminalised.

As a person well-integrated into Romanian society, with a white-passing appearance, a stable economic background and a hidden queer identity, Marian never would have expected to be the victim of discrimination. And yet, once he became open about his identity, he couldn’t escape the prejudice that came from the intersection of his sexual orientation and ethnicity—identities he didn’t even understand until his late teens.

Experiences like Varga’s, Antonella’s and Marian’s are widespread in Romania, where the Roma are the victims of a long and largely unacknowledged history of oppression and abuse. The genocide during the Holocaust, as well as centuries of slavery and structural discrimination, aren’t understood by most Romanians. Neither is the forced deportation of the Roma to Transnistria, only two years after the Iron Guard fascist government took power in 1940, forcing them to endure hunger, death and illness. Only half of those deported survived. Decades of oppression continued, with forced sterilisation and assimilation campaigns under the Ceaușescu’s Socialist Republic of Romania.

Today, the Roma community continues to be discriminated against and is poorly integrated, often living on the fringes of society. In a 2019 landmark case, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Romania was guilty of institutionalised racism following the physical abuse of a Roma family by a police unit during a raid. It was the first ruling accusing a country of institutionalised racism in the EU. A 2021 report from ILGA—an umbrella organisation for LGBTQ+ associations in Europe—ranks Romania only 33rd in equality and non-discrimination measures and at the bottom 10 of all 49 European countries in legal gender recognition. The annual report—called the Rainbow Europe Map and Index—gives countries a score per protection or equality measure, such as registered partnership, hate speech laws, co-parent recognition and equal employment opportunities. Romania only fulfilled 19% of the selected areas for the protection of LGBTQ+ rights.

 

During Romania’s democratic awakening, despite some improvements in LGBTQ+ rights compared to the communist regime, the queer community had to run the gauntlet of religious fundamentalists, who organised the controversial “family referendum” in 2018. It aimed to change the constitutional definition of the family to be specifically formed by a man and a woman, thereby leaving no opportunity for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Antonella was still in Italy in the lead-up to the referendum, and the social uproar it was causing filled her with frustration. “I didn’t have a voice there, I was protesting in vain,” she says, “I had to be in Romania to actively contribute to this fight.” She returned in 2017, ready to fight for her community. She became a leading voice for trans rights during and after the referendum, which was widely boycotted and didn’t reach the participation needed for validation.

But Antonella was just getting started. In Romania’s 2020 local elections, she was the first trans woman to ever run for public office in the country’s history, increasing the visibility of trans people in a society that sees this community as a threat to its culture and identity. “I didn’t run to win,” says Antonella matter-of-factly. “I wanted to break another barrier and I wanted to show people that trans women are intelligent. We’re more than our sexuality or what we have in our pants.”

Since returning to Romania, she’s achieved unparalleled recognition for the trans, Roma and sex worker communities. In 2018, she founded the country’s first sex workers association—SexWorkCall—organising protests and initiatives to decriminalise the profession. With weekly Instagram lives on topics like defining one’s gender identity and coming out on one’s own terms, she continues to be the most visible voice on the political issues affecting her community.

Doing this type of activism in an ocean of prejudice is not easy, especially when one has no allies in public office supporting the LGBTQ+ cause. In 2020, the Romanian parliament proposed a law that aimed to ban the study of gender in public education. While the Constitutional Court scrapped it, the proposal was a sign that trans people’s very existence is still threatened in Romania.

The state’s view is mirrored in its lack of public funding for anti-racist and LGBTQ+ organisations, making initiatives like Roxana’s MozaiQ dependent on European funding. Her project’s current finances will only last for one more year, and trying to keep it running on biannual grants prevents her from making longer-term plans.

A further problem is the conditions that dictate how the resources should be spent, which is rarely what the community needs. Studies and reports on discrimination, which are often requested by funders, have little bearing on a context where queer people, evicted from their homes by landlords and their families, have immediate essential needs.

The bureaucratisation of funding for LGBTQ+ organisations prevents real progress, explains Oana Dorobantu, a non-binary activist of Romani descent. “Change can’t happen in a couple of years,” they say. “We’re talking about hundreds of years of racism,” they add, “these systems of oppression don’t loosen with funding for projects that last two years and don’t address the immediate needs of the community.”

Oana believes that in order to address these issues, people with intersectional identities need to be at the helm of queer activism in Romania. If white activists are predominantly the ones in positions of power, explains Oana, it is impossible to address the needs of the people most vulnerable to discrimination, who are often queer or trans Roma. Oana also believes that when it’s only white activists who are visible, they risk infantilising people with intersectional identities, which widens an already large resource gap. “That doesn’t mean they’re uneducated and they can’t express their experiences,” they say. “There’s no way someone from the outside can understand the experience they live and feel daily.”

 

While initiatives for LGBTQ+ rights try to be inclusive, queer Roma activists think there is still a long way to go until this perspective is applied effectively. According to Kimberlé Crenshaw, the American legal scholar who coined the term, “intersectionality” is the experience of multiple identities vulnerable to discrimination, so inextricably interwoven together that the sources of discrimination cannot be told apart from each other. Having an intersectional identity is more than a sum of identities stacked upon each other. It creates a completely separate experience.

More often than not, intersectionality is understood as an additive model in which identities like race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or class, bring about different types of discrimination that get added to one another. This interpretation risks creating a ranking of different types of discrimination, where people are considered the most oppressed, depending on how many vulnerable identities they have. This creates an unstable foundation on which no movement characterised by solidarity, collaboration and empathy can be effectively formed. “I think intersectionality is often adopted at a declarative level in Romania, with very few white people using it as a tool for inclusivity or a prism for the work they do, but rather as an aside,” says Oana.

That’s why, in the case of queer Roma people, it’s hard to tell where discrimination begins and ends. Racism shapes homophobia and homophobia shapes racism, giving rise to a particular form of racialised homophobia that targets queer Roma people specifically. Only by recognising the experience of interlocking oppressions and the consequences of their fusion can one effectively challenge them.

Mihaela Dragan—a Roma actress and playwright—understood that distinction when she co-founded Giuvlipen, a feminist Roma theatre collective that centres the experiences of people with intersectional identities. “I wanted to create progressive Roma art as an alternative to the stereotypical representations of us,” explains Mihaela, “art that truly shows the beauty of our diversity.” Queer and Roma herself, she understands the concept of intersectionality and successfully applies it in a cultural setting, earning international praise for it. “For Giuvlipen, intersectionality is a prism, and not just another attempt to pepper some intersectionality over an initiative just because,” says Oana.

Antonella, Mihaela and Oana are part of an initiative to reform activism in Romania along intersectional lines, trying to put those most vulnerable from the community at the forefront of queer activism. “We can’t be a movement in which the same abuses and oppression mechanisms that we’re trying to fight against exist,” says Oana as they pick up their phone to share their favourite quote about activism by Audre Lorde. They clear their throat and read:

“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep inside in each of us, and which knows only the oppressor’s tactics and oppressor’s relationships.”

Their views of justice, right and wrong, cast by their experience of intersected discrimination, make queer Roma activists in Romania want to reshape who is leading the movement. “We need organisations to include the most vulnerable people in their leadership and not just tokenising a Roma person by adding them to the list, to show how inclusive they are,” says actress Mihaela. “Activists need to educate themselves about intersectionality and apply it in its true form—without concrete actions, there are only empty words.”

Anger and frustration lend activists the strength to continue fighting because, for queer Roma people, activism is not a choice, but a necessity if they want a normal life without discrimination and abuse. But on the positive side, notices Antonella, Romanian activism is going in the right direction. There is no trans-exclusionary feminism in the movement, she says, and activists are generally open to collaboration. That is why despite—and not because—of the social presence of multiple ethnicities in Romania, the experience at the intersection between Roma and LGBTQ+ experiences is giving birth to an authentic breed of inclusive activism.

 

The queer Roma flag hangs in Roxana’s yard, featuring a red 16-spoke cartwheel centred on the LGBTQ+ flag in the background. Every time she has people over, she’s hammering in the idea that these two identities exist and that her house is a safe space for both. When activists create spaces for queer Roma people, explains Roxana, everyone starts to share and problematise different issues, which might have been unknown to them until then. “I try to create these spaces and keep them unpolluted,” she says. “That will develop certain chemistries and mechanisms that suit them, which will give birth to great initiatives.”

Once these spaces exist, people with intersectional identities will become more visible and confident in order to ask for their rights, as well as position themselves as leaders in Romanian queer activism. Not because they form the majority of the community, but because they can better, and more comprehensively address the needs of the groups most vulnerable to discrimination from within the community. Even though they don’t hold master’s degrees or PhDs in gender studies, they’re the ones who best understand intersectionality because they live it every day.

Varga is not currently involved with any LGBTQ+ associations. She prefers to focus on her job with the social services because she loves spending time with the beneficiaries. Her show, Two Black Hoopoes, was discontinued when the pandemic started but she continues to do her own type of activism alongside her job. “I help everyone, not just Roma,” says Varga, “I always try to help lonely people like me, people who don’t have moral or psychological support.”

After the night of the incident, Varga stopped going to the club. But after a while, she went back—“Of course I went back, it’s the only LGBTQ+ club in Bucharest after all,” says Varga, “I didn’t have a choice.”

 

Andrei Popoviciu's motivation

Illustration by

Andreea Chirică