Romania is holding a referendum this weekend to change the definition of the family in the Constitution to being established based on the consensual marriage “between a man and a woman” instead of the current form which says “between two spouses”.
The legislative project to amend the constitution passed in the Romanian Senate with 107 votes in support versus just 13 votes against and 7 abstentions. The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) fully supported the initiative, and so did most senators of the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL).
PSD’s coalition partner parties ALDE and UDMR did not state an official position on the issue, claiming that their MPs could vote based on their own conscience. Most of the politicians who support the referendum have been avoiding making any clear statements against gay marriage or the LGBT community, claiming the vote simply represents “the will of the people” and the strengthening of Romania’s families.
It all started with an effort to gather signatures in support of the constitutional change in 2015, launched by Coalitia pentru Familie (The Coalition for the Family), a group of conservative and religious NGOs, which has strong backing from the Orthodox Church.
The Coalition managed to collect more than three million signatures from citizens throughout the country, which allowed it to submit the initiative to the Romanian Parliament. Before the Senate vote finally took place last month, PSD had announced its intention to organise the referendum several times over the past two years.
“The referendum is not by any party, of any political leader, it is for all of those who are going to vote for the defence of their children, for their life to be exempt from the ideological lie of the sexual revolution, the lie of those who want to re-educate all of us, parents and children,” said the Coalition for the Family.
PSD leader Liviu Dragnea has expressed a favourable view on a law to allow civil partnerships for same sex couples, but only as long as this doesn’t allow them to adopt children. He claims the PSD has nothing against the LGBT community. “Civil partnership is a normal thing, but only as far as it doesn’t involve adoption. We’ll discuss it after the referendum. The referendum is not against anybody, it’s just to provide an answer to a natural question,” he said.
Last month, Casa Jurnalistului reporters attended the World Congress of Families in Chisinau, Moldova, which brought together organisations like Romania’s Coalition for the Family from countries all over Eastern Europe, as well as religious leaders from Russia, Moldovan president Igor Dodon and supporters of the deeply conservative, family-oriented ideology from the United States.
According to the reporters, speakers at the Congress were pushing the idea that the West and the European Union were trying to impose “a new world order” through gender theory, abortion and LGBT propaganda. Instead, they claimed, their coalition would try to return to “normality” by moving out of cities and back to villages, where gender roles are clear and people want to have children.
The referendum is estimated to cost the Romanian state around EUR 43 million. A two-day referendum has only been held once before in post-communist Romania, in 2003, but the Dancila government decided that this one would also require an extended voting period soon after the proposal passed the Senate, “in order to allow citizens to express their preferences regarding the definition of the family.”
Although PM Dancila said in Brussels that the PSD will not get involved in the campaign ahead of the referendum, there have been several cases of PSD members, mayors or senators who have encouraged people to get out and vote to approve the initiative, and, according to paginademedia.ro, PSD has been the sponsor of several television ads in support of a”Yes” vote.
But a possible win for the “Yes” camp won’t lead to any immediate change in Romania, as the country’s Civil Code already states that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. What this referendum could accomplish is making sure that gay marriage will be impossible to be introduced into legislation in the future without a similar effort to amend the constitution and overturn this weekend’s result through another referendum, which is an unlikely scenario.
The #boycott movement
The only party that officially opposes the referendum is the Save Romania Union (USR), the youngest party in the Romanian Parliament, which has joined the calls for a boycott of the vote by those who might have come out to vote “no” in order to lower the chances of the referendum reaching the 30 percent attendance threshold.
The Accept Association, which defends the rights of LGBT individuals, writes on its website that the referendum “is an attempt by the Church and some homophobic organisations to turn public opinion against LGBT individuals, transforming them into a fictional threat to tradition and family, ignoring the reality: same-sex couples are living in Romania and forming families in the absence of any appropriate protection from the Romanian state.”
Many Romanian public figures, celebrities and even national and multinational brands have expressed their support for the LGBT community or the boycott movement over the last two weeks. Coca-Cola, Netflix and the Carturesti online bookstore are among the brands that have made their positions clear.
Those who are pushing the idea of a boycott say that the referendum is nothing more than a red herring aimed to distract from the government’s incompetence and the attempts by PSD leader Liviu Dragnea and his allies to dismantle the anti-corruption fight in Romania. Furthermore, they argue that it is an attack on a minority’s rights and that it erodes democracy in the country.
#Boycott has mostly been promoted through social media, where heated debates have been taking place with members of both camps. Unfortunately, these discussions have also brought a lot of hate speech and intolerance to the surface.
47 European Parliament members sent an open letter to PM Viorica Dancila, expressing concern about the referendum to amend the definition of the family in the Constitution. In their opinion, organising this referendum without ensuring alternative legal ways to recognise families makes the Romanian government an accomplice to the violation of human rights in the country. The letter also states that the vote encourages a hateful and violent rhetoric against LGBT individuals.
“The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – ratified by all UE member states, including Romania – never defines a family as only being between a man and a woman, and awards all children the same rights, regardless of who their parents are,” the MEPs wrote.
The MEPs also warn that having the vote over two days could be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to influence the result of the referendum by ensuring a participation rate of over 30 percent. Furthermore, they said, the fact that the authorities decided not to use the electronic vote monitoring system is also worrying, because it is seen as a step back and a possible way to encourage fraud.
However, PM Viorica Dancila has rejected the idea that the referendum has anything to do with restricting the rights of LGBT individuals or promote a movement against them. “The referendum is not against sexual minorities, like some have been speculating, but the effect of a citizens’ initiative. Instead of calls to boycott the vote, it would be more honest for parties to take a clear position. The party I represent has shown its support for this referendum and I think it’s the most appropriate response,” the prime minister stated.
European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans also had a critical view of Romania’s upcoming referendum: “The European Commission has no power in this matter. Family rights are under the jurisdiction of member states. I don’t think anyone here has any doubt about my position on this matter. I believe in family values, I am a husband, a father, I have four children – but I don’t want these values to be turned into weapons or arguments to support homophobia or the rejection of other types of families. I can’t be the one to decide whether a state allows same-sex couples to marry,” he said in the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.
Timmermans added that he supports same-sex marriage and that his country, The Netherlands, was among the first states to legalise this type of union. “We must be careful so that this issue doesn’t end up feeding our darkest demons, such as hate against sexual minorities or the attempt to take women back to the past centuries, which we’re seeing in several countries. Let’s acknowledge the fact that the term equality in our treaties refers to anyone, men or women, regardless of their sexual orientation,” he stated.
The referendum has highlighted Romania’s deep cultural and generational divisions. And while its validation will not necessarily bring any clear change in today’s society, it will further marginalise the LGBT community, which has been mostly hidden in the country, and crush their chances of obtaining equal marriage rights in the future.