Romania has come a long way on LGBT issues. Homosexuality was illegal in the country up until 1996. Public manifestations of homosexuality were decriminalized only in 2000, and the last discriminatory law was repealed in 2002. The European Union applied considerable pressure during the accession process and so did the United States, which sent an openly gay ambassador in 2000. But it was also the brave organizing of activists inside Romania that changed the country's laws.
In 2005, the first GayFest march took place in Bucharest. This year the festival has expanded to a week of events culminating in a march that attracted hundreds of participants. An annual Gay film festival now takes place in Cluj-Napoca. Same-sex marriage is still not legal, but a Romanian reality show recently featured the country's first televised same-sex ceremony. "Not only did Daniel and Mihai win the luxury honeymoon grand prize, the episode became the most watched TV production on that Thursday's evening prime time slot," according to a blog report.
When I met Razvan Ion in 1993, he was working on the AIDS issue. He subsequently mounted a legal challenge against the country's anti-homosexuality statutes, which had already landed a number of people in jail. "I tried to get people out of prison, people who were imprisoned for being gay or for exhibiting 'homosexual behavior,'" he told me in an interview in Bucharest in May. "At that time, it was very hard for the authorities to prove that this was real. Most of the trials were almost with no proof. If one of those trials had taken place in any other country, and that law had existed in any other country, they wouldn't have been put on trial. It was absolutely stupid. Of course the law was used against people who were uncomfortable for Iliescu at that time."
The legal challenge was successful and not only for the two men who were the subjects of the appeal. Over the next months, everyone imprisoned under that particular law was released. In the two decades since, Ion has observed a huge change in the LGBT situation in Romania. "But I don't believe that applies to the whole country: it's mostly for Bucharest and the big cities," he reports. "Crimes against homosexuals are zero at this moment -- I don't remember any cases, at least none that is reported. I'm sure there are some problems. But the Gay community is becoming less and less political and more and more directed toward entertainment, which I don't like much."
Ion is now involved in a variety of intellectual and cultural ventures. He also teaches at the university.
With his partner, he runs an art gallery and magazine called Pavilion as well as the Bucharest Biennale (coming up next May). He is constantly looking for new ways of encouraging political and cultural activity and provoking intellectual debate. "Gay organizations -- I don't know how many there are -- are not very visible here," he says. "And the programs, even at Gay Pride, it's basically one film and marching in the street. [Yawns] I'm so bored with that. This has been happening since the 1960s. Can't we invent something new? Something to make people smarter? To make them read more. Can we find a solution for the entire community or society to develop itself? We need what Deleuze and Guattari call a 'molecular revolution.' But Gay organizations don't want their members to be smarter. They want them stupid, exactly like the general society. They want them to spend their money on Gay bars and Gay glasses. It's just capitalism, commerce."
We talked about his experiences in the army in 1989, the art scene in Romania, and why he loves Bucharest. But we started with the role the West has been playing in East-Central Europe.
How did you get involved in activism? When I met you, you working on AIDS activism.
I never worked on something like activism. People associate me with different things: AIDS, LGBT rights, Roma rights, whatever. I never did any of that. Of course I was a political activist all my life, and still now, with my exhibitions, with my books, with teaching, this is exactly what I do now. I try, in my way, subjectively, to put things right. I think it's not normal to discriminate against someone because they are a different color. So I act. That's it. Luckily, I am a public figure, so I have access to interviews, TV, most of the time. I try to make my point. I am not part of any party. I support someone when I believe in someone, and then I withdraw my support when I believe that someone is going in the wrong direction.
I was involved in AIDS, because AIDS was a very big problem at that moment. It was the 1990s. It was not only me. It was also some of my colleagues from the newspaper. Romania Libera was a quality newspaper, the most balanced. There were very good journalists working there. It was extraordinary for me to work there, and I'm really grateful I was able to do that at 20 years old, to have those kinds of people around me. After we did the report on AIDS for the newspaper, we realized what the problem is. The problem was not that Ceausescu had denied the existence of kids with AIDS. For me that was not the problem. The problem was that there was not much to do for those kids who were already at the AIDS stage. We had no medicine here in 1990, just a few drugs that came from some U.S. organization, which was not enough. It's not that I don't appreciate what this organization did. It was a fantastic lady from Detroit. She did such tremendous work in Romania for these kids. But the system was against everybody. She tried to do a lot to get the medicine inside the orphanages. The orphanage directors asked her for money. "Give me something," and they let you go in there. They were practically trading lives.
It was a very bad period. We believed that AIDS was a very important thing, because people didn't realize the danger of transmitting to other people. It was very, very easy. It was not only the fact that condoms were not at every pharmacy. We didn't have so many pharmacies in 1990. But the condoms we had were Chinese. They were awful. Also, people were reusing syringes. This is why we got involved. We realized that probably it could be most dangerous for very young people because sex, which is a taboo subject everywhere, at that moment you couldn't talk about it in Romania. It was not about Gay people, because you couldn't identify Gay people. When nobody would say that they were Gay, how could you talk to them? There was practically nothing to do until you set up a society that works and people could appropriately come out of the closet. So, yes, it was an interesting period. I was part of ARAS, the first organization working against AIDS.
Then I left this territory, because I thought I did my job. Then I tried to do something for people like me. I tried to get people out of prison, people who were imprisoned for being Gay or for exhibiting "homosexual behavior." At that time, it was very hard for the authorities to prove that this was real. Most of the trials were almost with no proof. If one of those trials had taken place in any other country, and that law had existed in any other country, they wouldn't have been put on trial. It was absolutely stupid. Of course the law was used against people who were uncomfortable for Iliescu at that time.
One of the examples is the editor-in-chief of the newspaper in Sibiu, which was a kind of opposition newspaper at that time. He was arrested in 1992 for homosexuality, even though he had a wife. The truth was that he was Gay, but that's not the issue. In the eyes of the law, even though that law was stupid, they should have dismissed the case, saying, "Oh, he has a wife, so probably he is not Gay." This is how stupid the law was: just as stupid as the trial. But he was not a very comfortable person for the people in power, so I think that was the main thing.
I was working with an organization called the Independent Society for Human Rights. We set up a satellite of the organization. When I say "we," that means three people: two Hungarian deputies and me. They helped me very much.
They were in the Romanian Hungarian party, UDMR?
They were the only people who helped us. Probably because they were aware they will be elected anyway, because of all the minorities. But anyway, they did it. Nobody else. Even the president of the Human Rights Commission told me, "Homosexuals should be imprisoned and may be executed." He was a president of the Human Rights Commission of the Romanian parliament. Today he is a judge of the Constitutional Court.
That's depressing, unless he has changed his mind.
No, he didn't. How can you change that kind of fascist attitude? When I saw him next he was the right hand of Iliescu.
I was working with this organization and trying to find a lawyer. I visited 12-14 penitentiaries. I was visiting them, interviewing, and making reports for different human rights organizations. Most of the people who were trying to help were from organizations based in United States. At that moment, the interest of the United States in change in Romania was tremendous because Iliescu was not a partner to talk to, even for economic purposes. We had been isolated, so these American organizations were interested in changing things, in making people here do something about the situation. Which many Romanian people were not interested in doing, but that's a different story.
I went to Timisoara to visit two guys who were arrested and put in prison. We tried to find a lawyer to take one case as an example and try to get an exception to the law. The law was against the new constitution, so according to the constitution, this law should automatically disappear. It was a very smart idea, actually. I congratulate myself even now. I mean, I didn't know too much. I didn't study the judicial system very much. But when I realized that no lawyer wanted to take the case, I realized I was right. I found a fantastic young lawyer. She said immediately, "Yeah, I will take it. And let's go to constitutional court." In six months, the law was suspended, and they were released.
So, those two were released and -
No, no, no. All of them were released! The lawyer instructed all of those imprisoned under this law to submit an application based on this decision of constitutional court to be released. And they were. Not at the same time, but during two or three months, everybody was released.
That's a success story.
That's a very successful story. But it was just part of the story. Imagine you are an ordinary happy person who isn't thinking at all about committing a crime. And if you're not prepared to commit a crime, your mind is not set up to expect a punishment. People who do crimes, they accept punishment somehow. I saw a Romanian deputy being arrested. He said, "Yeah, okay, I expected to be convicted. I've just stolen like 100 million euro." One of the two guys in Timisoara, after he was released, he killed himself, and I'm sure it was because of the time he spent in prison. I believe that the president is completely guilty for his death, and many others, actually.
What would you say is the atmosphere for Gays and Lesbians today in Romania compared to other countries in the region?
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