In 1998, Florin Buhuceanu became president of ACCEPT, Romania's largest LGBT rights organization, at a time when such an organization was considered illegal. Since then, Florin has actively fought for LGBT rights in Romania, and will keep doing so until the country grants gay people equal rights.
What was it like growing up as a gay man in communist Romania?
Let’s start with the word ‘gay’. I didn’t know that word existed until I was a teenager. I knew from the very beginning that I was different but I didn’t know why. I knew that I felt attracted to men but I didn’t have that word to describe it until I was 14, 15 years old.
As a kid I didn’t have any type of literature available, nor any type of community space where I could share my feelings, or even friends with whom I could speak about who I was. It was an extremely lonely period for me.
It was a time in which the word ‘gay’ didn’t exist in the public space. The communist legislation in place sent gay people to prison for a few years. So of course I tried to set a strategy to save myself. I had to act as straight as I possibly could. I needed to blend in and act exactly like my peers.
Growing up, did you meet other gay people?
I didn’t know any other gay person until I moved to Bucharest in my late teens. I was a student and found out that gay people were secretly meeting in a couple of public spaces. It was tricky because you knew you had to be extremely cautious not to get caught and not to be sent to prison.
Why was Romania particularly homophobic in the 20th century?
In Romania, the first stunt at gay legislation came into existence because we copied the Nazi legislation in 1936 and that’s the reason why we, gay people, were baptized as an enemy of the nation, an enemy of the state. We were perceived as an aggressive alien minority, and something to be feared.
That piece of legislation sent some people to prison. It’s true that it wasn’t the most structured legislation you could envisage. The authors were more focused on Romas or Jews so the gay community wasn’t the main target. However once you were publicly known as a gay man you could be sent to prison. That was the base used by the communist later on starting in 1945.
In 1947, they kept this anti-gay legislation and increased the prison sentence to five years. People were afraid to disclose their identities. If you were gay, you were not supposed to be visible, and instead live underground as a way to save your social and personal life.
Many gay people got married in those days as a way to blend in and show that they were having normal lives. If ever you were caught as being gay your whole life could be ruined. It was a tough time and thousands of people were arrested. Under the communist regime, we became kind of an ideological enemy of the state because homosexuality and homosexuals were perceived as being agents of the West, of the decadent West, capitalist West, conspiring against the pure communist regimes. And this type of stigma continued in 1989 even after the communist system collapsed.
What happened if they caught you?
If they knew you were gay there were two options. Either you were sent to a medical authority or you were sent to prison.
In the Soviet Union and countries affiliated to the ideological block, a number of methods were used and legitimized in the fight against homosexuality such as electroshocks. I met several people in Romania and Moldova that were targeted by medical authorities and they accepted to be treated instead of going to prison. It was easier to end up in a medical facility than to be trapped for years.
When you were sent to prison the local authorities tried to portray you as the homosexual which meant that you could be raped, isolated or even tortured by the other inmates. You were not supposed to have meals with the others to show a clear divide between “us” and “them”. “Us” the virtuous inmates and “them” the bloody homosexuals. It was tough because you had to defend yourself all the time and avoid being trapped into dangerous situations.
What happened to homosexuals once they were released from prison?
Once you left prison life kept being a nightmare because the state authorities were following you and it was difficult to get a job with that personal record. For example teachers couldn’t teach anymore. You were perceived as being a dangerous person and therefore weren’t aloud to work with the younger generation.
Many known researchers were gay and they ended up working in various minor jobs just to survive. It was a extremely harsh and some of them never really recovered. In fact, many gay people committed suicide because they didn’t want to survive into a more hostile atmosphere.
It was a black period that continued after 1989.
How were homosexuals perceived after the communist system collapsed in 1989?
I do remember that in the 90’s we were still perceived as being aggressors. Something was wrong with us because we didn’t have a face. We were killing each other, having abnormal passions, dual lives, destroying families, on a mission to colonise Romanians and “homosexualise” them. This type of fear was legitimized mainly by the Orthodox Church. An institution that has actually asked for an increase from five years to seven years of imprisonment. Five years was not considered enough to become heterosexual so they wanted to increase this educational penal time to seven years.
They started the largest public campaign in those days to keep the anti-gay legislation alive. In fact, I would say that they were quite successful. That’s why Romania was the last country in Europe to decriminalize homosexuality at the end of 2001. That’s also why there are still very few LGBT people who are confident enough and able to speak out about themselves.
At some point you felt like you needed to act up against article 200 which criminalized homosexuality. What did you do?
The guy I am, Mr Introvert, was not exactly willing to become a public figure under any circumstance. I just happened to see several public demonstrations in Bucharest in 1994, 1995, 1996 asking for more restrictions for gay people.
At one point I guess I exploded seeing my own colleagues I studied theology with, holding a paper about article 200 which was an article that criminalized homosexuality. On the paper, it was written that the government wanted to increase the prison sentence from 5 to 7 years.
That’s the moment when I couldn’t accept it anymore. I exploded and I immediately wrote 2 or 3 articles in the mainstream media.
So over night I became a public figure, without wanting that.
Once I came out against article 200 in the penal code, I was excluded from my faculty. That was my first personal shock. Despite that I knew I could be in a much severe situation despite the fact I got kicked out of my faculty.
People were still afraid to speak up about these issue and very few activists in those days publicly condemned this type of treatment against LGBT people. That’s how out of the blue, I became the visible homosexual. People were identifying me on the street and I was uncomfortable but I knew I had to fight this fight. At that exact time, a group of concerned people from our community and from the Humans Rights community were trying to create an institution that was supposed to fight against article 200 which was destroying so many lives.
So without preparation I became one of them. I became one of those faces in this invisible community. I joined ACCEPT one year after its debut and in 1998 I became the president of ACCEPT. That became my profession for a while.
Can you tell us more about ACCEPT?
ACCEPT is a human rights organisation that started October 1996 in a time in which you couldn’t establish a gay organisation, it was illegal. So our plan was to get rid of the anti gay legislation. But at the same time, it was a community space where people could have coffee and a chat. They could touch a gay magazine, feel secure in insecure times and could be exposed to various types of training information concerning sexual orientation, mainly in those days. For people like me it was a space of freedom. I call it ‘Acceptland’ because you could express yourself, you could be who you are, even if it was just for a matter of hours. It was the only space in which you didn’t fear aggressions.
ACCEPT remained the most important organisation, even today, because of the whole societal troubles of Romania. We are still fighting for visibility, we still need a lawyer, a physician, we still need a library, and Accept is all of this. It’s trying to provide a number of services including psychological counselling, HIV counselling and so forth.
We also work to try to change the current legislation. We had a number of major legal successes. The last one is called ‘Adrian Coman case’ which redefines what spouses means in the context of the European Union. When we are travelling, we are not just travelling as individuals but also as families and we wanted to be sure that countries like Romania and other 5 countries from the former communist bloc would recognise our families in a way or another. So it’s the first step towards a full recognition of our families. Actually we are currently discussing a legal proposal for the single partnership as a step towards equality.
ACCEPT became my home, my place of work, sometimes even my lover. I spend more time with Accept than with any of my partners. I’m proud of accept for resisting to this for so many years with so many crisis and resisting this difficult context.
ACCEPT organised Romania’s first ever pride in 2005, how was it?
Indeed, the first Pride we organised was in 2005. It was a kind of collective coming out. Still today organising Pride is a risky but it was even tougher in those days because we had no security. We knew that we’d be attacked by extremists religious groups.
In fact, in 2006 we were attacked and it became a kind of war in the streets of Bucharest. You could see more policemen than participants who were trying to protect us from every angle while molotov cocktails and other inflammatory things were raining on us. 2006 and 2007 were particularly difficult Prides and you needed to be brave to endure such an open hostility. But… we survived ! In fact we are still organising Pride every year.
This year, 2018, was the largest celebration with around 10.000 people, so for us it was a massive victory. In 2005, we had about 200-300 people looking at each other rather afraid fearing for their lives and now it’s like that type of momentum where you can celebrate who you are with a lot of friends around you and feeling safer about it.
It’s not exactly a show like in your countries but it’s probably the largest civic movement on the streets of Bucharest. Every year there is a negotiation and you feel some resistance from the local authority but I would say Pride became part of the current program of Bucharest during summer and it is expected to be organised.
We are managing to transform Bucharest at least one day per year. It’s a more beautiful Bucharest, I’d say much more colourful. We created history.
Would you say that the general fear of homosexuals has disappeared in Romania in 2018?
Unfortunately not. Romania has decriminalised homosexuality in 2001 but 18 years later the fear has not disappeared. What’s new however, is that more and more people try to be supportive during Pride, or other public events. So I’d say that there is a slight cultural shift. What helps us is that we are more visible as a global community by watching American or European movies which have gay characters in them. It triggers debates and becomes part of our public discussion, more or less. The topic is becoming more and more normalised.
On the other hand politically speaking, it’s still not an easy topic and there are political forces who are trying to use sexual orientation, gender identity for their political profit, instigating against us in order to get more votes. For example, last year Romania had to vote to ban same-sex marriages. It didn’t pass but the type of accusations I heard from these parties and the Church reminded me of those days in the 90s when we were perceived as the enemies, the invisible enemies in our societies and that we should be crushed. This type of hate language and incitement to hate is producing effects that will show in the long term. It’s like a cancer which is devouring our public body and leaves marks.
How does the future of Romania look to you in terms of LGBT+ inclusion?
If you look into the Romanian history you can see that after a number of years of trying to get closer to Europe we are now trying to distance ourselves from Europe.
Apparently we’re in this momentum in which especially the politicians are trying to reconfigure the whole country against the European Union, and its values. That is a problem that is affecting our community because we are in so many ways identified with Europe.
Also, I’m very concerned with what I see in Poland, Hungary, Austria where the LGBT community is much stronger and better structured in terms of institutions and yet they are struggling. I don’t like to see authoritarian tendencies that sooner or later will affect all of us, and especially this minority group will be one of the first groups that can be hit. We’re at that momentum in which some groups are becoming unpopular again so we must be on our guard.
On the other hand I am hopeful that here in Romania, more and more youngsters are fearlessly living their lives and there are more debates around the topic. So that’s a very good sign for the future.
What is your feeling overall?
All in all I would say that there is a lot of tension in Romania. We still have to get rid of the stamp we got as public enemies of this society of morality, of religious and family values and I hope that we will pass well this illiberal trend we see today. I believe that we still have a lot of needs in terms of education. We still need to speak up and explain who we are. Apparently that’s a long process and what you are doing is part of this process in so many ways. We have to speak up and give a face to this community otherwise people in society will have no clue who we are and fear us. I believe it's extremely important to say ‘I’m a gay man,’ or ‘I’m a lesbian’, ‘I’m transgender’, ‘I’m bisexual person’… it’s vital but we will get there, together.