Romania’s Gender Trouble

Paula Erizanu

Last month, Romania’s parliament passed a bill banning schools and universities from teaching the idea that ‘biological sex is different from gender.’ The response was quick. A petition asking President Klaus Iohannis not to ratify the bill gathered more than 30,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. Forty universities and eighty civil society organisations across the country denounced the bill as an attempt to limit academic freedom. A students’ union asked the government not to ‘go back to the Middle Ages’. Dozens of people protested in front of the Presidential Palace in Bucharest, with signs saying ‘education prevents gender violence’ and ‘trans rights are human rights’. The bill still lies on Iohannis’s desk.

The bill was proposed by Senator Cristian Lungu of the right-wing People’s Movement Party (founded in 2013 by supporters of Traian Băsescu, president during Romania’s accession to the European Union in 2007). Lungu spent 15 years in the US and has close links with members of the Republican Party. The bill was supported by another opposition party, the Socialist Democrats (PSD), who hold the most seats in parliament and have dominated national politics for much of the 30 years since the collapse of communism.

This is not the first time the two parties have joined forces in the service of an ultra-conservative agenda. In autumn 2018, when the PSD was in power, there was a referendum on changing the constitution to say that a family is based on a marriage between ‘a man and a woman’ rather than the current gender-neutral ‘spouses’. Then, as now, President Iohannis called for tolerance and acceptance of minorities, adding that he himself belongs to two minorities – German and Lutheran. The Orthodox Church mobilised its resources to get people out to vote (86 per cent of Romanians identify as Christian Orthodox) and the polls were open for two days, but only a fifth of the electorate showed up – not enough for the result to count. The No campaign had encouraged people to boycott the referendum. But many conservatives couldn’t see much point in voting, since gay marriages and civil unions are not yet recognised in Romania.

The referendum had been initiated by the Pro-Family Coalition, an alliance of about forty NGOs formed in 2016. One of the organisations, ProVita, had links to American white supremacists such as David Duke, as well as the Kremlin, via Alexandr Dugin. They managed to get three million people to sign the letter requesting the referendum, and 850,000 more to turn out at polling stations.

Ceaușescu criminalised homosexuality in Romania in 1968 (he had outlawed abortion the year before). It wasn’t made legal until 2001, as a requirement for EU accession (gay people were still being arrested in the late 1990s). Homophobia is still rife in Romanian society, and gay marriage is forbidden.

Though transgender identity is not explicitly mentioned in any legislation, Romania’s non-discrimination and hate crime laws can be interpreted as protecting trans people. But changing the gender on your ID involves going to court, and the case can go either way, often depending on the judge’s worldview.

The first draft of the bill forbade both transgender and gender equality ‘proselytism’ but the wording changed during parliamentary debates. Still, the state often fails to protect women’s rights. Romania passed a gender equality law only in 2002, and recognised marital rape as a crime only in 2003: again, both were requirements for EU accession.

Not long before parliament passed the gender studies bill, a 17-year-old woman died after being set on fire by a 45-year-old man. Three days earlier she had accused him of raping her, but the police ignored her. The case echoed a murder from last summer, when a 15-year-old girl, Alexandra Măceșanu, was kidnapped, raped and killed by a man, after the police had ignored her phone calls. One officer had even told her ‘to go back to your boyfriend’. A wave of protests – but no institutional change – followed Măceșanu’s death.

The question of how sexual violence against minors is investigated was on the agenda at the meeting of the Superior Magistrates’ Council on 11 June, following an investigation by a national newspaper. In 78 cases between 2016 and 2018, the paper reported, judges gave very light sentences to men convicted of child sex offences, often fathers who had abused their daughters. ‘In a hypothetical case,’ the general prosecutor, Gabriela Scutea, said, ‘when a 13-year-old girl leaves her home, starts her sexual life ... maybe gets pregnant ... how can we say whether the sexual relationship was consensual or not?’

More needs to happen if Romania is to resist the ultra-conservatism that has taken over its neighbours Poland and Hungary. The police, prosecutors and judges need to be trained to take violence against women and minorities seriously, and to treat it as a problem that needs eradicating, rather than as a fact of life. Children need to be taught in school that violence is unacceptable, instead of getting used to it, or even perpetrating it. The curriculum needs to be modernised to include more women’s perspectives, as well as those of ethnic and sexual minorities in Romania, rather than let a group of white men, of different classes, continue to dominate it, via a rigid and outdated literary canon, and a nationalist historical narrative that barely mentions Roma slavery or Romania’s involvement in the Holocaust. The state also needs to distance itself from the Orthodox Church. The ultra-traditionalists do not speak for everyone.


  • 14 July 2020 at 7:26pm
    ianbrowne says:
    I found this article very disheartening, and not for the obvious reasons. Of course, the bill preventing schools and universities from teaching that gender is not the same as biological sex is idiotic, and probably unworkable. Just as the referendum on making gay marriage “unconstitutional” within Romania was idiotic, and would almost certainly have been unworkable in any practical way had it been successful. (See the decision of the European Court of Justice in June 2018 in the case of Relu Coman:;jsessionid=9ea7d0f130dab49a6ce70cfd42a3a61c9d52c93df497.e34KaxiLc3eQc40LaxqMbN4Pb3mLe0?text=&docid=202542&pageIndex=0&doclang=en&mode=lst&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=134584 )
    The reason this article was disheartening was that it seemed to me to be yet another example of “western” preoccupations with culture wars taking precedence over far more important issues in Romania.

    For those who don’t know much about Romania, it is a disaster. Romania is the second poorest country in the EU, after Bulgaria. It is battling it out with Bulgaria for the claim to be the most corrupt country in the EU – the difference between the two is miniscule. Democracy is collapsing. The political parties are widely regarded as corrupt and self-serving. No one trusts them or has any faith in them. The turnout in the last Parliamentary election was 39.5%. Romania has the highest rates of poverty in the EU, with almost a quarter of the population at risk of poverty and 38.1% of children at risk of poverty and social exclusion (the EU average is 23.4%). 40% of 15 year olds are underachieving in Reading, Maths and Science (the EU average is around 21%) and it spends the lowest amount in the EU on education, 2,8% of GDP (the EU average is 4.6%). It spends the lowest amount in the EU on health, 5.2% of GDP (the EU average is 9.9%). I could go on, but you get the picture. Romania is a disaster. And it is important to say this – it is a capitalist disaster. Capitalism in Romania has been an abject failure.
    For most Romanians, getting by on a day to day basis is the real problem – paying your rent, education for your children, paying for health care. These are what matter to most people. No one, apart from a small section of the westernized elite in the university cities could care less about whether universities are prevented from teaching that gender is not the same as biological sex.
    I went to the Atheneum in Bucharest in February this year for the annual series of lectures entitled “The world in which we live”. There the public intellectuals of Romania discussed matters they regarded as of great importance to Romanians. These are the intellectuals who write for the cultural journal, 22 (Ceauceascu fled on December 21st – the 22nd represented a new beginning), the one remaining serious newspaper, Romania Libera, and who are the authors of countless books and serve as public commentators on all manner of things. Horia-Roman Patapievici, Gabriel Liiceanu, Andrei Plesu (the author of a book about Angels!) Sorin Lavric, Teodor Baconschi (an ex-governement minister), and others are all conservatives, and not merely conservatives. They represent the extreme right in economics – hard neo-liberalism, and are religious ultra-traditionalists. I listened to Patapievici, perhaps the most right wing of them all, talk about something he described as modern superstitions. All these purported superstitions proved to be related to something these intellectuals call “political correctness”, a term that is never defined, but which encompasses all the evil that the West is sending over to contaminate Romanian life. Political correctness seems to mean anything to do with sexual behaviour which they don’t like, and includes everything from gay marriage, transgender rights, rights for pedophiles, the right to have sex with animals (Patapievici devoted quite a lot of time to discussing the writer Donna Harraway, who he claimed is a proponent of this), to gender realignment surgery for children. Essentially they see all these rather disparate phenomena as being the same sort of thing – perversions. At its heart lies the philosophy of relativism, which quickly collapses into nihilism, which, in their favorite phrase, stolen from Micheal Novak “is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.”
    It's not worth discussing these ideas as they are a confused mess, which tell you more about the preoccupations of conservatives than anything else.
    What disheartened me about the Blog entry on ‘Romania’s Gender Trouble’ is that it joins in with this idiotic right wing agenda. These right wing intellectuals have transposed American ‘culture wars” onto Romanian life. And it suits them to do this. Rather than talk about child poverty or political corruption, they prefer to talk about sex education in schools or gay marriage, to hint that all gay men are at heart pedophiles. They want the debate about Romania’s future to be confined to culture wars. Talking about the difference between gender and biological sex simply reinforces their grip on the agenda of public debate, a debate which ignores what really matters to Romanians.
    In that same lecture at the Atheneum, Patapievici devoted one minute to expressing the view that Romania should abandon democracy and leave everything to the market. He seems to think, along with von Mises, that every purchase is an exercise in real democratic choice – the consumer choosing what he wants and deciding if he will buy it or not. What could be more democratic than that? What Romania needs, he asserted, is less democracy and more capitalism. Then it was back to the strange sexual stuff he lumped under the title “modern superstitions” – that is the poison of political correctness.
    I’ve no objection to discussing the idiotic law passed by parliament, and for anyone who speaks Romanian there Sabina Fati, one of the few Romanian journalists with real integrity, has an excellent piece here on the parliamentary vote (When the state wants to control private life):
    And there is a good interview with the academic Maria Bucur on the same subject here:
    But I would far rather take the agenda back from the conservatives. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about gender or gay marriage or any of the stranger ideas that the conservatives want to attribute to “leftists” so they can smear the left and drag us through the mud. I want to talk about poverty reduction, social inclusion, access to good quality education, access to health care and all the other things that socialists care about and neo-liberal capitalists don’t.

    • 16 July 2020 at 5:37pm
      Paula Erizanu says: @ ianbrowne
      Thank you for your thoughts and reading suggestions, Ian. However, I have to disagree and say that if perhaps you might think LGBTQ+ rights only concern a small minority in Romania, I hope you will agree that women's rights in Romania concern half of the country. Perhaps the deeply patriarchal culture of Romania is not apparent to a man, but to a woman like myself it surely is. And yes, of course, there are other major problems in Romania, and I have covered both corruption and poverty in my other English language articles. You can see some of them here:
      But only writing about poverty and corruption when covering Romania would also be reductive, no? Should journalists not try to explain all sorts of news and political initiatives? And would you truly blame one LRB article for advancing PSD and PMP's rise to power in Romania?

    • 17 July 2020 at 5:02pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Paula Erizanu
      I certainly didn’t mean to be dismissive of your article. My problem is that the right in Romania have effectively monopolized all talk about gender, and have trivialized it. They seem to have adopted all the worst features of American culture wars and tried to transplant them to Romania, where they are often of little relevance. If I remember correctly, and I may be wrong, I heard Baconschi of the radio arguing that The Frankfurt School, realizing the failure of Marxism, set off for America where they began undermining the core values of religion, the traditional heterosexual family and capitalism by fomenting a sexual revolution in the 1960s and promoting feminism (the destruction of traditional male and female roles), the legalization of homosexuality, gender studies and everything else you can think of. I tried to provide an example of the way at the Atheneum talks Patapievici took issues that may, for all I know, be live issues in America, but which are simply irrelevant to Romanian life. But as we all know, if you throw enough mud, some of it sticks, so the utter trivialization of issues around sexuality and gender served mainly to denigrate the left by accusing us of holding opinions that most of us don’t hold. I was trying to covey how weird it was to listen to him suggesting that sex with animals was yet another example of a modern superstition – code for political correctness, which is itself code for left wing ideas – and how there “modern superstitions” were a leftist threat to Christian and Romanian values – Michael Novak’s “invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving.” It simply isn’t possible to argue rationally with such people.

      I think that not just Romania, but every society needs public forums where ideas can be debated in an intelligent and respectful way – the public space that Rawls and Habermas talk about. I see the LRB Blog as part of that space. Unfortunately in Romania, it simply doesn’t seem possible to have any rational conversations around gender, and for as long as issues that, to me at least, seem to be imports from a foreign culture, the US, dominate the discussion, it will continue to be impossible to have intelligent debates in this area.

      The referendum on gay marriage is a case in point. I’m not a lawyer and have no expertise in law, but it seems to me that the decision of European Court of Justice in the case of Relu Coman rendered the whole referendum pointless. I know that lawyers make a lot of money splitting very fine hairs, but it seems to me that all Romanian gay couple needs to do is to pop over to Belgium and get married and the Romanian state would have to acknowledge that they were married, irrespective of the fact that gay marriage could have been “unconstitutional”. In such a case one is left wondering what “unconstitutional” would actually mean in practice. The whole referendum was never about the reality of gay marriage. Rather it was about setting the terms of public debate in a way that confused rather than clarified the issues. And that confusion served the interests of the right, because it enabled them to pose as the defenders of tradition, the heterosexual family, Christian values and all the rest against the evil leftists who are on a slippery slope that starts with promoting sex education in schools and with sex with animals.

      The more the left gets sucked into this, the worse it is for the left. The right want to confine political debate to culture wars, and American culture wars at that. It is a strategy which enables them to avoid talking about the real problems of Romania. Our response should be, “OK, you want to make gay marriage ‘unconstitutional’. You want to ban Universities from teaching that gender is socially created. That’s fine. Turn Romania once again into that peripheral zone, located on the fringes of European cultural and intellectual life, a land of medieval obscurantists. I don’t know why you think these things matter in Romania, but now let’s talk about the things that do matter: poverty, the failure of democracy, political corruption and all the other issues that bear on people’s lives.”

  • 16 July 2020 at 8:55am
    nomadron says:
    Anglo-american universitity Economics and Law departments have a lot to answer for - with a strange mixture of Economism and Human Rights fuelling a quasi-religious indoctrination of a global generation whose identity politics have helped destroy the broad church of social democracy.
    Paula Erizanu seems a very decent person and journalist but her piece thoroughly deserved Ian Browne's riposte - however much she may dislike the suggestion that her arguments simply sustain the right-wing intellectuals who have such a grip on Romanian society.

    • 16 July 2020 at 5:38pm
      ianbrowne says: @ nomadron
      I couldn’t agree more. Human Rights have now become those rights which provide the legal structure for the effective functioning of neo-liberalism, particularly the right to property, and Economism has provided the ideological justification for ignoring human rights such as the right to a decent education, to health care or to decent housing. It was Milton Friedman who said that the purpose of society was to “promote a classical, liberal philosophy, that is, a free economy, a free society, socially, civilly, and in human rights” – the percent merging of neo-liberal economics with liberal human rights.

      At the moment I’m reading Jessica Whyte’s excellent book The Morals of the Market which traces the way in which human rights became defined in such a way that it could serve as part of the rhetoric of neo-liberalism.

      Sadly, in Romania, there are very few outlets available for promoting a much richer conception of human rights, or since I would prefer to speak of obligations rather than rights, a richer conception of what we owe to each other as moral citizens of a community. But it seems at the moment that the right wing intellectuals have a near monopoly on what it is possible to discuss in a public way in Romania. The media here is just awful, and there doesn’t exist anything resembling a Rawlsian or Habermasian “public space of reasons” for the open discussion of ideas.

      At the same “The world in which we live” public lectures that addressed the supposed “modern superstitions”, I listened to Mircea Cărtărescu talking about ideology and literature. He discussed two interwar fascist writers. You are probably expecting me to say he talked about Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, but he didn’t mention them. He chose instead Ezra Pound and Celine. They are “safe”, because they are safely foreign – far away writers from foreign countries. Talking about the adherence to fascism of Eliade and Cioran is not really acceptable in Romania.