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.