A law approved by both houses of the Romanian parliament in June bans the teaching of gender studies in schools and universities, and forbids teachers and professors even to address the subject of being trans.
Along with the Central European “illiberal democracies” of Hungary and Poland, Romania is one of a growing number of countries where the resurgent populist right has found gender studies – or “gender ideology” as they prefer to term it – a convenient target.
The Romanian bill amending the law on education was put forward by deputy Emil-Marius Pascan and senator Vasile-Cristian Lungu, both of the centre-right Popular Movement Party (PMP).
In a strongly worded post on his website, Pascan has called critics of the bill “neo-Marxists and progressives” and complains that those who uphold Christian and moral values in Romania have come to be “characterised as extremists”.
Lunga, meanwhile, wrote on Facebook of the need to ban the “neo-Marxist ideology of gender identity in schools in Romania”. “Gender theory is something not only trendy, but it is also something radical and extreme; it is simply a theory completely devoid of scientific basis and does not meet the consensus of the academic community. It's as scientific as flat earth theory,” wrote the senator.
Their bill found support from MPs in the centre-left but socially conservative Social Democratic Party (PSD), while the ruling National Liberal Party (PNL) abstained. It now only needs President Klaus Iohannis’ signature – which it may well fail to get – to enter law.
Should the legislation come into force it would ban educators from "propagating theories and opinion on gender identity according to which gender is a separate concept from biological sex”. This has wide implications for areas from the teaching of gender studies in universities, to educating young people about gender identity, and allowing children to be themselves without being boxed into traditional gender roles.
The adoption of the bill met with fierce and immediate opposition from Romanian academics, students and NGOs, who have appealed to Iohannis to block it.
The National Alliance of Student Organisations in Romania and the National Council of Students launched a petition urging the president to send the legislation back to parliament. The authors of the petition said that the law contravenes the principles of non-discrimination and ensuring access to education for all young people in Romania. It has “the potential to create in Romania a vacuum of information” and heightened risk of bullying in schools for LGBT youth, they added.
Senator Vlad Alexandrescu of the Union Save Romania (USR), who spoke out against the legislation in parliament, defended the concept of gender, writing that it “allows for an education attentive to the differences, to the sensitivities of each child, to the possibility of finding themselves in an inclusive society, where any specificity is recognised as a trait and not as a disability.”
The University of Bucharest wrote in a statement on June 17 that the amendment to the national education laws contradicts fundamental rights guaranteed by the Romanian constitution: freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of opinion and university autonomy.
Gelu Duminica, who teaches sociology at the university, wrote on Facebook: “I teach, among other things, a course about Minorities and Equity. In each course I also introduce gender elements. I'm really not going to stop for the simple reason that if I did I wouldn't do my duty. Because my role is to guide my students to understand human behaviour in society. And people are different.”
The law was backed by parliament a few months ahead of the general election due to take place this autumn and may strike a chord with socially conservative Romanians.
However, things are changing and attacks on sexual minorities may not carry the weight they once did.
A 2018 attempt in Romania to explicitly outlaw gay marriage through a referendum on a proposed change to the constitution to specify that marriage can only be between a man and a woman flopped as turnout was just 20.4% – despite the Orthodox Church urging Romanians to come out and vote.
Polish President Andrzej Duda learned a similar lesson recently. Seeking re-election in a worsening economic environment, Duda launched into an attack on the LGBT community, saying on June 13 that the Polish LGBT rights movement peddles an “ideology” that is “more destructive” than Communism.
Duda’s anti-LGBT rhetoric was seen as an attempt to pander to his conservative voter base ahead of the election. However, as bne IntelliNews’ Warsaw correspondent wrote, the attack risked deterring moderates, whose votes Duda now needs to secure re-election after he failed to secure victory in the first round of voting on June 28. A similar attempt to denigrate the estimated 2mn LGBT people in Poland failed to help PiS during the 2019 general election campaign.
Still, illiberal democrats from the region and beyond remain committed to the fight against so-called “gender ideology”.
Most of the right-wing and populist governments in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region favour the nuclear family structure with traditional gender roles.
The Hungarian government’s efforts to encourage population growth with tax breaks for large families chimed in with this – though notably this did not extend to trying to keep women out of the workplace in the tight labour market context.
In CEE, the attacks on “gender ideology” also fit with the pattern of taking on the European Union and the West more generally for forcing liberal values on its eastern members. Both Hungary and Poland have repeatedly clashed with European institutions over issues such as judicial reform and the rule of law. Furthermore, it is part of the populist right’s strategy of attacking experts and educated elites.
Hungary has already banned the teaching of gender studies, with Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen calling it an “ideology, not a science” that has “no business in universities”. Poland has withdrawn state funds for such programmes, while the Bulgarian education ministry blocked a UNESCO project proposal on gender equality in education.
A related political struggle opened up over the adoption of the Istanbul Convention in the region. The aim of the treaty is to protect victims of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. One of the things that made the Istanbul Convention controversial in the region is that it was the first international treaty to define gender as “social roles behaviours, activities and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men”.
According to the students’ petition to Iohannis, the new legislation conflicts with Romania’s commitments under the Istanbul Convention as well as other international treaties.
It also confirms there are some in the country that would like it to follow a similar course to Hungary or Poland. “Such a law has no place in a European, democratic Romania and throws Romania on a conservative trajectory similar to Poland or Hungary!” said the petition.
“Romania is lining up positions promoted by Hungary to Viktor Orban and Poland, becoming a regime in which the policing of thought was introduced,” wrote the USR’s Alexandrescu in a similar vein.
The pushback against greater rights for LGBTI people is occurring in a region where in most countries acceptance is only just creeping up, and in many quarters there is simply a lack of understanding about what gender identity is. bne IntelliNews argued in the op-ed “The 50-year fight for gay rights” that it will take at least two generations for most of the countries in emerging Europe and Eurasia to take on board the liberal values of the West.
There have been positive moves in recent years, not least the growing Pride marches, laws allowing same-sex partnerships in several countries (most recently Montenegro) and the appointment of openly gay politicians to top positions, among them Serbia’s current Prime Minister Ana Brnabic.
The latest ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map and Index that compares LGBTI people’s human rights across the continent also shows clear progress in parts of Central and Southeast Europe. Still, rights fall far short of full equality in Romania, though the situation is not as bad as in Belarus, Latvia, Poland or Russia.
This is not limited to the region. There have been numerous attempts by far-right groups to prevent gender studies teaching in West European countries such as Germany, Italy and Sweden – including a bomb threat targeting the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg.
Jair Bolsinaro, Brazilian president and an unashamed homophobe, used his inaugural address in January 2019 to vow to fight against the “ideology of gender teaching in schools”. A visit by UC-Berkeley professor of gender studies Judith Butler to the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo in November 2017 sparked furious demonstrations where protesters burned an effigy of the academic.
The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that saw the imposition of lockdowns curtailing many of people’s usual rights provided grounds for governments to take on additional powers that some used unscrupulously.
A notable example was the Hungarian government, which took advantage of the open-ended extra powers given to it during the crisis – that some said created the EU’s first dictatorship – to end legal recognition for transgender people.
“The proposed ban of legal gender recognition in Hungary, proposed laws to ban abortion and sex education in Poland, scapegoating of LGBTI people as the source of the coronavirus by Turkey’s political leaders – these are all alarming signals of how governments with strong authoritarian tendencies are emboldened by the crisis to further limit the rights of vulnerable groups and minorities,” commented Darienne Flemington, co-chair of the ILGA-Europe executive board.
Romanian politicians did not need emergency powers to vote in the amendments to the country’s education law. But the country is now at risk of going the same way as its illiberal northern neighbours and of having hard-won progress pushed back.