Located in Timișoara, Romania’s third-largest city, Identity.Education was created out of a need for formal representation of the LGBTI community and a lack of spaces for the community to gather. I spoke to Alex Meszaros, a board member, to learn more about the work Identity.Education does and the recent history of LGBTI rights in Romania.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what led you to join Identity.Education?
In 2018, I was studying psychology, and for my Bachelor’s degree, I ran a study about internalized homophobia. At that time, I was a part of another NGO made up of students from the university’s psychology department. We had an event about sexual orientation and gender identity, and I remember Andre [the founder of Identity.Education] was there. I told the people who came to join the conference that I needed participants for my study, and many people responded, which was great. Somehow, I got in touch with people in the community in Timişoara. Then I became president of the student NGO and started talking with Andre. Andre wrote Safe Spaces, a project that received a grant from Norway. They needed another participant in the project, so I signed the papers with my NGO, which is how we connected. Then, Identity.Education was recruiting, so I joined as a volunteer, but I couldn’t do much because I was still president of the other NGO. However, I was there and helped as much as possible. When I finally graduated, obtaining my Master’s degree, I stopped being president of the NGO because I was no longer a student. Then I became a full-time volunteer in Identity.Education. This work led Andre and me to be excellent friends. Now I am part of the board, of which there are three people: me, Andre, and Lexi. I also have a project I coordinate, Campus Pride, granted by the Norwegian funds. And I became a full-time employee of Identity.Education in July.
What is it like working for such an organization in Timişoara? What are some of the difficulties you have seen?
The NGO is still pretty young, founded in 2019. In terms of challenges, the biggest was that no one talked about LGBT issues. In Timişoara, we had a not-so LGBTQI+ friendly mayor. We had no places for LGBT people, such as clubs or bars. Andre wanted to start this NGO because there was no public discussion about LGBT people. There was nothing cultural, and there were no events. But the main thing they felt they were missing was a place where the community could gather.
Another challenge was from the local population. There was a lot of resistance from citizens when we organized the first and second PrideTM weeks. We had people who came and vandalized stuff and said nasty things on social media about us — all sorts of harassment.
Can you tell me more about organizing the first Pride events in Timişoara in 2019? How were they received?
The first PrideTM was in 2019, but I wasn’t a volunteer then. The first PrideTM was challenging to organize. When Andre sent the required documents to the jury to establish the NGO, they said that the documents were not ok because they thought we would offer civil counseling, even though we wouldn’t and hadn’t said this. So it took 11 months to establish this NGO, and in the meantime, Identity.Education couldn’t receive any funding. But now, it is easier because we have funding, and I would say that things are also way better than back in 2019.
Can you tell me more about your project, Safe Spaces for LGBTQI+ Youth?
Safe Spaces aims to help prepare psychology, IT, and medical professionals. We create workshops for people in these fields to gather more information about the LGBT community and how to work with the community. For example, we’ve had workshops where we presented the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. We also organize therapy groups, which were online during the pandemic, but are now held physically at our offices. The project aims to educate professionals in these fields to know how to work in the community. Also, if they have any questions or want to organize a special workshop about a topic, we can provide that.
What are some of the other projects you are currently working on?
We have Campus Pride, which in terms of grant funding, is bigger than Safe Spaces. It was created by MozaiQ, an LGBT+ NGO from Bucharest, our capital. The goal is to create three centers for students; however, we decided not to place them on-campus directly because it is a very unsafe place. These centers will be in Timişoara, Cluj-Napoca, and Bucharest. We are trying to build a safer community for the students, to give them a safe place to gather, have activities, and get to know each other. The other big part of the project involves trying to come up with ideas of advocacy that we can implement in the universities.
You stated that the university campus is a ‘very unsafe place’ for LGBTI students. Why is this?
First of all, it is an unsafe place because it has lots of students from all over Romania, and I would say that some parts of Romania are more homophobic than others. The university campus is a very homophobic place because it is populated by — I’m not sure how to put this into words, but I wouldn’t feel safe there. There are homophobic statements written on the walls, for example.
How would you describe what life is like for LGBTI people in Romania right now? Have you seen any improvements over the last few years?
There have definitely been some improvements. The first improvement Romania had regarding LGBT people — I was very young at the time, around four years old — was when we took down Article 200, which criminalized anything related to LGBT relationships that occurred in public in 2001. Moving forward 17 years, what happened in 2018 and what started Identity.Education and other similar movements were that the church, and some conservative parties, wanted to change the constitution. They wanted to change the definition of marriage to say that it was not between spouses but rather between a man and a woman. They started gathering signatures, and we had a referendum to change these two words. However, the percentage of people who showed up to vote was too small for the referendum to pass. But the idea of what could have happened started a huge movement and gave us the courage to stand up for ourselves and to come forward. This was the biggest impact for me, and it’s funny because they started this. Since then, things have gotten better for us because we dare to come forward. However, things have not improved in terms of laws. I would say that things are worse, but we are stronger.
In April, the Romanian Senate recently passed a bill that “greatly resembles Russia’s anti-LGTBQ+ stance and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s measures.” What this bill tries to do is to protect and promote the rights of the child by banning anything that is about sex or gender on social media and in schools. What they want to do is to ban any discussion that is about gender identity or that is about something different than sex-assigned at birth. So this was passed by the Senate, and at this point, the bill is now on its way to the Chamber of Deputies for a decisive vote. The bill states that a child’s sex or gender is established at birth by the doctor delivering the baby. Additionally, the sex or gender assigned can only be male or female. This is very similar to what Hungary did and also Russia. That is the biggest news we have right now in Romania, which is very concerning.
A few years ago, they tried to ban any discussion in the university curriculum about gender identity or sexual orientation. They failed, of course, but again it led to a huge movement. It’s very concerning because they tried to censor education, and that’s not ok. In Romania, we don’t have sex education in schools. That has resulted in the highest rate of pregnant girls in Europe and the highest abortion rate. Don’t even get me started on domestic violence.
We don’t have rights protecting LGBT families or people, especially transgender people. It’s very hard to change your documents in Romania. You have to sue the government to do that, and there is a 99% chance that you will fail. It all depends on how the jury sees you. If you want to change your name or change the marks on your IDs — one is for male and two is for female (or five and six, respectively, if you were born after the 2000s) — even if you have gone through hormones and don’t look like your gender mark, you still aren’t likely to be able to change your ID. There are no laws regarding this.
Last year, Romania was fined by the European Court of Human Rights. In 2013, there was a huge scandal because there was an LGBT film projected in Bucharest. A group of people barged in and yelled homophobic things and started to be very violent, and of course, the authorities were called the gendarmerie. I wouldn’t say they did nothing, but they weren’t efficient. It was like they weren’t even there. Of course, ACCEPT [the first LGBT NGO in Romania] went with this to the ECHR, and years later, the country was fined.
Do you see any differences between working in Timişoara as compared to Bucharest?
Timişoara has seen improvements since Identity.Education because there is now finally an NGO that talks about us, offers support, and creates events. We had the first parade this year — we’ve never had one in Timişoara before. In Bucharest, things are different because the parade has been happening for many years. They have LGBT clubs; they have LGBT safe places and stuff like this. I would also say that people are maybe more open in Bucharest. So I would say that things are different but not so different at the same time because what we are trying to create takes time.
What sort of impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on Identity.Education and the work you do?
We stopped having physical meetings, we only met online, and we didn’t have many events. But the impact was also positive because we worked on our projects more. We wrote Safe Spaces, and Andre started focusing more on Identity.Education. We focused more on networking and connections and creating a better view of the future because we had time.
However, things got worse for the community because many of us were forced to live with our families. Some of us lost our jobs and had to live with our families because we couldn’t afford rent. It didn’t happen to me, but I know many cases in which people from the community came back to a very hostile environment, which they at some point prior had managed to escape, but now were forced to go back to.
How can readers support your work?
I think they can help with networking. If people hear about us, they can reach out to us and work with us. We have Erasmus projects going on right now, and we work with NGOs outside of Romania. So yeah, I think networking and a better understanding of how we work and how Romania is situated regarding its lack of LGBT rights.
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