Gay Guide Romania, Information for New Peace Corps Volunteers
February 19, 2008
– a Peace Corps Volunteer
As Peace Corps Volunteers we enter into service with many questions as to what awaits us. What is the food going to be like? Will I make friends during training? Where is my site placement going to be?
If you are a member of the LGBT community, as I am, then you may also have other pressing concerns, yet no clear channels to follow in obtaining information. In addition to the afore-mentioned questions, one of my biggest was: “What is it like for people who are gay in Romania?” During my service I’ve slowly been able to answer some aspects of this query.
Finding your bearings
Homosexuality was decriminalized in 2002 mainly due to Romania’s eagerness to ascribe to more Western policies on discrimination. This helped in setting the stage to join the European Union in 2007. However, the LGBT community still faces great discrimination and most choose to remain closeted.
Upon arrival, I made it a point to survey my surroundings and establish myself as an individual before telling people that I was gay. The fact that I’m gay is only a part of me and I wanted to avoid having that be the first impression. This is a tactic that has served me well in the past, having grown up in a small rural town.
During my training, focus was given to women, ethnic and religious minorities with little attention to the LGBT community and the special challenges that we face. From what I experienced, Peace Corps pre-service trainings are generally geared towards heterosexuals; I feel perhaps it’s even promoted to be heterosexual.
There are sessions about heterosexuals dating nationals, safe sex practices for heterosexuals, and even administrative staff, who specialize in the legalities of those volunteers who choose to marry. Of course there is also the excitement of fellow volunteers who partake in the dating scene pre and post training.
Finding love and romance is definitely a part of the Peace Corps experience for some. But if you are an LGBT volunteer and looking for some of the same treatment and camaraderie about your love life, you’ll be hard pressed to find it.
If you feel that being gay is an issue for you during your service then tell the appropriate staff, it could have some bearing on your site placement. Program managers, medical staff and country directors are great places to start.
Personally, I have had a great experience with the administrative staff of Peace Corps Romania. I look forward to my office visits in Bucharest and my conversations with the staff. I speak openly with many of them about my homosexuality and I have always been treated with respect and found open ears.
Fellow PCV’s have the unique ability to truly empathize with the circumstances that you will be faced with during service. Utilize this built-in network of friends and fellow volunteer-driven support services offered. Romania now has a support group for LGBT volunteers and through its members, changes have now been made in pre-service trainings that are offered to in-coming groups.
Where is everyone?
There is a growing gay “community” within Romania. However, the word community can be deceptive as it implies gays are “out” – visible and openly supportive of one another. The gay population’s “strength in numbers” is found solely underground – for example through various websites that are used such as www.gayromeo.com.
Lesbians and individuals of transgender are hard to find. I’m sure that they exist here just as in other parts of the world. To my knowledge there are only isolated individuals and no substantial numbers to be found. Often men will identify themselves as bisexual and have no problem sleeping with a man while maintaining a marriage or having a girlfriend. They simply see them as separate.
Several of the larger cities within the country have gay discotheques or clubs that host a “gay party” on a regular basis. The numbers of individuals that can be found there varies but are often times low. Not many public venues exist for meetings either. This is a direct result of the vast homophobia that is present throughout the nation’s population on the part of straights as well as gays.
As a group the gay population in general has no sense of social or civic engagement. For the most part the Internet and public venues are used for ways to find sex and not much else. To my knowledge there are two predominant NGOs (ACCEPT and Population Services International – PSI) within Romania that are providing education, advocacy and support systems for the LGBT sector. Recent focus has been given to facilitating socialization and constructs within the community. The slow but steady progress of these recent endeavors was evident in the 3rd Annual Bucharest Gay Pride Parade held in 2007.
Finding a community
Integrating into our respective communities is a major part of service as Peace Corps Volunteers. In most cases, people will assume you are straight which leads to complications when locals ask general “get to know you” questions that probe into your personal life. “Do you have a girlfriend?” becomes “How long do I keep playing this role?” while feeling out who is safe to discuss your sexuality with.
I did not clearly realize how it would feel to deny this part of myself again, or in essence how it would make me feel to go back “into the closet” for two years. In Romania, it becomes a matter of safety whom I reveal my orientation to, and only I could make the decision as to whom I trust with that information. Similarly, each volunteer should handle these situations as he or she deems appropriate based on their personal comfort level.
If prior to joining the Peace Corps you identified with the gay community on some level, were fully “out,” or had troubles in accomplishing either of these self-affirming measures, don’t underestimate the effects that going back into the closet can have on your overall health and quality of life. Being selective whom I tell about my orientation has been key to my success in reaching certain goals I set for myself before I arrived. People have gotten to know me before rushing to judgment. I’ve had the privilege to change attitudes and challenge stereotypes about the LGBT community on the part of Romanians as well as my fellow volunteers.
It takes time, energy and effort to build a nurturing community for one’s self no matter the location. Accompany this with your volunteer assignment and removal from the familiar and you’re sure to have ups and downs. Peace Corps Romania will forever hold life-long friends, struggles, disappointments, accomplishments and self-awareness for me. It’s not been easy but at the end of it all it’s truly been “the toughest job I’ve ever loved.”
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