Struggle of the Pink in Romania
May 19, 2008
-A Former Peace Corps Volunteer
I can still remember the day that I received the invitation to Peace Corps Romania. I turned my music loud, danced around the room, and was late for a meeting. I was really excited. When all the excitement cooled down, I started looking for information on Romania. I was a vegetarian and it was quite devastating to find that Romanians mostly eat meat. Food is a big part of culture. After some struggle, I decided to start eating meat so I could fully experience the culture. Adapting to a new culture is a huge factor of our success here in Peace Corps Romania. The other devastating thing that I found was the general attitude there surrounding the LGBT community. Being a member of that community, I have found the culture and attitude surrounding me becomes vital for my personal well being.
The more research I did, the more worries I accumulated. I remember reading articles about police beating teens for kissing in the park, violent protest against Gay Pride, and the creation of the 2001 law decriminalizing homosexuality only so Romania could join the European Union. Back home in Northern California, I had no problems freely expressing myself. But I wanted to practice my specialty and experience the world. I accepted the Peace Corps invitation knowing the possible consequences for the next two years – being closeted again and putting up a fight against discrimination.
I have found myself in a similar situation before. I come from a traditional immigrant family. My parents want me to follow a typical path – go into business and start a family. This part of our culture is similar to Romanian culture: I should have a girlfriend and be considering getting married by now. Somehow I feel like I have multiple parents here. People are constantly asking why I don’t have a girlfriend. One time someone asked me more than ten times in an hour’s conversation about my girlfriend and would not believe I didn’t have one. It was a bit overwhelming. Talking to Romanians makes me feel like I am talking to my parents. There is no understanding, but constant pressure. Telling local people that it is normal for people to stay single at my age in America doesn’t seem to work either. I feel there is no room for diversity. To make matters worse, the organization I work for here is full of young women, so sometimes I get “unwanted attention.”
Since I arrived in Romania in February 2007, I have locked myself in the closet. As time moves on it gets harder. I feel that closet door is getting thicker and harder to break through. I sometimes feel like I will burst from all the fear and frustration building up inside me. I am afraid that I will not be able to effectively express and share my ideas and sow the seeds of sustainability before people impose their judgment upon me and shut me off. My frustration builds up behind the mask that I am forced to wear when I am unable to freely express myself. Still I am always looking for possible ways to talk to people. Slowly I am easing my fear and frustration. Life is progressing and I am hopeful.
Two and half months into the service I discovered that most of the people in the organization where I work are homophobic, including my counterpart. I was hanging out with a group of them. They were having fun, and some of them were drunk. One of these guys started to jump around me and scream “I am gay! I am gay!” Since I was in a playful mood, I responded by saying “I can see you are happy.” At the same moment, I looked around and saw most of the men started backing away from him and some even had a distasteful expression on their faces. Since this guy is actually straight, people got back to “normal” pretty soon. It was quite an interesting moment for me to figure out what people’s stand was on the issue. To my surprise, some of the people I thought would have a progressive mindset were the ones who reacted the most negatively. After this incident, I found it more and more difficult to be able to express myself freely and open up to people that I feel could potentially become really good friends.
However, sometimes life will find ways to insert hope. I came out to two Romanians recently when I went to another city to fetch my legitimatia (a temporary residency card). Like most of the volunteers I went to deal with my legitimatia issues on my own, instead of seeking outside help. I met up with a friend of another volunteer and stumbled through the application process. Afterwards we sat down with his girlfriend and a few of his Romanian friends to chat. In a combination of frustration, desires to have friend that I can keep, and the talk of marriage, I came out by saying the damn law still prohibit me from getting married. They were pretty shocked with my boldness, but they were generally accepting especially when compared with what I experienced from other people here. I was glad to be able to find someone who was able to accept me as I am. It helped release some of my stress and frustration.
All of us who are LGBT in Romania face the problem of not being able to express ourselves freely. This has made me truly appreciate the freedom that I had taken for granted back home. Even though the LGBT community back in the States continues to experience political struggles and attacks against our basic human rights, we do not need to hide in order to survive and there is room for everyone. At home it is easy to find support, especially in California.
PST (Pre Service Training) included some information for minority volunteers, harassment issues female volunteers may experience, lots of information on alcohol abuse, but very little about what LGBT volunteers will face. One thing that could have helped would have LGBT volunteers already in the country share their experiences as gay volunteers in Romania. If I this had been the case, I would have been better prepared to face the situation at my work site.
Here in Romania a group of LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers have formed a support group. We meet when we can and email one another. We socialize, share our experiences, and provide support and information to one another.