LGBT RPCV’s Grant for Romanian Brochure

In 2008 LGBT RPCVs provided a grant to produce a Romanian language brochure, “Our Sons and Daughters,” based on PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) materials. Peace Corps Volunteer Laura Rogers helped coordinate the project with the Romanian human/gay rights organization Accept. She was a member of the Gender and Development Committee, a group made up of Romanian PCVs and Romanian host country nationals dedicated to promoting gender equality (including LGBT rights) in the social and economic processes of Romania.

After Laura completed her service, PCV Micah Carbonneau followed through with the distribution and use of the brochure. Several months ago he approached us with a proposal to produce another brochure. This one would be based on the “Coming Out Guide” produced by HRC (The Human Rights Campaign). We recently provided a grant of $900 to print 1000 copies. Micah in coordination with Accept translated and adapted the HRC materials to be distributed at Accept events and activities. A brief survey on how to improve the materials for future publication will accompany the guide.

Coming Out At Site: Romania

- Micah Carbonneau, PCV

“Peace Corps allows gay volunteers?! And you agree with this?!” asked my surprised host mother.

We’d been discussing diversity in Peace Corps and I hoped to feel out her views. From this first talk I’ve tried as a gay man, to talk about diversity and its role in my life. To avoid scandal or harm, volunteers must usually remain in the closet completely or stay very discreet. Our closet compared to those of many host country nationals however, is rather spacious. From the time of our staging, Peace Corps Administration has made clear its support. Other PCVs make ours the most accepting community I’ve ever been part of.

Even a large closet however, becomes claustrophobic. I can go along with jokes from acquaintances about ‘finding a nice Romanian woman,’ but when friendships at site deepen keeping a secret begins to feel like lying. True friends deserve the opportunity to prove themselves. How would this go at my site, I wondered? Worse case scenario, I’d have to leave. But, I reasoned, gay Romanians come out of the closet and have no such choice.

So, five months into site, I told those I was closest to: my tutor, host mother, and counterpart. My trust in them was well placed. With my tutor, our friendship strengthened after the uncertainty of romance was removed. My host mother was shocked, yet remained kind and continued to insist I use their washing machine. My counterpart while personally accepting was afraid of a scandal.  I assured her I would remain discreet and had no intentions of dating.

Not long after this, two Romanian friends came out to me. While they knew one another, neither was out to the other. The woman was heartbroken after a breakup with her girlfriend and had no one to speak with. At the time, she lived and worked for her family.  They’d told her at one point they considered homosexuality a mental disease. For obvious reasons, she was afraid what rejection would mean and could not tell them the truth.

My other friend, a man, disclosed one night, his past sexual encounters with men. He was so nervous I could see him shake. He does not however, consider himself gay. He longed to find a girlfriend and a have a traditional family. What about his same sex attractions, I asked. He responded that he would most likely seek sex outside the marriage. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When homosexuality is a mark of shame, deceit to self and others is a deep temptation. For my friend, gay people do not have happy endings.

When we are true to ourselves and honest with others, I believe everybody benefits.  Sometimes this means taking bold decisions, but more often it means doing what comes naturally. Things I grew up doing, such as cooking, helping with the dishes, and cleaning the house, here stand out and expectations for me as a man are quite low.

When I told some female acquaintances I was moving into an apartment alone, they asked with mournful curiosity: “But who will cook for you?”  In their eyes I could saw the black clad procession follow my coffin. When moving out of my last apartment, my landlady without a glance surmised I had not kept the place clean. Later, to my co worker, I angrily listed my efforts – rug beating, dusting shelves…plant leaves!  And, I told her, I’m a very good cook!

I’d once asked this same co-worker how to can and pickle vegetables. She asked me:

“What are you, a woman?!”  I was quite shocked and not a little amused to hear her new take: “Well, you know how to cook and you know how to clean…You don’t have to marry!”

Though I cook, in visits to friends I’m often provided a hot meal despite my polite (and unconvincing) protests. Romania greatly benefits from its women who maintain its traditions of home gardening and cooking. I wonder if gender roles become less strict if Romania won’t lose this culture. No more stocked preserves; jarred jams, vegetables, and fruit, cakes and pies! I didn’t expect I would ever be so happy to benefit from such a set-up (I ease my conscience by trying to clean the dishes, compliment the cook, and reciprocate with a meal here and there, though the scales forever tilt away from me). Whenever anyone asks me what I appreciate about Romania, I tell them it is this culture which women uphold.

Romanians’ desire to set me up with a Romanian wife reflects urgency for people to “settle down” more pronounced than in the United States. The ability of Romanian women to feed their husbands and guests makes a convincing argument!  In discussing with my host father the possibility of my doing another term of Peace Corps in Africa, he intimated that at some point I had to have children; that this was the natural order of things, and this is God’s expectation for us.

If, as my Romanian co-worker says, I can cook and clean, why shouldn’t I remain single? I asked my host father. “The world is drawing from finite resources, now more then ever before. Why further tax these resources by bringing new children into the world when there are abandoned children seeking loving parents, here and in the United States?”

While for my host father, the responsibility to procreate is about God, I think it is more about economics and education. From my observations, it seems that the higher a person’s wealth and education, the later a person marries. Without education or middle class status, there are fewer social and travel or employment options, fewer options in general, and settling down at 20 or 25 seems much quite logical.

As volunteers, building relationships with coworkers, friends, and adopted host-country families, we discuss who we are. My sexuality is a big part of who I am and I’ve been fortunate to have found a small group of friends to be open with. I know my views in many ways differ from theirs, but in giving them someone they know, rather then a character from a movie or in some news article, I’ve succeeded in making it easier for them down to the road to accept others in their lives who are gay or lesbian.

And here a short update on my two friends: the woman has come out to both parents who have accepted her and continue to support her. Also she has found a new girlfriend. The man found a girlfriend who is now pregnant. He is very happy to have the family he’d always wanted.

In talks on trains and with strangers, I hope I’ve been able draw attention to how much Romania owes women in maintaining this country’s deep agricultural roots, stocked kitchens, and set tables. And finally, perhaps I’ve shown others that there is life beyond this small town; that adventure always calls.

Micah Carbonneau can be contacted at macme25@hotmail.com.

PFLAG in Romania

-Laura Rogers, RPCV, 2007-2009

Editor’s note: This article was previously published in the Spring 2009 issue of Beyond Gender: Gay and Lesbian Rights Edition. Beyond Gender is the newsletter of the Gender and Development Committee, a group made up of Peace Corps Volunteers in Romania and Romanians (HCNs) dedicated to promoting gender equality in the social and economic processes of Romania. Author, Laura Rogers was active on their LGBT rights subcommittee.

When I was in Pre-Service training some more experienced Peace Corps volunteers came to speak to us about being gay in Romania. They described cultural beliefs that tell people homosexuality is a sickness and a sin and told us that not all, but many gay people in Romania choose to remain in the closet and live secret underground lives rather than risk losing their families and their jobs, a likely consequence of leaving the closet.

They told the story of a Romanian man who was in counseling with a professional counselor to get help with some of the things he was struggling with in his life. He came out to his counselor and told the professional that he was a gay man, and the counselor took him to a church to have an exorcism performed on him.

In response to such an environment a Peace Corps project has been implemented to help. In 2006 members of the Gender and Development (GAD) Committee, partnered with NGOs to sponsor a training seminar for Romanian mental health professionals on increasing gender sensitivity with an emphasis on providing effective care to people in the Romanian Gay and Lesbian community.

Currently the GAD Committee is revisiting the need for true and accurate information on homosexuality and has begun a project to create the first Romanian language resources for parents and friends of gay people.

Material from the web site of international organization Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) has been adapted for cultural appropriateness and translated into Romanian.

PFLAG is a support group for people who have a loved one who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The organization was started in 1973 by Jenanne Manford after her son Mortie was beaten at a gay rights protest in New York City and police ignored the assault. Manford marched alongside her son in a New York gay pride parade with a banner than read “Parents of Gays Unite in Support of our Children.” The first support group meeting was held in 1973.

A booklet written by PFLAG parents called “Our Daughters and Son’s: Questions and Answers for the parents of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual People” is being published in Romanian as well as a shorter pamphlet called “Frequently Asked Questions about Homosexuality.”

There is no formally organized PFLAG in Romania, but in an effort to bring parents and family members of gay people, PSI Romania has created a web page where people can sign up for an email listserv which will be promoted in the materials.

Through the listserv the friends and family members can be connected with other parents and friends who are going through the same struggle to understand that a friend or a family member is gay.

They can communicate through email – anonymously if they wish – with other people in Romania and know that they are not alone. These parents and friends who seek support, answers, and connection with each other will be the ones to start the grassroots PFLAG group in Romania when Romanian friends and family are ready. Perhaps a group will form that will eventually move beyond support and into the realm of advocacy.

The pamphlets and booklets will be available to the counseling and mental health professionals through the participants in the GAD LGBT sensitivity training. GAD magazine Beyond Gender readers can request copies of the booklet or pamphlets through email at Gadromania@gmail.com.

Peace Corps volunteers can also request booklets and pamphlets from the Peace Corps office. Volunteers who feel they have personal connections with people in the community who would make positive use of this information should request a pamphlet or several pamphlets from the office and give them to teachers, parents, neighbors, school directors, counselors, social workers, librarians, public officials or anyone else the volunteer knows who might be receptive to the information.

Of course not all – and perhaps not many – volunteers will have relationships at site that allow for distributing these pamphlets.

The most effective way volunteers can participate in this project is to give the pamphlets to Romanian professionals or people they know personally and with whom they have had conversations about how the person would use the material.

For volunteers, gay and straight, who want to assist in raising awareness, and spread true and accurate information about homosexuality in Romania, here are some suggestions about how to open the subject with friends, co-workers or other people at site who may benefit personally or professionally from reading the PFLAG material.

  • Ask the person how their education, school curriculum, experience has informed their opinions of AIDS education, safe sex, or teenage pregnancy and then move the subject to gay rights.
  • Offer your experiences as an American: talk about movies, TV-shows, pop music, current events, American politics, and diversity within the Peace Corps. All of these topics can include your experience or knowledge of openly gay people.
  • Ask questions about Romania and Romanian history, “I heard it was illegal to be gay in Romania until 2002. Is that true?” “I heard there’s a gay rights march in Bucharest every year. What do you think about that?”
  • If you have gay friends in the United States or in Romania tell the person about it and ask if they have ever known someone who is gay.
  • Role-play the conversation ahead of time before you bring up the subject and anticipate their responses. That way you will have confidence in what you have to say.
  • Point out to the person that you are not trying to make him or her uncomfortable and he or she does not have to agree with what is being said; just that you would respectfully like to introduce them to the topic of what you believe is true regarding homosexuality.
  • Consider asking the person you’re conversing with if they would like printed material in the Romanian language and requesting the documents from the Peace Corps office after they have said yes. The information will also be available in Romanian online at: www.community.pflag.org/EasternEuropean

Just as every time a gay person comes out to a friend or a co-worker they risk being rejected so too every straight ally who approaches the subject in their community and in their place of work takes a risk on a smaller scale. We hope that volunteers will want to be involved in the distribution of this information, and will use good judgment in assessing potential reactions.

For further guidance on how to proceed in specific situations regarding these topics volunteers can turn to peer support or the Peace Corps Romania LGBT support group for advice.

For volunteers at Hungarian sites we’re investigating the cost of printing some pamphlets in Hungarian, but we don’t yet know when that will happen. If any volunteers at Hungarian sites are interested in the pamphlets they should email Laura Rogers at: theonlylunchbox@gmail.com.

The printing of the pamphlets in Romanian has been made possible by a grant from Gay and Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender US Peace Corps Alumni.

You can learn more about the Gender and Development Committee and their online resource center at www.gadromania.wetpaint.com which has GLOW/TOBE curriculum, links, and other important information about GAD in Romania. It is intended to be a resource for PCVs in other countries as well.

Laura Rogers can be contacted at theonlylunchbox@gmail.com.

Struggle of the Pink in Romania

-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.

Gay Guide Romania, Information for New Peace Corps Volunteers

- 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.”

You can contact this writer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

 

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