Romanians will be asked this weekend whether they want to redefine marriage as only being between a man and a woman rather than ‘two spouses’, in a referendum that LGBT activists say is fuelling homophobia.
The result will have little practical effect, given that same-sex marriage is not legal in Romania, and critics of the referendum, which was brought by a conservative NGO called Coalition for the Family, say it has been seized upon by politicians as a distraction tactic.
“The idea is to distract public attention from corruption allegations, and they are doing it at the expense of the LGBT community,” said Teodora Ion-Rotaru of Accept, a rights organisation. She said there had been an increase in hate speech over the past two weeks, worsening an already difficult situation for the LGBT people in a very conservative country.
Graeme Reid, the director of the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch, said the referendum was a waste of money and redundant. “It’s a symbolic gesture that further marginalises a minority group and intends to scapegoat them,” he said.
Activists say the referendum will set the cause of LGBT rights further back.
Romania’s ruling Social Democrats are already accused by many in Brussels of increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and their leader, Liviu Dragnea, has been convicted of abuse of office and sentenced to three and a half years in jail. His appeal will be next week.
Dragnea has been active in campaigning for the referendum. “Many people fear that what happened in other countries could happen here, for example that a human and an animal could get married,” he told Romanian television this week.
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Veronica Anghel, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Human Studies in Vienna, said: “Parties have opportunistically seized the initiative for electoral benefits, stemming from practically a non-issue.” She said there had been little real debate around the issue, with each side operating in an echo chamber.
Most of Romania’s political opposition have supported the yes campaign, and those against the referendum have opposed it as a waste of time, aware that promoting gay rights is not a vote-winning tactic.
Romania only decriminalised homosexuality in 2001, much later than most neighbouring countries. It ranks 25th out of 28 EU states for discriminatory legislation and hate speech against LGBT people, according to an annual survey by the rights organisation ILGA-Europe.
The government has done everything to make sure the referendum passes, lowering the minimum turnout threshold from 50% to 30% and allowing voting over two days. There is little doubt that the vote will be overwhelmingly in favour of the amendment, but it is unclear whether the turnout with be high enough for a binding result.
One potential upside is that with same-sex marriage ruled out, Romania may begin moves to allow civil partnerships for gay couples, but rights activists say there is no guarantee that this will happen.
“The damage this is doing to the LGBT community in Romania cannot be undone,” said Ion-Rotaru.