Like many churchgoers in Romania, retired engineer Marius Tufis opposes same-sex marriage.
“I don’t like man with man and woman with woman,” he said, frowning in the sun after Sunday’s service. “Our religion does not accept this.”
Same-sex marriage is already banned in Romanian civil code, but that’s not enough for Tufis. He worries that the European Union, which he sees as divided between the liberal West and the conservative East, will force Romania to change the law.
That’s why he voted on a referendum this weekend to amend the constitution, which defines marriage as “between spouses.” He wants it to read “between a man and a woman.”
“I believe most Romanians want this,” he said. Public opinion polls showed as much. But the only people he saw at his precinct were election monitors and a few elderly couples. “So how come no one else showed up?”
Only about 20 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the referendum, even though the government extended voting to two days. The referendum needed a turnout of 30 percent to be valid.
“It’s dead,” Tufis said, sighing.
Those who opposed the referendum boycotted it, including Vlad Viski, executive director of MozaiQ, an LGBT rights group based in the Romanian capital, Bucharest.
“Our campaign said, ‘You cannot vote on whom you love,’ ” said Viski, 30, over coffee at a cafe covered in “Boycott” posters.
He blames American groups like Liberty Counsel, an organization that opposes same-sex marriage, for egging on the Coalition of the Family, which pushed the referendum in Romania. Representatives of Liberty Counsel visited Romania last year with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage certificates for same-sex couples.
“What we’re witnessing is this sort of alliance between these extremist American groups and local indigenous conservative groups trying to push forward their agenda,” Viski says.
The Romanian Orthodox Church called for unity after the referendum failed. But its leaders strongly backed the constitutional amendment.
“How you define family is a fundamental value of a Christian society,” said Archdeacon Ionut Mavrichi. “You can see how things evolved in Western Europe, and there is pressure to accept this trend.”
The failure of the referendum is a huge blow to the church, which once claimed that more than 80 percent of Romanians support it. It’s also a blow to the ruling Social Democrats; the government spent nearly $50 million of taxpayer money holding a referendum “to ban something that’s already banned,” says Adina Zorzini, a 35-year-old art gallerist.
“Imagine how many elderly people or homeless people or sick children in hospitals that you can help with that amount of money,” Zorzini said.
Zorzini showed up at a boycott party in her glittery wedding dress; her friends had “kidnapped” her as part of a Romanian bridal tradition.
“So we will boycott this idiotic referendum at this wonderful party until I have to return to my husband,” she said.
Civic activists accuse Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea of using the publicity around the vote to deflect from his convictions of election fraud and abuse of office. Despite his support of this referendum, he has claimed he will support civil partnerships for same-sex couples.
Alina Ercau, a 24-year-old art historian, does not believe him.
“Our politicians are terrified of the church, and the church is terrified of queers,” she said, as she danced with friends at a boycott party in a Bucharest club.
“I came here because I’m a lesbian,” she said. “And I don’t think we should be perceived as people that are plaguing our society … that we are some sort of degenerates, that we are sick.”
Communications consultant Dragos Bucurenci, 37, wrote about his bisexuality publicly in an op-ed 10 years ago in the hopes that it would encourage others to come out. He says he was “met with deafening silence” — silence that turned to vocal homophobia in the weeks before the vote.
“Ever since this started, whoever expressed any views that were pro-LGBT was fair game for haters,” Bucurenci said, as he walked his dog, Oscar, through a lush park near Bucharest’s opera house before the vote ended.
“If this referendum doesn’t pass, I will remember this day as the second-most important day in my life after 22 December 1989 when the communist regime fell,” he said.
Romania did not decriminalize homosexuality until 2001 — and only then because it was a precondition for entering the European Union.
“Before that, Romanian jails were filled with gay people,” said Viski, the LGBT activist.
Tufis, the retired engineer, blames the EU for pushing liberal values on Romania.
“My daughter lives in the Netherlands, and she’s gotten strange ideas in her head,” he said. “We fight every day over same-sex marriage.”
But he acknowledges times are changing.
In June 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled for a Romanian man, Adrian Coman, who sued his country for denying a spousal visa to his American husband, Clai Hamilton, when the couple tried to move there. The court ruled that the spouses of all EU nationals have freedom of movement in the bloc. Late last month, Romania’s constitutional court backed that up.
The developments give hope to Antonella Villanova, a 28-year-old transgender woman. She moved back to Romania last year after years of living in Italy.
“This is my dream,” she says. “To be in my country, accepted for who I am.”
Freelance producer Mihai Ursu contributed reporting.