Roma LGBTQ People Talk About the Challenges of Facing Double Discrimination

"If your family isn't open to it, of course you have to hide who you are."
September 19, 2017, 12:22pm
Photo courtesy of Marian

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.

A recent study by the Romanian National Council Against Discrimination found that LGBTQ people and Roma people are among the groups facing the most discrimination in Romania. In the past few years, more human rights organizations have started to address the double bigotry that people identifying with both of those groups have to deal with—LGBTQ Roma.

In their case, the hate doesn't just come from society in general, but also from within their own communities. For example, it's not entirely uncommon to see the statement "no gypsies please" on profiles on Romanian LGBTQ dating sites, while, on the other hand, conservative Roma families believe homosexuality is wrong.

In August 2015, Ara Art, a human rights organization founded by a group of Roma artists from the Czech Republic, hosted the first international Roma LGBTQ conference—in which a wide range of gay and Roma activist groups from across the world took take part. In total, 28 organizations from 12 countries attended the conference, hoping to raise awareness within Roma communities—and wider society—about the situation of LGBTQ Roma. Since then, Ara Art have held three more conferences, focusing on ways in which activists can push for changes to their country's anti-discrimination laws.

I recently spoke with four Roma LGBTQ people from Romania, in order to understand better how their lives are affected by their dual minority status.

Antonella, 28

Photo courtesy of Antonella

VICE: Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Antonella: I'm a transgender Roma woman from eastern Romania. With the support of my family, I started transitioning at a pretty young age. In that regard, I was luckier than many LGBTQ people in Romania.

How did you come out to your parents?
At first, I was afraid to—our traditions and customs are such a big part of our community. But I just worked up the courage to tell them one day. My dad rejected me initially, but he grew to accept it completely. I think my mom was more understanding from the start because she had always suspected it. She is a devout Christian—but also a fierce LGBTQ supporter now. To her, we're all equal before God. She believes society shouldn't be so judgmental of LGBTQ people.

Have you ever encountered abuse or discrimination for being trans?
Absolutely—I was physically attacked when I left a nightclub one night. Two guys pushed me to the floor and started punching me in the stomach and kicking me in the head. I woke up in hospital.

Marian, 40

Photo courtesy of Marian

VICE: What has it been like for you being Roma and gay?
Marian: I never used to think of myself as being part of this special group of people who were both Roma and gay. I've been lucky—I didn't grow up in a very traditional Roma community, and I left home at 18, so I was already independent when I came out to my parents. Everything changed when I started actively campaigning for LGBTQ rights. That's when I realized just how conservative and intolerant some Roma can be toward gay people. Many Roma think my sexuality is shameful—but in my experience, you're less likely to be rejected as a gay person if you live in a more liberal Roma town.

And have you noticed that the LGBTQ community discriminates against Roma?
Unfortunately, yes. There are definitely some hints of racism in the attitude of many Romanian LGBTQ people toward Roma.

Which stereotypes of Roma and LGBTQ people do you hate most?
Sadly, a lot of Romanians think Roma are a bunch of lazy thieves, while gay people are often seen as loud, promiscuous, and lacking any morals. If both groups were better and more honestly represented in media and popular culture, I'm sure that would help fix the perception some people have of us.

Dana, 33

VICE: How did your family react when you told them you were gay?
Dana: I was lucky because my mom and dad supported me immediately. I was in an abusive marriage before—perhaps that helped my parents come to terms with the fact that I'm gay. Once they saw I was happy, they stopped caring about what people would say.

Do you think LGBTQ Roma are more likely to hide their sexual orientation from their friends and family than LGBTQ people from other backgrounds?
I think that's a generalization—a lot of communities in the world discriminate against LGBTQ people. I know many ethnic Roma who hide their sexual orientation, but it all depends on the family you grew up in. If your family isn't open to it, of course you have to hide who you are.

How do you think Roma are being treated in Romania?
I've personally never been discriminated against for being Roma, but I know it still happens. I hear stories of young children at schools being picked on because they live in temporary homes. The abuse even comes from teachers.

Iulian, 44

Photo courtesy of Iulian

VICE: What's it like for you to be Roma and gay?
Iulian**:** I've always made a conscious effort not to let my status as a double minority affect me. I've been comfortable with both my ethnicity and sexual orientation since childhood.

Do you think the LGBTQ community in Romania discriminates against Roma?
Absolutely. Racism within the LGBTQ community does exist, as does homophobia within the Roma community. It's strange because you would expect minority groups to want to stick together, but it doesn't seem to work that way.

You have been an activist for LGBTQ's and Roma for years. How have things changed in Romania during that time?
After the fall of communism, Romania became far more liberal—people started traveling a lot more in the 1990s, and were exposed to other values. Even in the past decade, a lot has changed. If you would have asked ten years ago, I'm guessing about eight out of ten Romanians wouldn't have wanted a gay or Roma family member, co-worker, or neighbor. That seems to have improved a lot over the past few years, though it's possible people have just learned to hide their bigotry better. Whatever the public opinion at the moment, I think the most important next step is that we get comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in Romania.

Recently, I've started seeing more Roma rights activists coming out in support of the LGBTQ community.
That's true—and honestly, that's how it should be. You can't call yourself a human rights activist while ignoring other groups of people facing discrimination. It's great that especially young people in Romania seem fully committed to the cause of equality for all. It's because of them that our pride parade grows every year. I still feel minorities themselves should be the ones to fight for their own rights. We can't wait for others to do it.