Post(card)s from LGBTQ Eastern Europe: Bucharest, Romania

Over the past week and a half, I’ve had the honor and privilege of traveling to several Eastern European countries to meet with people who are involved in religiously-themed queer protest art. They have generously made time to meet with me, shared meals and insights, introduced me to their friends and collaborators, showed me around their cities, and generally helped me to understand the cultural, political, and religious contexts of their work. Although this trip is part of a larger project, a follow-up to Queer Nuns and an initial foray into sorting out the focus of my next book project, here I offer a bit of an academic travelogue in order to share some of what I’m learning and to bring more attention to the exciting work these folks are doing. There are four post(card)s, one for each city in which I conducted research: Bucharest, Romania; Odessa, Ukraine; Prague, Czech Republic; and Poznań, Poland.

The city of Bucharest, a bit like the Romanian language itself, wears its history on its sleeve. The Georgian architecture that appears around nearly every corner – or at least every corner not graced by a slightly worn yet still beautiful park – hints of a city on the rise in the late nineteenth century. Older buildings are harder to come by, since the city suffered a devastating fire in 1847, but another building boom in the interwar period added graceful art deco lines to the cityscape. These compete today with blocky concrete apartment buildings that date to Romania’s communist era; the occasional shiny, new building of steel and glass; and bright billboards advertising any number of consumer products and services, many of them in English. Some of the stately old buildings and spacious villas have been painstakingly renovated; others molder around their inhabitants, with stone crumbling from balconies and porticos around a nest of twenty-first century wiring that tangles its way up the outside. Still others stand abandoned, with overgrown trees straining their fence lines, broken windows letting the weather through in all seasons, and everything from trash to old metal office chairs tossed helter-skelter in their once-dignified gardens. Graffiti covers the first floor of much of the downtown, more sloganeering than art (anti-E.U. and, as one inscription proclaimed, “anti-antifa” themes seemed especially popular), and in some places the buildings are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1989 revolution. Struggling with poverty and brain drain – I spoke with several academics and artists who were looking to leave the country, even against their will, due to lack of opportunity – and faced with the challenging and inefficient process of restoring to their former owners properties that were seized by the state at the beginning of Romania’s communist period, Bucharest is an architectural palimpsest, a mosaic of architecture and often rapidly-changing city planning that evidences the city’s changing fortunes and directions over the last century and a half.

Anyone who knows Bucharest well will have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned one of the most striking aspects of the city: the omnipresence of Orthodox churches. Some of these have survived fires, earthquakes, and wars; many have been lovingly restored and rebuilt, sometimes on multiple occasions. As in so many revered religious spaces, these churches are stunningly beautiful inside, with altar screens and censers of brightly polished silver and gold contrasting with the more muted but still colorful – often smoke-dimmed – frescoes adorning walls and ceilings. As struck as I was by the beauty of the spaces, I was also fascinated by the choice and portrayal of the various saints in these churches, and was particularly intrigued (and, I must admit, a bit tickled) by the clear theological statement – intended or not – made by the representation of John the Baptist. Gazing down at the viewer in this image from the ceiling of the outer portico of the Church of the Patriarchy, the saint offers clear support to the doctrine of bodily resurrection but simultaneously raises a provocative question about that doctrine. As he regards the viewer from eyes set within a very-much-attached head, he also carries his own head in a basket. The demands of iconography aside – demands faced in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy – it’s quite striking to see John the Baptist with not one, but two, heads.

2017-09-11 13.15.16

I traveled to Bucharest to meet the team that produces the Orthodox Calendar – and not the one that tells Orthodox Christians when Easter lands each year. This one is a wall calendar, and although it includes priests as you might expect, it includes rather less clothing than usual. If you haven’t seen it and you’d like to, check out their website at http://orthodox-calendar.com. The Huffington Post also covers the calendar each year, and usually includes a racy/NSFW slide show and, in relevant years, a link to that year’s “trailer” video. My host and the director of the project also introduced me to others who are interested in the ties between LGBT civil rights and the Orthodox Church in Romania, including an Orthodox theologian (not ordained by the church, as you might imagine) who’s also a driving force behind the local human rights/LGBT rights organization, ACCEPT; a graduate student working on LGBT studies in religion; and an art director who’s working to raise the profile of the religiously provocative queer art of Sorin Oncu, a young artist who died an untimely death last year.

Romania is currently in the throes of its own “family values” campaign that’s using the country’s public referendum process to try to change the language about marriage in the Romanian constitution from a description of “spouses” to “one man and one woman.” Sound familiar to U.S. readers? It should. Apparently, the strategy was exported directly from the U.S. to Romania by certain groups of conservative evangelicals who are more than happy to make common cause with Orthodox Christians if it means a chance to publicly attack LGBT people and reinforce our second-class citizen status (for those who have citizenship at all – LGBT refugees face major challenges here, like most refugees do but exacerbated by sexual and/or gender identity). The vote on the referendum will be taken later this fall, and although the constitutional outcome doesn’t look hopeful, there is an effort to establish civil partnerships as a trade-off for the eradication of gender-neutral language about marriage.

The Romanian Orthodox Church has participated actively in the campaign for the referendum through advertising, admonishments to parishioners, and the initial signature drive that placed the issue on the ballot in the first place. The activists, intellectuals, and artists (not that these are mutually exclusive categories) whom I met range from not even having an Orthodox background, to being atheist but raised Orthodox, to identifying today as Orthodox. They are lesbian, gay, and straight; Bucharest has a trans community and I understand some people identify as bisexual, but I met no members of either group to my knowledge. Regardless of their relationship to God and to the world of the spirit, though, what they shared was a concern that the Romanian Orthodox Church has overstepped its authority in its too-obvious partnership with the state. On the grounds of the People’s House, or Palace of Parliament, built by Ceausescu for his own exaltation but now housing the Romanian Parliament, is currently being built what I’m told will be the largest Orthodox cathedral in the world. It is indeed massive, and will most likely be awe-inspiring, but as my new friends in Romania pointed out, it sits on the grounds of Parliament in an ostensibly secular state. Given the current social conservatism of the Orthodox churches in general, and the increasing encroachment of hard-right conservatism and theocracy in some other areas of Eastern Europe, developments such as the new national cathedral and the marriage referendum have people worried that these are harbingers of an extremist political shift that will affect a wide variety of marginalized people, most of whom are already being affected but may become more so: women, LGBT people, Romas, and what remains of the Jewish population here after the utter devastation wreaked by the Holocaust, among others.

In the face of these sobering concerns, what are people doing? The Orthodox Calendar team has found that their products don’t sell well in Romania – they’re expensive by Eastern European standards, for one thing, and even when they’re given away for free people are reluctant to own them because of concerns about being outed to families, housekeepers, roommates, friends. The Calendar definitely doesn’t help with “straightening up the house”! But their products are a huge hit in the U.S. and Taiwan, and while purchases remain largely outside of Romania and even outside of Orthodox countries, Romanians are among their top followers on social media. So the word is getting out. One model who freelances for the calendar, a straight, cisgender, Orthodox man, not only likes the ways in which the Calendar’s work raises awareness of LGBT issues but also feels that it sends a message that priests are just like the rest of us – everyday people who face challenges, experience desires, and may not always act in socially-approved ways. At the same time, he says, it brings LGBT people up to the same level. “Just like the rest of us” may be a politically useful concept at this point in Romanian history, despite critiques of this claim that have been thoroughly and rightly explored elsewhere. Funds from the calendar originally went to support the band Pussy Riot, but legal changes in Russia made that increasingly difficult. Eventually, the funds were redirected to help in supporting an NGO that works with children who have chronic diseases such as HIV.

While the Orthodox Calendar pokes at the patriarchate, dancing just out of its legal reach through the input of a lawyer involved in the project, and artists like Sorin Oncu challenge the church through installations and other works, LGBT and ally Orthodox theologians are also beginning to organize. One whom I met is trying to open lines of dialogue with the church, quietly where no one has to make grandiose statements for the sake of career or public image, to at least try to stop the active persecution for now. Across Eastern Orthodoxy, a book of LGBT Orthodox religious reflection has just been published with the support of the Argus Foundation: Misha Cherniak, Olga Gerassimenko, and Michael Brinkschröder, eds., “For I am Wonderfully Made”: Texts on Eastern Orthodoxy and LGBT Inclusion. And as I left Bucharest, the theologian whom I met was preparing, along with many others, for a meeting of LGBT Orthodox Christians here. There is also interest in starting a house of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Bucharest, especially to counter an utter lack of sex education in the schools and severe misunderstandings of HIV and AIDS that leave LGBT people in general unsure what’s safe or unsafe and in fairly regular fear, especially as youth or other newly sexually active people, that they have seroconverted and don’t yet know it.

Artists create, theologians publish and dialogue, future Sisters plan to educate. But with the exception of the men who run the Orthodox Calendar, who have access to significant financial resources, a lot of these folks also feel a bit isolated, forgotten in the discussion of religious and LGBT rights both in and beyond Europe and facing an economy that can make even purchasing books prohibitive due to the poor exchange rate, to say nothing of the cost of international travel for networking purposes. Check them out online – even likes and shares can make a difference, and consider exploring other ways of supporting this important work.

Author: Melissa M. Wilcox

Melissa M. Wilcox is Professor and Holstein Family and Community Chair of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author or editor of several books and journal issues, and numerous articles, on gender, sexuality, and religion. Her books include Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community; Sexuality and the World’s Religions; Queer Women and Religious Individualism; and Religion in Today’s World: Global Issues, Sociological Perspectives. Her newest work, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, will be published in Spring 2018 in the Sexual Cultures Series at New York University Press, and she is at work on two textbook projects in the areas of queer studies and sexuality studies in religion.

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