Our generation did not come with the manual for use in the package

by Miruna Tiberiu

There are dreams which I feel l have lived, experienced, some time and somewhere, like lived experiences which leave us wondering if they were actually just dreams. (Mateiu Caragiale: Remember, 1924)

Mateiu Caragiale’s narrator swims in the murky waters between Dream and Reality, his encounter with the Wildean Aubrey de Vere, tinged with sensuality, is like a pebble in the pond of his Reality. A heterosexual Reality. When I first encountered my Romanian-Queer Reality, I too felt shaken. But now I am sure of what I saw, of what I see and of what I will keep seeing, when I navigate the streets of my home, Bucharest. ‘Our generation did not come with the manual for use in the package’, Eugen Rădescu tells us. As individuals who have no language, no history, no identity in the eyes of our own people, we must create our own language, history, identity together, through a community, one that is woven together by a palimpsest of history and experience. Here is my experience. I did not dream it.

Bucharest Pride, photo credit YCS (Alexandra Statache)

June 2021, Sibiu. I wander around the Humanitas bookshop in the market square. That day, in the back of a box labelled ‘reduceri’, in the back of the bookshop, in the back of the country, I encountered Queer: Istorii Ilustrate (2019). I spent embarrassingly little on this book: the equivalent of 50p. This book, along with the echo of queer Romanian voices and queer Romanian histories it held within its wonderfully camp cover, was clearly worth very little to the Romanian reader. That day, as I devoured its essays, interviews and intricate sketches by artist Andreea Chirică on the drive home, I could not stop the feeling of being plunged into a wave of greatness. Something big was about to happen, for me at least. This article was about to happen.

Let’s move back to 1955, in Sibiu once again. A group of gay people are arrested en masse and paraded together around its streets, decorated with placards defining their illegal identities: homosexuals. They are marched all the way to the courtroom,  tried together, then convicted together (Homoistorii, 2011). To the Romanian ‘tovarași’ (‘comrades’), raised to believe that difference is danger, the homosexual is not an individual. It is a public enemy. In 1968, The Ceaușescu regime unleashes its latest weapon: Article 200:

‘1. Sexual relations between persons of the same sex are punishable by a prison term of between 1 and 5 years.’

Scan to the bottom of the article and you are struck with point 5, where the phrases ‘prison term between 15 and 25 years’ and ‘withdrawal of some rights’ appear. Further West, in 1993, Ciprian Cucu, seventeen, and Marian Mutascu, twenty-two, meet in Timișoara through a newspaper ad written by Cucu entitled ‘November dream’, calling for a ‘long-term friendship’ (Homoistorii). They remind me of the dream-like encounter between Caragiale’s narrator and Aubrey. And yet they are soon jolted awake from this dream. In his testimony to the International Tribunal on Human Rights Violations Against Sexual Minorities in New York, (October 1995) Ciprian recounts the following:

‘Then we were taken to the county police lockup. On finding out the reason why we had been arrested, the warden of the lockup (known as the “karate man”) jumped on Marian, kicking him in the mouth and stomach. He continued to kick him even after Marian fell down and lost consciousness.’

9th of June, the trial. The lovers are convicted, Ciprian is expelled from school. Two years later, Marian commits suicide. The November nightmare is over. Ciprian’s testimony is one of the hundreds used as evidence to condemn Romania’s disregard for basic human rights. They caused a global scandal. Hungry for a foothold in the European Union, Romania unwillingly abandons Article 200 in June 2001, a mischievous dog dropping its bone after kicking up a fuss. Three months before I am born, my identity becomes legal at last.

I had grown up under the assumption that there simply was no queer community in Romania. Therefore, I never needed to look for one. I lived in a bundle of fear made up of ‘feminine’ clothes, a series of ‘boyfriends’, hot-headed ‘crushes’ on Benedict Cumberbatch and my history teacher with his Viking beard (we’ve all been there). I only managed to untangle myself from this mess of compulsory heterosexuality on the way to the airport, hours before I was to set foot on British soil to start university. I came out to my mum that day. She could only call me a homosexual then; it is all her mother tongue handed to her as a tool for expressing non-heteronormative identities. She now borrows from the English lexicon. When she sees me, she sees the words gay, LGBT, and lesbian.

January 2022. I am sitting in the grass by King’s College Chapel with Ori, a second-year Cambridge student like me, Romanian like me, queer like me. After a frustrated laugh, Ori talks about their inability to use their mother tongue to express their gender identity.

‘We have no language, no means to express anything outside of the gender binary. Everything is gendered, every article and noun and adjective. I was trying to find a way of creating a gender-neutral language by borrowing from the French ‘ielles’, but it just sounds like ‘el’ [him] in Romanian. […] I learned to express my gender identity in English after joining a DnD group right before I moved to Cambridge when I first realised that being non-binary was an option. There’s an added frustration to translating these thoughts, even the gender-neutral ‘they’, into Romanian to explain things to others. As if the fear of being rejected by those you are trying to explain yourself to wasn’t difficult enough already!’

With the absence of an adequate language, genderqueer identities are virtually erased from our minds. When you only speak Romanian, you think in Romanian, you perceive in

‘[My coming out] started out as me telling [my mum] that there are certain parts of my body hair that I don’t want to get rid of. […] She asked me whether I was a ‘man’. Like, maybe at some point in the future I might be, but I’m not there now, and that’s not even the point here.

I ask Ori if they can understand the resounding echo of homophobia that can still be heard throughout Romania.

‘I don’t feel like it is my responsibility to teach people who don’t want to be taught. Why should I forgive my parents for not understanding just because they’ve grown up with no information on the LGBT community if they’re still hurting me?’

As I sit with Ori, I imagine Vlad — another queer Romanian student — sitting beside us. Bright smile, breathless laugh, muted red hair and a Hawaiian shirt. I imagine him flashing Ori a sad smile in agreement. I ask him whether he would ever move back to Romania.

‘I don’t think so. There are so many things that they need to improve on and I don’t have the time and energy to fix things for other people.’

Vlad, however, feels the same responsibility that I do. We talk about using our privilege as young queer Romanians, who learned to live fearlessly in the British LGBT community — who ‘got out. We talk about the pressure to return and weave together a community back home.

‘I would love to at least try to do something, anything. Even if I leave it behind it will still affect me here. I will still keep thinking about the situation back home. It’s sad that everyone (in our queer Romanian community) is leaving. Who’s gonna take care of things there?’

I think about what we can do to change the minds of people who, as Ori says ‘don’t want to be taught’. Then I realise that, perhaps, it is less about eradicating homophobia and more about directing the rivulets of queerness that run largely underground in our country to one communal stream. An LGBT community that sees the light of day, finally. Imagine that.

August 2021. Bucharest. With a newfound taste of freedom after a year in the UK, I return to Romania once more. Like Ori, I now have a language of identity, albeit far away from my native one, to surround myself with. I come out to more of my family; they ask me about pronouns, who I’m seeing, what the queer community is like in the UK. I talk, without running out of words. For the first time, I seek the sights of Bucharest. I spend my days, like Caragiale’s narrator, in the thick summer air, camera in hand, eyes ravenous. The metro takes me to the old town centre, past endless cinemas like the Dacia, Timpuri Noi, where queer people in the 70s and 80s would meet and watch film after film together, a momentary respite from the violently homophobic communist world outside. It is in the public sphere that queer Romanians fell in forbidden love before 2001. At tram stops, in abandoned metro stations, in cafés like the famous Berlin, where the type of wine in your glass was enough to replace language, to show your community that you belonged with them. I meet someone in Bucharest. We kiss beneath the crows perched up in the trees of the Cișmigiu park. I remember reading about a similar encounter, anonymous, many years before, in the book of interviews, Homoistorii: ‘One summer night I found myself enraptured by “flagrant desire” […] in Cișmigiu’, it says. On those streets, day by day, I meet more of my community, dead and alive, old and young.

But how do we make this community known? I have had to personally translate into English every book or article that I have quoted thus far. There is no interest in published English translations of queer Romanian texts, perhaps because, even back home, we Romanians seem to have no interest in them either. When I asked them where they’d found a community growing up, every queer Romanian person I interviewed reiterated the same response. They hadn’t. I would like to add to that: they hadn’t yet. Let us remember Queer: Istorii Ilustrate. When I brandish my battered (you could say, well-loved) copy of it in front of Vlad, his eyes glisten. Later, he tells me:

‘I’m really curious. That is why I was so happy when you showed me the book and now, I really want to read it. I always feel sad that I don’t know anything about these things because when my parents or anyone asks me, I feel like I can’t explain myself. I can’t give them answers because I don’t have the answers myself.’

Our history, like our language, is banished to the depths of bookshops and dubious websites, accessible only through coincidence or word of mouth. As we think about how we could bring to the surface news of our community, Vlad tells me:

‘I was thinking of writing books because books make change’.

The answer, then, is art. Eugen Rădescu, queer activist, art curator, politics lecturer, DJ, and co-writer of Queer: Istorii Ilustrate, talks to me about his experiences in the world of queer Romanian art. As an artist in the heart of Bucharest, Eugen’s experiences are my closest encounter with queer Romanian culture. He tells me about queer-focused concerts, art exhibitions and more, that have persisted despite the dire situation of the pandemic in Romania. He points out that this cultural sphere is distinctly Romanian and thus incomparable to any other LGBT community. We speak about the East/West divide in the European LGBT communities.

‘From a cultural and emotional point of view, Eastern Europe is more diverse (than the West), and perhaps not even the LGBT community can stray from this Balkan path on which several voices resound. Many of these voices have tried to slow down the progress towards the acceptance of our community. There is a major discrepancy between the East and the West, but I think that this has less to do with the LGBT communities in particular and more with the way in which the cultural and educational pattern is woven’.

This, I think, is what Western queer readers fail to realise.

Whilst progress is slow, both Eugen and I can agree that queer art is nevertheless flourishing now in ways that it would not have been able to before. I speak to Mihaela, who eagerly recounts her trip to Bucharest to see the Trans-Balkan (2019) photography exhibition in 2020:

‘I saw photos of two guys from my hometown. Imagine the coincidence! I was so shocked when I read that they were from the same place as me; I put my hand over my mask!’

She mimes her gesture of surprise over Zoom to me and I cannot stop myself from smiling. Michaela tells me that she never dreamed of being out in her hometown, a place teeming with gossip and claustrophobia. It is only when she moved away to university that she started, albeit cautiously, coming out.

I remember this when I think of Eugen’s disillusionment with the painfully slow progress of our queer Balkan community. It is the chance encounters, seemingly insignificant, that give me such hope for the future. Artist Aleksander Crnogorac travelled across Southeast Europe, meeting, interviewing, and photographing 30 trans people of all ages and walks of life, to produce Trans-Balkan. His photographs immortalise their identities. They also state, loud and clear, that their identities are ‘Balkan’ as much as they are ‘Trans’. These identities that were forced apart for so long, whether by politics or by the individuals’ resentment for a country that has caused them so much suffering, are finally brought together, homogenised, however momentarily. I am not naïve. Neither are the queer Romanians I interviewed. We understand that we should not forgive and forget. But what good will anger alone achieve? It is through dialogues, be it an art exhibition or a hazy conversation in a smoke-filled kitchen, that we grieve, but more importantly celebrate. Every encounter I have with a queer Romanian person reminds me that we have a community everywhere. Every time I walk through a park, square, or basement bookshop, I feel the presence of all the queer Romanians whose steps I am following in.

‘How would you like me to refer to you in this article?’ I ask.

‘I would like you to make sure that you include my last name, Vasilescu. I want people to know that I accept my Romanian identity, but that I am also queer’, says Ori. Ori Vasilescu.

‘You can use my name. I don’t need to be anonymous […] I embrace my roots. I love being Romanian’, says Vlad.

I can imagine the heads of my entire family poring over these words right now. But I am not ashamed anymore. Let this be my coming out to them. Let this be their education. My name is Miruna Tiberiu, I am a lesbian and I am Romanian, and I will write my own manual for use, together with my community, one conversation at a time.

Miruna Tiberiu is a modern languages student at the University of Cambridge. She has written on queer art and cinema for various publications, including The Cambridge Language Collective and Varsity newspaper, and is now co-directing the queer short student film Silent Treatment set to premiere in June. This piece was recently published in the literary journal The Cambridge Review of Books.


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