ADRIAN NEWELL PAUN
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Adrian Newell Paun. I am the founder of the Adrian Newell Paun Queer Archive and the founder of the Romania Queer Documentaries Film Festival (ROQ DOC), the only one in Europe dedicated exclusively to queer documentaries. I was an activist for the LGBTQ+ community, but I no longer consider myself an activist.
I considered myself the motherly part of the gay activism in Romania. I am part of the community, but to me, activism in Romania is quite problematic. I am of a certain age, I have other worries and other priorities. That doesn’t mean I don’t think activism is a good thing - I think it’s a very good thing, but I’d rather see the younger generations doing activism, a much more modern, much more progressive activism than the one we did in the ‘70s, ‘80s.
What do you think makes Romania stagnate compared to other European countries when it comes to LGBTQ + rights and discrimination against members of the community?
In the 70’s and 80’s, gay activism in Romania meant you were not afraid. That was all. In the communist times, the idea of non-governmental organisations did not exist. Everything had to be controlled. Many wonder why Romania and the other former communist countries are relatively behind in terms of emancipation, compared to advanced countries. In communism you could not organise yourself, it was almost impossible. We did not have an emancipation movement, but that does not mean that we did not know what was happening in the West. Some of us had access to foreign press, so we knew what was going on, even before Stonewall.
How was living in Romania in the era of communism as a gay individual?
We had something on our back, a big problem - Article 200. Very few people imagine, especially allies or heterosexuals, what it means to be born a criminal. I’m gay. I think I was born gay. At that time, you used to be told - “Well, someone taught you!” Who taught me? I come from a heterosexual family. If this is something learned at home, why are they the way they are?
With the issue surrounding Article 200, which punished acts of sexual inversion and corruption, you could face up to 7 years in prison. This obviously does not lead to emancipation, but to internalisation. We took care of each other, kept in touch, covered each other and protected each other. But the problem we faced was that we did not know how to assert our identity. In communism, we were trained to be cowards and liars. And we still are cowards and liars. Some of us married women, women who were lesbians as well. Some of us had children. That doesn’t lead to activism. It was a very Levantine technique. No one took to the streets to say “I have rights, I am a citizen, I must be respected, I must be left alone, I have the right to my opinions, I have the right to live my life the way I want.” It couldn’t happen. We helped ourselves by living in a lie.
What do you believe about the Romanian mentality and the way politics and religion are still so very tied in this country?
The progress (in Romania) is clear. The very fact that people are beginning to understand that you don’t have to ask for gay rights. There are no gay rights, that is an aberration. It’s about your rights as a citizen. As a gay person, you have no rights. As a citizen, you have all the rights, and they must be respected. In Romania, fortunately, we have rights, but they are not respected. There are areas (in the world) where you don’t even have rights, much less can you ask to be respected, therefore we are in a somewhat privileged position. Unfortunately, in the area of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the concept of a citizen is very poorly understood. People do not claim their right to be a citizen. You being a human does not mean anything. Being a citizen means something. People have no rights, citizens do have rights. There is an insoluble connection between you and the government. You have a contract with the government, where they must take care of you and in return you pay it, finance it, make it exist. The government lives on your money by doing something for you. An emancipation movement is needed to force the government to comply with its social contract obligations.
The emancipation effort will be a permanent one. Every generation must have its own emancipation movement. Article 200 is no longer in the criminal code, but can be reintroduced at any time, if political conditions allow it. Just because Article 200 is no longer in the criminal code, does not mean that everything has been resolved. Any law can appear and disappear. We must not get tired and be very awake, because we cannot anticipate what will happen.
I think the Romanian people are culturally homophobic, not internally homophobic. The Romanian does not hate homosexuals, but rather does not know them. He learns culturally, which makes him a victim of his culture. If left alone, he has no problem with you.
Since homophobia in Romania is cultural, we have a great advantage. Through well-made, well-aimed and permanent acts of culture, you can change the mentality.
What happened at the 2018 Referendum was a moment of awakening for us as a community. We did not expect the Romanian people to be so open- minded as to identify that the stake of the referendum was zero, that it wasn’t going to solve anything. The “classic” family is specified in the family code. It was useless.
The influence of the church is only illusive. The referendum proved this - the church was at the forefront of the organisation, but they failed miserably. The Romanian people did not respond to the buttons they pressed for two years, but rather said “We are not interested!” They had the intelligence to say, “That’s stupid!” It doesn’t concern us and we don’t care. “ The idea that the Orthodox Romanian Church is very powerful and knows which buttons to press, did not work this time.
How do you think a change could be created in the country? What change is needed?
We have to evolve culturally. I believe that the best activism which gives the most effective results, even if it takes longer, is through culture, through affordable cultural events. The political element is also important. Going out, doing a demonstration, having Gay Pride, they are very useful as tools - for the community, first of all. They connect the community. At street events, we meet for the first time. Some meet people like them for the first time. You are finally home and for the first time you are among your own. You can be free.
The gay emancipation movement was not born in America, it was born in Germany, around 1936, which is why you see a difference in approach and military techniques between the USA, where their movement is very muscular, very theatrical, confrontational, compared to the European one, which is calmer, oriented towards culture, books, cinema, theatre. They have the same goal, that of changing the social mentality in favour of our emancipation and our acceptance as a community, but they come from different directions. Both are useful, and in the last 10 years, I can say that we have somehow copied both the American model, like Pride, but also the European model, of queer cultural activism.
I think we must also educate our LGTB+ community that they must pay for culture. Actors, artists, painters and most people of culture do not live from nothing. We need to organise solidly in the political area. We must learn to use our allies in office to obtain grants. We don’t have any LGTB+ people in parliament. I know they are some, but none are public. You cannot become relevant as a community without a political backing. We are behind. For the last 30 years, we haven’t been able to produce a single person to be in parliament and publicly say “I am gay.”
I think we need to be even more subtle. We are a minority that claims its rights, the ones we have but are not respected. Who is responsible for respecting our rights? The majority. You cannot go to the majority, criticise and insult them, and then say, “Now that I’ve offended you, respect my rights.” They won’t do that. on the contrary, they will react very badly. They know their strength, and you depend on them. There’s too much confrontation. Something is unstable in current activism.
Moreover, I think you cannot have any progress without knowing the history behind it. Activism works in layers, which accumulate so the situation gets better and better. Social acceptance is improving. Step by step. It doesn’t happen instantly. It is our role, as elders, to inform the youth - “Be careful, it was bad, and you need to know your history. We are the history, we are a living library. Learn from us, learn from what we went through, so that you can see where you want to go.“
What advice can you offer the younger generations of the LGBT+ community?
I always recommend that when you decide to come out, and I’m not saying you have to come out, you do it when you are ready. Be prepared to lose many friends, but be ready to make new ones. Many relaxed too much, said “Hey, I’m gay”, then ended up with no friends.
The act of emancipation also contains an economic element. It’s hard to make your coming out if you’re not financially stable, because you might find yourself kicked out by your parents. If you are not on your feet, your coming out is counterproductive. First, you must fix the housing problem, see if you have a source of income, and then you are stable enough to face a massive negative reaction from family or friends. Otherwise, you will regret it for the rest of your life. This is the root of the problem called internalised homophobia. It makes you believe that your homosexuality is wrong, because you do not have the necessary tools, education or life experience to understand that sexual orientation has nothing to do with other’s decisions regarding you. They are only reacting by being surprised in that moment. You have to remember that you prepared for that moment for years, and they didn’t. Suddenly, their child is replaced by someone they did not want. The reaction will be harsh, because you have erased all their expectations and dreams. You have to think about saying it without hurting them, because otherwise they will hurt you too.
With or without coming out, you can participate in the community life. You can come to the Pride marches. It will really do you good. Don’t isolate yourself, keep in touch with the community.