Former Rowan County clerk Kim Davis made waves in the U.S. when news spread that she would be embarking on a nine-day speaking tour to lobby against same-sex marriage in Romania.
But according to local LGBTQ activists, her reception has been pretty muted.
“People in Romania don’t know who Kim Davis is, so they haven’t picked up on the story,” Vlad Viski, president of the advocacy organization MozaiQ, tells INTO in an interview. “LGBTQ groups have kept quiet about her visit because we don’t want to make her into more of a celebrity than she really is.”
Davis, who was jailed for five days in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, spoke in Bucharest on Thursday night on behalf of Liberty Counsel. The Orlando-based law firm, which has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is lobbying in favor of a plebiscite that would ban LGBTQ couples from marrying. A bill that would put marriage equality up to a public referendum has passed the lower house of Romania’s Parliament. It awaits a vote in the Senate.
Viski was not able to comment on the content of Davis’ Bucharest speech, but she has already spoken at several libraries and churches in the largely Eastern Orthodox country. He claimed that the Kentucky clerk has been “presented like a martyr.”
“[Davis] came and cried at all of her conferences,” the 29-year-old activist claims. “She said that she was humiliated because of her belief in God. She talks about good and evil, and how nowadays evil is considered good and good is considered evil. She said that she has gay and lesbian friends, trying to appeal to this idea that her message is not hateful.”
Viski adds that Liberty Counsel has referred to her as a “prisoner of conscience” during her speaking engagements.
The Florida firm, who defended Davis in court, has become increasingly involved in Romania’s same-sex marriage debate in recent years. Since 2007, right-wing organizations from the U.S. have been attempting to push for a constitutional amendment limiting the definition of marriage to one man and one woman. A previous attempt failed in 2013.
But they were finally able to gain enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot this year: More than 3 million people signed onto a petition from Coalition for the Family. That’s 15 percent of Romania’s overall population.
Viski says that conservative groups like Liberty Counsel and the Alliance Defending Freedom have recently pushed anti-marriage equality referendums in Croatia and Slovakia. All of these nations have voted to ban same-sex unions as a result. Alliance Defending Freedom, based in Washington D.C., is also behind the introduction of numerous anti-transgender bathroom bills in the U.S.
“Conservative American groups have developed transnational networks through which they export their ideology of hatred,” Viski claims. “They’ve done it in Africa, and they’re doing it in Eastern Europe.”
The LGBTQ activist pointed to the influence of evangelicals like Scott Lively in pushing Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill, a now-defunct law that mandated the death penalty for homosexuality. Lively, who founded an international evangelical ministry in Latvia, told a Kampala conference in 2009 that LGBTQ people are “monsters,” “serial killers,” and “mass murderers.”
Viski says that hate groups are known to show Orthodox churchgoers in Romania photos of leather enthusiasts at San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair to stir up fear and disgust. He claims that they warn that the image illustrates the “decadence of the West.”
“That’s what’s coming here,” conservatives say. “That’s how homosexuals act.”
The U.S. influence on LGBTQ rights in Romania has been devastating. Before right-wing groups began disseminating homegrown homophobia to Eastern Europe, Viski says that the concept of conversion therapy was alien to Romanians, but suddenly LGBTQ people were “faced with this idea that homosexuality could be changed.”
Harry Mihet, vice president of legal affairs counsel for Liberty Counsel, has also used anti-Communist sentiment to stir up animus toward same-sex marriage.
“[Romanians] still remember the not-so-long-ago days when they were themselves persecuted and imprisoned for their conscience,” Mihet said in a press release announcing Davis’ tour. “The freedom of conscience transcends national, cultural, religious and denominational lines, and Romanians are determined to prevent such injustice from ever happening again in their country.”
Under the Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceaușescu regimes, countless people were persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered.
But Viski claims that fear-mongering from U.S. religious groups has had an unintended impact: Queer and trans Romanians have come together in an unprecedented fashion to fight the spread of homophobia. The Associated Press reported that more than 1,000 people gathered for this year’s Pride parade in Bucharest, the country’s largest turnout ever. Viski says the actual number was closer to 2,500.
“The LGBTQ community has seen a revival of the movement,” Viski says. “We’ve seen more people coming out to organize protests and public events. That has allowed us to mobilize more.”
Activists in Romania have been showing up to speaking engagements on Davis’ tour to hand out rainbow heart pins with equals signs on them. A transgender woman stood in the front row at one of her lectures just inches away as the ousted government official advocated against dignity for people like her. The goal isn’t to be loud or disruptive, Viski claims, but simply to say: “We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”
“Even if we lose this battle, more people have come out and made themselves heard,” he says.