Saturday, April 28, 2012

If Thy Friends Doth Protest Too Much, Do Not Remove Thy Clothes

Since last year I have been hosting a monthly transgender support evening at my residence in Bucharest.  If any of my readers happen to find themselves in Romania, just drop me a line and I'll give you directions.  MAGIC-DC it is not, but when I found there were no support groups here, I decided I would start a tradition.  Coincidentally, it's even on the third Friday of the month just like the MAGIC-DC evenings.

Has the tradition caught on?  It's too early to say.  For the first several months only my friend Raluca Niculescu came, and we would spend a couple of hours talking and having a bite to eat.  Raluca is recently post-op, and I have much to learn from her about her Thailand experience.  In January it was DO who came, and we watched some transition-related videos and then part of the movie Transamerica.  In February no one came.  The surprise came in March, when over the course of the evening I had a dozen people in my apartment.  Well, to be honest, six, including Irina Nita from ACCEPT,  are LGBT friends and colleagues who had come at 7pm for a Pride Month planning meeting.  As we got closer to 8pm, my officially announced time for the transgender evening, the doorbell began to ring.  Six more joined us, and the Pride Month meeting slowly morphed into the transgender evening.  What was truly gratifying that night was that I had never before met five of the people who came for the transgender evening.

So I never know quite what to expect.  Maybe no one will come, and then again, perhaps a half dozen or a dozen will ring my bell.  Or. . . .

On Friday, April 20, I arrived home by bicycle at about 6:30pm.  "Good," I thought, "I have an hour and a half to get ready."  Before setting out food, I decided I had enough time to take a shower.  I had just taken off my bicycling clothes and started the shower when. . . .

Buzzzzzzzzz!!!!!!   Someone was at my door.  I turned off the shower, threw on a bathrobe, and ran to the front door and cracked it open.  There stood Raluca with a smile that turned to an expression of surprise when she saw me in a bathrobe.

"It is at 7pm, isn't it?" she asked.

"No, it's at 8pm, but come on in while I get ready."

"But I have a whole group right behind me!" Raluca replied, "We all just got out of jail."

"What???!!!!  Tell everyone to come on in.  You're in charge while I get dressed."

"Yes, that's me, I'm always in charge," Raluca sighed.  I know that as one of the most successful of the young Romanian transgender women I have met, Raluca is not boasting.  

Fortunately, Raluca knows my apartment and kitchen.  She got everyone settled while I went to get dressed, forgetting the shower.  Then Raluca came and helped me with the new dress I was having some trouble with.

"What happened?" I asked.  "Were you all arrested?"

"Yes, all of us."

Finally dressed, I joined the group.  I knew many of them.  Others I was meeting for the first time.  This wasn't going to be a transgender evening as such, but an LGBT post-demonstration decompression.  Chief among the friendly faces was that of Tudor Kovacs, one of the leading LGBT activists in Romania.  Tudor proceeded to tell the tale.

Several weeks earlier, many in the Bucharest LGBT community decided the time had come to protest the anti-gay laws adopted this year in St. Petersburg, Russia.  They applied to the Primariia (mayor's office) to stage a quiet, peaceful demonstration not in front of but near the Russian Embassy.  The Primariia accepted the application but then would not make a decision yes or no despite repeated inquiries.

So, according to Tudor, when the planned protest day came, 20-30 activists in this intrepid group decided to go ahead anyway with or without a permit.  When they arrived at the planned demonstration location, however, they found the police already waiting.  They had just enough time to get out a few home-made placards and a banner before the police began arresting them.  All-in-all the demonstration lasted fewer than ten minutes.  No one resisted arrest.  The demonstrators were ushered into a waiting police van, taken to the nearest police station, and detained for two hours before being released.

Well, there's no reason for me to tell the story when you can watch it right here:

Alexandra Carastoian, a talented young filmmaker and activist, shot this video.  It's Tudor Kovacs who is speaking at the beginning, and I see many familiar faces.

Raluca was part of the group, and the police station where they were detained happens to be just around the corner from my apartment, a two minute walk if that.  When they were released, Raluca suggested they all come over to my place.  About ten of them came along with Raluca.

I listened to the story as I put out drinks, bread, cheese, wine, and a bowl of spaghetti.  I was no longer embarrassed about having been caught without clothes.  Rather, I was glad I was there to greet these young LGBT Romanians who had decided to exercise their right of peaceful demonstration.

I came to understand from Tudor and others that what had happened to their application to demonstrate is quite common.  When the authorities don't want to be seen publicly as prohibiting a demonstration, they simply do not reply to the application.  They do, however, send the police out on the planned day and time.  They quickly arrest anyone who comes to demonstrate on the grounds that they are demonstrating without a permit.

I said to the group that had I known, perhaps I should have joined them with a few posters in Russian.  Then I caught myself.  If I had joined in the demonstration, my diplomatic status would saved me from arrest, but since I would have been violating a host country law that I am duty-bound to observe, the police most certainly would have made a report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).  I don't know if participating in a single protest of this kind would be grounds for the MFA to declare me persona non grata, but most certainly I would have been in hot water.

Sigh.  We watched more of Alexandra's video, and then there was another buzz.  It was Irina Nita at the door.  Tudor, Raluca, and the others told her the story of the protest, and then our evening gradually morphed into another Pride Month planning meeting.

It might not have been a transgender support evening, but it was an evening to remember nonetheless.  I am proud to know Tudor, Raluca, and everyone in this group that had at least tried to stand up against injustice in St. Petersburg, a city I have loved through the decades, a city that may now be off-limits for me.  I was happy that even if I could not be part of their action, I could open up my home and share a meal with them afterwards.

I will be keeping a close eye on demonstration plans for the rest of my time in Romania.  From the official point of view, protesting too much here is not much protesting at all.  The least I can do when friends subject themselves to arrest is keep my clothes on, prepare a bowl of spaghetti, and open my door.

The moral?  If thy friends doth protest too much, do not remove thy clothes.

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