Achievements and challenges of LGBTQ+ people, with Adrian Coman

June 20, 2022

Adrian Coman, human rights activist, talks about the struggle for LGBTQ rights in Europe and around the world, on International Horizons.

LGBTQ rights activist Adrian Coman and his husband Claibourne Robert Hamilton against a watercolor rainbow Pride flag

This is Pride Month, a time to promote equal justice and opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people around the world. There have been many advances in LGBTQ rights in recent decades such as decriminalizing same-sex relationships, banning discrimination in employment and housing, and, of course, legalizing same-sex marriage. Yet there's also been a conservative backlash in many countries and growing controversy over care for transgender teens in the U.S. and Europe. Where does the struggle for LGBTQ rights around the world stand today?

In this episode, LGBTQ activist Adrian Coman talks to John Torpey, Presidential Professor of Sociology and History at the Graduate Center and director of the Ralph Bunche Institute, about the clashes between domestic laws and those of the European Union, the challenges of LGBTQ activism, how politicians instrumentalize homophobia to stay in power, the controversy over trans teens, and the key issues to be addressed in order to increase inclusion.

International Horizons is part of New Books Network or academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:15

This is Pride Month, a time to celebrate the increased visibility, dignity, and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people around the world. There have been many advances in the rights of sexual minorities in recent decades, such as decriminalizing same-sex relationships, banning discrimination in employment and housing, and of course, legalizing same-sex marriage. Yet there's also been a conservative backlash in many countries and growing controversy over care for transgender teens in the US and Europe. Where does the struggle for LGBTQ rights around the world stand today? 

John Torpey  00:52

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast to the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. 

John Torpey  01:11

Our guest this week is Adrian Relu Coman, program director of international social justice at the Arcus Foundation. He was the first director of the leading Romanian LGBT rights organization called ACCEPT, has directed programs for Outright International, and served as an adviser to a Romanian Member of the European Parliament, Monica Macovei. He is himself at the center of a major case concerning gay rights in Europe. 

John Torpey  01:43

While living in Brussels some years ago, Adrian married his American boyfriend, Claiborne Robert Hamilton, and sought to apply for residency in Romania for him under the European Union's freedom of movement policies. His request was denied and the subsequent litigation went to the Romanian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Justice, the ECJ. In 2018, the ECJ found that same-sex spouses should be afforded the same rights to live and work across the European Union, as married heterosexual couples, regardless of individual EU member states' stances on same-sex marriage, but the case drags on. But welcome to International Horizons, Adrian Coman. 

Adrian Coman  02:30

Thank you, John. And please allow me to add to the introduction, that I am a proud CUNY Graduate with a bachelor's degree and City College as a base. And to answer your question, yes, my husband has not yet obtained a residence in Romania, which is why we went to court in 2013, almost 10 years ago. And let me tell you how this came about. Clai and I have been together for 20 years now. We met and lived here in New York, where I emigrated through the US visa lottery. We then got married in Brussels in 2010, that is a time when it was not yet possible here to do it. The New York Assembly adopted the law only in 2011, one year later. And after we got married, I became unemployed in Brussels, and we were trying to identify how we could get back together, as Clai was here and I was there. 

Adrian Coman  03:30

And one option was Romania, but Clai needed a legal residence there. So we started to gather documents required by the application for residence, and one of them was a transcription of our Belgian marriage certificate. But the Romanian consulate in Brussels refused to transcribe it. So the next step was me writing to the Romanian immigration authority asking how Clai can get the residence? And the answer was that he cannot because the Civil Code in Romania explicitly prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages realized abroad. So I came back to New York in 2013, and we went to court together with the Romanian NGO ACCEPT, and the European Union Court said that we are spouses for the purpose of free movement in the European Union, and that includes the residence for Clai. 

Adrian Coman  04:27

Next, the Romanian Constitutional Court confirmed that decision in spite of the marriage prohibition in the Civil Code, which they did not repeal. But what's important is that the Constitutional Court said for the first time that we too have a right to a private and family life, just like heterosexual couples. So in sum we have clarified what the European Union and the Romanian constitutional law was on this issue, but the law was never actually applied to us because courts closed the case on procedural grounds. So we filed a complaint to the other European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, it is the court of the Council of Europe that applies the European Convention on Human Rights; and that is the court of last resort for individual cases in Europe. And that's where our litigation is. 

Adrian Coman  05:21

You also asked me how the decision was received. In some, people receive the decision better than politicians, we receive very much sympathy from ordinary people to the media, people stopped us in the street in Romania, to affirm their support, as our case has been at news, and we also see opinion polls showing increasing support for non-discrimination of LGBT people; and that includes support for same-sex marriage.

John Torpey  05:55

Got it. Sounds complicated and difficult. And I'm sorry, you have to endure all this legal hassle. But so let's kind of widen out the lens a bit from your own case. And look at the question of same-sex marriage, for example When you started, and you say it was 10 or so years ago, this was still something that was relatively, I think, not accepted or not established in law in Europe and the United States. But in the meantime, it's certainly become much more acceptable, and much more acknowledged across Europe and the United States, and at the same time, there's also been backlash and controversy about it. So how would you say what's the status of same-sex marriage in the parts of the world that we're basically talking about now: Europe and the US?

Adrian Coman  06:51

Yes, I think things are very mixed. I also like to speak more about the right to be recognized as a family rather than the right to same-sex marriage, because same-sex marriage is just one form of legal recognition of families. And, as the European Court of Human Rights said, the state can decide which form it grants, but it has to grant one; it cannot be in the situation of Romania where there isn't any form of legal recognition. Moreover, there is a prohibition explicitly enshrined in law against the recognition. So things are very mixed, because on one hand, we've seen in Western Europe, in the US a recognition of same-sex couples and families. It has come in all forms possible; it has come through the courts, such as in the US in 2015. And that in itself shows that the legislative power is not in the position to do that, so we have to rely on the courts. 

Adrian Coman  07:56

It has also come through legislative measures in various countries in Europe, France, for instance. It has also come through referenda, interestingly, such as in Ireland, where things were decided like that. I mean, this is a fortunate case of a favorable result. But as a rule, human rights should not be put to referenda, should not depend on a majority will. Eastern Europe is very different in this sense because what we have seen is that, in very few places, there is a recognition of same-sex families. And in the majority of countries, there are legal measures to prohibit the recognition of same-sex families. 

Adrian Coman  08:46

We've seen, for instance, constitutions being amended in order to rule out the possibility of same-sex marriages, and that happens in places where people cannot get married, do not have access to other forms of legal recognition, such as civil partnerships. So such constitutional amendments have been adopted from like Latvia in the north, to Bulgaria in the south. We've seen it also in the constitution of Hungary. 

Adrian Coman  09:18

And we've seen an attempt to do the same in Romania. There was a referendum in 2018, which fortunately did not reach the number necessary to pass when people were asked whether they agree to amend the Constitution to rule out same-sex marriage, again, when the Civil Code already prohibits it. And the Constitutional Court in our litigation, did not repeal that provision. So we do see, unfortunately, these measures. The referendum in Hungary this year went further; it did reach the fields of education, whether the people can speak about these things, right? There is a similar law in the Romanian parliament now being considered, you know, on these issues. So I think what we are seeing strangely is, in general, the public opinion moving in what I call the right direction, that of embracing diversity, embracing rights for everyone. And we see in the more populist countries, the authorities moving in the other direction of trying to introduce restrictions in order to please and expand their base in such an emotional way. 

John Torpey  10:37

You just used the term populist to refer to those states that are moving, as you say, in the wrong direction. I mean, it sort of seems to the untrained eye, like, as you go from west to east, the sensibilities change. And then what gets enshrined in law, correspondingly, looks different, I guess. You know, Ireland is an interesting case that you also mentioned, which used to be obviously heavily dominated by the Catholic Church and its wishes and preferences. And that's very, very different now than it was a generation ago. So it hasn't always been necessarily this kind of west to east gradient, so to speak, but in a way, that seems like a fair characterization of what's happening or where the different things are happening. And my question to you, particularly since you are by origin an Eastern European, on what basis do you explain that? I mean, is religion playing a role there? A different kind of moral sensibility? What's going on? I mean, I know, you're not a sociologist, but these are the kinds of questions I have.

Adrian Coman  11:48

No, I'm an observer and a participant. I personally think that a lot of what's happening today can be explained through nationalism and religion. And that, not only for Eastern Europe, but in Eastern Europe, let's remember, that in communist regimes that fell around 1990, we were pretty homogenous societies, there was not any kind of diversity that was accepted, promoted, affirmed in public life or by the state. Of course, we had ethnic minorities, right? These were the only minorities that were ever acknowledged. And based on which country you were talking about, they had some rights or none. But again, uniform societies, centralized policies, not a culture of dissent, of free expression. And I think these have been environments where restrictive conservative movements found a way to develop because they did -conservative in general means keeping things as they are right, or opposing change -so that's why for liberal movements it is always more difficult because it is about change. 

Adrian Coman  12:01

And let's remember also that some countries have never really been democratic. And I want to name Russia here, which, unfortunately, is a laboratory of all sorts of restrictive measures that were experimented there and were imported somewhere else. For instance, the anti-propaganda laws, that you cannot speak about homosexuality in schools in the media or to people under certain ages. These did not only stay in Russia; we saw in Lithuania the same law being circulated in parliament. In Romania, the law I mentioned earlier, being considered in the parliament right now is also a kind of anti-gay propaganda law. 

Adrian Coman  13:59

Then Russia also invented the foreign agents' law in which their own civil society would be designated by the government as foreign agents, and that would lead to prosecutions to find people losing their freedom. Russia also invented the so-called "undesirable organizations", and these are those from abroad and donor organizations in particularly from the US; the Ministry of Justice created the list and put certain organizations on their list. And that meant that those donors could no longer fund in Russia because implicitly they would expose their grantees, their recipients there to government prosecution. So in sum, I think, Europe is not the same. These very long historical differences do have an impact in today's life, but that is not to say that things are not changing or cannot change. And I think the best thing that happened to a lot of us was the enlargement of the European Union because we basically had to abide not only by the so-called values and principles that were the same, but also legislation and the protection of human rights.

John Torpey  15:22

Interesting. So, I gather that your work for the Arcus Foundation also takes you even further afield to Central America and Africa and the Caribbean. So I mean, I know it's a big wide world. But I wonder how you would characterize the situation of LGBTQ rights and activism in these other parts of the world beyond the European and American context?

Adrian Coman  15:53

Well, obviously, each place has its differences; we can compare a situation in a country that doesn't have rule of law or freedom, with one that has the freedom, Mexico, for instance. In Mexico, despite the many challenges, people can talk to the media, can take it to the street, in demonstration, can come out in families; it is a more positive environment. For instance, more than 80% of Mexican respondents in an opinion poll actually agreed that the government has to protect trans people against discrimination, right? At the same time, we have large numbers of cases of violence and even murder, right, and particularly of trans people. So it is very much a country of contrast to me, Mexico, but that shows that change is possible. And with an incredible mobilization of civil society. 

Adrian Coman  17:03

Through my work, and our strategy at Arcus, which, in short, seeks to contribute and to increased safety, legal protection and social inclusion of LGBT people in Eastern and Southern Africa, and also Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Through my work, I am trained to seek for the progress, because our job is to support the people in the groups that are key to that progress. So I want to see change that happens at the level of public opinion in these countries, again, against discrimination. I see changes that happen in litigation, for instance. 

Adrian Coman  17:48

In Kenya, courts agreed that LGBT groups can register and therefore have the same right to free association and expression. Also, their courts ruled out the use of so-called anal examination to prove that someone is homosexual, which were used by the police. Also in Kenya, courts recognized the gender identity of people and in the right to change their documents, such as an education diploma. I also want to see the formidable development of movements of LGBT people and allies, such as feminist movements and other civil society. So there is actually a lot of progress and diversity. But there are also big challenges. I imagine you want me to speak about those as well?

Adrian Coman  17:49

Well, sure. Maybe not at great length, but because we only have a limited amount of time. But if you want to speak to one or two cases, sure.

Adrian Coman  19:03

My challenge is that of resources. For instance, we can't match the needs that are there and also the opportunities for change. I often say that the worst part of my job is to have to say no, and to also explain why we cannot support someone's very good proposal or organization. And this also happens in a context where there is a larger deficit of funding for LGBT issues. There is a study that is done every two years that shows how much goes to LGBT issues from US foundations. And that study showed that every 30 cents in $100 goes to LGBT people. So it's a very small amount. 

Adrian Coman  19:53

We also see the opposition, the conservative movements that often come from the US. They are a lot more successful at fundraising. And another study showed that during 2013 and 17, basically the agenda restrictive movement raised three times more money than what we recorded for LGBT movements. So there is the financial discrepancy. 

Adrian Coman  20:22

Then there is, of course, violence and discrimination in many places. There are hostile government policies, some of them are LGBT-specific as those I spoke about in Russia, but there are also civil society restrictions that affect everyone, for instance, laws related to taxation or to registration of civil society that hinder the work that these groups can do. And there is, of course, still anti LGBT public messaging from government officials to religious figures. For instance, the Archbishop of Cuernavaca in Mexico found that he needs to link COVID to homosexuality and how that has to do with some divine punishment. So these are also challenges that people face.

John Torpey  21:18

Right. And obviously, as you say, there are complexities and peculiarities of different countries that have to do with different traditions and religion, all kinds of different things. So, obviously, you can't reduce this all to one kind of explanation. 

John Torpey  21:34

But so but you've also raised the issue of trans people. And obviously, the violence that is visited on trans people is totally unacceptable no matter where it happens. But there's, I think, a different sort of situation with regard to teens. I mean, it's one thing to sort of talk about rights for people with different sexual proclivities or whatever. And it's another thing to talk about a teenager who's still under the care and guidance and legal tutelage of their parents, who thinks they may be trans. And so, there's a lot of controversy around this. It's been heavily politicized by various politicians. 

John Torpey  22:21

But I think it's not just the sort of benighted folk of Arkansas in the United States who are sort of sort of moving in a cautious direction or a heavily restrictive direction in that case, but you know, it's Sweden, it's Finland, it's France, it's the UK; they're sort of limiting the age basically below which kids can have certain kinds of treatments. And, there's an issue about whether parents should be involved in these decisions. And yes, I'm sure there are cases in which the parents are not enthusiastic -and that's a problem for the kid- but they feel like their responsibility is to look after their child. And in general, I would say, parents know their children better than anybody else. So I wonder what you would say about that? I mean, it just seems to me a very, obviously, fraught, kind of, and there's a lot of mental health issues, it seems, connected to these cases. And where do you see that all going? How should we think about that?

Adrian Coman  23:32

It is very complex, and I don't necessarily have all the answers, and I'm not a trans person myself. But obviously, here in the US, we do see an avalanche of discriminatory legislative proposals at state and local levels. These create fears, invoke pseudoscience, they rely on the panic that can be created through emotions. Unfortunately, we also see reputable media, such as The Economist, which I've been reading for years, very, very conservative on this approach on who needs to decide what and how doctors can or cannot speak or do. I mean, of course, all these discussions need to take place, but I think, for me, three things need to stand out. One is what are the real issues that we talk about? So, safety is a main issue for trans people. There is a group called Transgender Europe that we support it and they have a project of monitoring the murders of trans people around the world. And 375 were murdered in 2021, most of them in Latin America, and we are only talking about the cases that were very well documented. So that's one thing, the issue of safety. 

Adrian Coman  24:59

Then, another issue is the self-determination that we all have, as people and trans people also need to have. So their ability to decide to make decisions for themselves. And that is important in terms of recognizing the gender identity. And then third and not last thing is there are issues of basic discrimination of trans people, particularly in their access to health and education and employment. So those are the real issues that they confront with. And then people in governments come with additional ones such as access to bathrooms, you know, so it's a very complicated situation of people who are already not accessing their rights. And I, again, attribute it to the conservative, populist movements that find a way to have a voice to influence people to increase the base and to stay in power in the end, that is the goal.

John Torpey  26:03

Yes, as I say, I think there's no doubt that this is all been politicized in unfortunate ways. And it's really more about learning to accept certain kinds of people and accord them the same kind of respect and dignity and rights that the rest of us have. But instead, it's been turned into a political football. And I think that's very unfortunate. 

John Torpey  26:30

You know, another question (and I have to say that I'm no expert on any of this). One watches the, the acronym, LGBT, Q, etcetera, etcetera, expand, you know, greater and greater degrees all the time, and I'm sort of wondering, how the ordinary person who's not necessarily up on these things can kind of keep track of what's going on. And some part of me thinks that maybe we should just say, "well, you know, these people deserve equality like the rest of us", and stop trying to sort of keep track of every possible permutation; it's hard to know exactly what in the end somebody's doing in their private life, by and large, right? And that what we need to do is say we should accept what people do in their private lives and leave them alone. Now, I know, at some level that runs against the grain of the sort of recognition, the culture of recognition, so to speak. But I just wonder whether, in some ways ordinary people aren't paying close attention to this are just going to be confused and that, at bottom, what really matters is that people should be free to do what they want to do with themselves in their bodies, you know, without sort of government intervention in that, does that make any sense?

Adrian Coman  28:02

Well, yeah, if you kind of answered your question. Well, there's many aspects, but I think you're right about the right to privacy, often court would decide on the basis of this right, when it comes to the fact that same-sex relations should not be criminalized, right? Particularly if they take place in private among consenting adults. Then, what I would also say is that we all have then a multi-faceted identity. And we have been born with some of that we have discovered some of that is cultural, such as ethnicity, right? Like in Romania, I lived, I was Romanian part of the majority, I moved here, my identity changed. I'm an ethnic minority, I speak another language. I am an immigrant, you know, a very lucky one, I would say. So my point is to emphasize how we discover or add layers to our identity, and we try to make sense of it ourselves. 

Adrian Coman  29:08

And then it is important to see recognition from the others around us; from family, friends, co-workers, and government. So I think the same thing happens with LGBT people. And with this expanding acronyms, basically, we are seeing groups that did not have a name in the past and that affirm themselves with their identities and need a name and also need specific protection of the law, because theoretically, there is legislation, there is protection against discrimination. But historically, what we saw is that that did not apply to gay people. It did not apply to women. It did not apply to all sorts of social groups until it was explicitly enshrined in the law as non-discrimination grounds. And so here is where law and societies are related, and ordinary people indeed do not need to freak out, figure it out all these identities, but I think they, we all need to contribute to a culture where we accept that there is human diversity, and that there has to be protection in the law against discrimination for all of us.

John Torpey  30:23

Right. I mean, I hear what you're saying. But, you know, one of the things that struck me in thinking about this is, is precisely how the proliferation of abbreviations and acronyms kind of points in a way to the fluidity of identity, right, and that, what I mean is, you're a City College graduate, you'll have read Foucault; you know, Foucault sort of talks about how at one time people did certain things, but that didn't endow them with an identity; it didn't create a self, so to speak. And I wonder, in a way, when I look at the acronyms, I say, "well, who knows what people's identities [are]", I mean, for some people that's fairly firm and fixed, so to speak, but for others, it seems to be quite, as they say, kind of fluid and, you know, it moves around. So, so part of me wonders, well, why get bogged down in the identity question and just say, people should be free to do what they want with themselves and their bodies and in the privacy of their own house. That's kind of where I'm coming from with this. I mean, as I say, you know, I understand the point about recognition and recognition of legal rights and that sort of thing. But I guess I just wonder whether the identity thing, in some ways doesn't confuse the problem, doesn't make it more difficult to sort out than just to say that people are who they are.

Adrian Coman  30:23

Yes, I think you're right. And to me, it gets us back to accepting human diversity, but we need to do that in a way that is not passive. So it's not enough to say, "Okay, I am acceptive that other people are different", because when I relate to other people, you know, and I learn, for instance, particularly younger people move away from gender binaries, right? The idea that there are strict social roles for like men and women, and don't want to adopt pronouns, or like he or she, right, and use they, and it's probably not easy as a speaker of English as a foreign language, you know, it's always difficult enough. But, you know, the point is, we are not passive; if we really respect the others, you know, co-workers, family, whoever, then we have to see, you know, the importance that these things play for themselves. And we show our respect by trying to adapt our language and our behavior, because we also require that of the others in other instances in relation to ourselves, when we get married, change civil status, or other changes in our life, we do want the others to relate to us accepting those changes.

John Torpey  33:17

Well, it sounds complicated, and I think it's going to take us a while to sort all this out. I mean, it does strike me as though, some of these things are quite new, particularly the trans-teen thing. I mean, as you've surely seen, there have been studies recently about the numbers of trans people, I guess, and you know, how much that's grown. And there's the whole question of whether that's somehow a new kind of acceptance that's allowed people to assert themselves and their understanding of themselves along these lines, or whether this is something that's somehow  a product of the availability of these ideas kind of in their milieu. So I think, as with the gay marriage, that also came sort of, I think, in some ways, sort of out of nowhere, and then in the US tended to become largely accepted and enshrined in law. So, I think many of these things are obviously fluid.

Adrian Coman  34:15

Yes, but what I will say is that we've always had these differences. We've always had women that had a more masculine appearance, you know, men that had a more feminine appearance, and they were not necessarily gay. We always had cultures around the world that accepted same-sex families are expressions of love and affection of same gender. They didn't raise at the time at the level of same-sex marriage or the law, but these things have always been there. So I'm not sure that it is very different. We just see them more often, we speak more often, we request more of the government and of ourselves, but that is the world in which we will live.

John Torpey  34:58

Absolutely. Thank you so much for this, I think, you know, very illuminating conversation and I hope everybody listens and finds this useful and expands their horizons. But that's it for today's episode. I want to thank Adrian Relu Coman on for sharing both his personal story and his insights about the struggle for LGBTQ rights around the world. 

John Torpey  35:21

Remember to subscribe and International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Merrill Sovner for her production assistance and Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance. And I want to acknowledge Duncan McKay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. And this is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us. We look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.