A Gay Venezuelan in Transylvania, Romania’s Conservative Heartland

The story of Isaac shows that a relative financial stability may not compensate the loneliness and hostility one can feel in places that can be too alien for a Latin American

Isaac, a Venezuelan migrant, has lived the last two years –ever since he moved to Romania– in fear that they will find out. In one of our online conversations, he reluctantly confesses: “there’s something else you probably don’t know and I hope it doesn’t change your opinion of me, but I’m gay,” followed by the awkward, apologetic smile emoji.

Isaac lives in Transylvania, a region of Romania historically disputed between Romania and Hungary and known for its vampire lore, in a small town with a population that is over 70% ethnically Hungarian. The specific area of Transylvania in which he lives is a stronghold of followers of Victor Orbán, Hungary’s nationalist and ultra-conservative prime minister, and carries a past stained with violent ethnic conflicts between Romanians, Hungarians and Romanis.

Isaac had to learn both Hungarian and Romanian, not only to communicate with his colleagues but also to work as a receptionist at a local hotel. He came to Romania after having met and formed a friendship with a Romanian couple that was traveling through Latin America. He remained in contact with them and they helped him with his procedures to enter this corner of Eastern Europe as a tourist and remain as a resident. They supported him with finding work and offered him accommodation, while he spent all his savings to undertake this journey and move to the other side of the pond.

I am a Romanian journalist and I met Isaac through the Facebook group “Latinos en Romania” and I wrote to him after reading his very long post explaining how he obtained the necessary documents to live and work in Romania by entering the country as a tourist.

I figured that a person who spends so much of his free time writing an 880-word text for the noble purpose of being useful to others is someone worth knowing.

Almost a year passed between the day I left him the first message on Instagram and the day we met in front of the People’s House in Bucharest, on a February day at noon. A year and fifteen days, to be exact.

I saw him from afar: an androgynous man walking towards me with a wide smile and lively enthusiasm. “Oh, we finally meet! “, he tells me (or I to him, I don’t even know) and we hug each other like only Latin Americans do, before even exchanging a word.

Isaac’s emotion when seeing the landscapes of Bucharest, where the elegant interbellum architecture is intertwined with the communist architecture –massive and threatening– never ceases to surprise me.

“I can’t believe you’ve been living in Romania for a year and a half and this is the first time you’ve seen Bucharest,” I tell him, “and I can’t believe you’re so impressed.”

When I see him so fascinated with modernity, with imposing buildings and with people who –because of their indifference – seem cool to him, I don’t even know where to take him to make him happier. If you can be happier. He is laughing and talking without interruption, his effervescence infects me and I could listen to him for three days without a break.

We sit in a Lebanese restaurant and Isaac shows me some photos of him from when he lived in Colombia and it doesn’t take me long to understand that he is not very happy in Romania, even though he is doing well financially. The photos from Colombia do not exude intrinsic happiness either, but they show a certain self-confidence that he has lost since crossing the Romanian border.

“I’ve gained a lot more weight than I look like in the photos,” he says, “the truth is that I’ve always had big weight fluctuations. Now, for example, I weigh seven kilos more than I did a month ago, but I can’t do anything, life is too hard in some ways and food is, somehow, the only consolation. I just can’t stop”.

He tells me that there is only one other gay boy in his city, Silviu, but that he does not hide his sexual orientation. I ask him how society perceives him, in an attempt to better understand how important it is for Isaac to continue hiding part of his identity.

“They look at him with horror,” Isaac responds, “One day, he entered the hotel bar and asked my colleague for orange juice, who, in turn, asked me to bring it to him. She told me he didn’t want to serve him. Imagine: they don’t even want to serve him. However, I think the guy is aware of the shitty social situation he’s in, because he lived for a while in Western countries, countries that are very inclusive and relaxed about homosexuality. He knows what it means to be free and have no one notice what you do.”

Isaac does not believe that discrimination affects Silviu much, who defiantly faces it with striking looks for this corner of the country: skating (“no one goes out on skates there”, Isaac adds), combined with very short pants and a pink t-shirt. He pretends not to see the judgmental looks of those around him, he even laughs in their faces while continuing to be whoever he wants.

Isaac lives in the European country located at the bottom of the ranking in terms of support for same-sex marriage, the penultimate place, only ahead of Turkey. While only 25% of Romanian respondents think that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, in Colombia the percentage is almost double (49%) and in Mexico, 58%.

“Have I never told you anything about my life story?” he says, “My mother died when I was two years old and my father was already gone. Anyway, my relationship with my father still gives me anxiety. He is the most horrible man. I grew up with my maternal family.”

Isaac has only had one girlfriend: an isolated attempt during his high school years due to peer pressure. He never tried again afterwards, but he also never knew any form of physical intimacy in the part of his life he spent in Caracas.

In his first year of university, in 2018, he left Venezuela, crossing the border with Colombia. He headed to Medellín, passed through Bogotá and ended up in Cali, where he was reunited with his father. There he discovered a free community in which he could explore adult life without feeling judged and he met José. They were together so often that his father became suspicious.

“Are you gay?” he said, “if you’re gay, pack your bags and get out of here!”

Isaac did not confirm it, but he left anyway. The next day his father told Isaac’s seven siblings that his son moved away to avoid paying his part of the rent. Luckily, Isaac had a job already. The problem was that he had never before lived alone. He called a good friend and asked if they could move in together, in his studio, paying half the rent. As always in Colombia, he was welcomed as a natural part of the community.

Six months of friendship and intimacy with José followed. Until one day, out of the blue, José felt the need to affirm his own masculinity, and made an appointment with Isaac in a public place and showed up with a girlfriend, acting like if the story that occurred between Isaac and him had been nothing more than a fantasy. 

It was the only time he truly fell in love. However, Isaac remembers his four years in Colombia as the best in his life. “Everyone [at work] knew I was gay and used to make jokes about it, but not jokes to humiliate me, but to include me,” he says, “In fact, I dated almost all the guys I wanted. Everyone liked me.”

The last time I spoke with Isaac on WhatsApp was after a trip with his family to Argentina. He told me he had never felt so depressed before. The trip made him remember what it meant to be free, surrounded by kind people: not pretending every second to be a person who was not.

“I had already gotten used to the coldness, homophobia and machista thoughts of people in Romania,” he says. “But returning from Argentina and Uruguay, made me see the hell I am living here. Since I came back I see everyone and I feel anger, sadness, frustration. I can’t and don’t want to be here anymore!”