Romanian: The constraints of a binary language with no in-between

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

TW: Mentions discrimination and misgendering.

Eastern Europe is known for its hostility towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Last year, Polish President Andrzej Duda announced a ban on any LGBT-related education in schools, while also banning same-sex marriage, and adoption for LBGTQIA+ families. This was widely seen as a perpetuation of anti-LGBT rhetoric that has created an East-West divide in Europe. Most Eastern European countries actively disapprove of same-sex marriage and LGBT acceptance, as recent research shows.

In 2018, a referendum was held in Romania regarding the definition of 'marriage' in the Romanian Constitution. The referendum asked Romanians whether they wanted the Constitution to specify that marriage is "the union between a man and a woman", a definition that abruptly excludes any gender and sexuality diversity. While many prominent political figures, activists, and religious figures, unfortunately backed up the change, only a minority of voters turned out, with more than 90% voting against it.

As Eastern Europe was under Communist dictatorship until only 32 years ago, a lot of its populations are still under the effects of the oppressive propaganda that led them to reject anyone remotely different from the majority. This rejection comes not only against marginalised genders and sexualities, but also against race and ethnic minorities, or even against left-handed people.

The Romanian language limits people's understanding of gender diversity, with most Romanian words and all pronouns adhering to a binary pattern, and everything being perceived as male or female. The concept of gender neutrality only extends to a few exceptional nouns, but even they are, essentially, binary, as a neutral noun usually has a male singular and female plural. An example is the word 'timbru' (stamp), which as a singular reads like a masculine noun, whereas 'timbre', which is its plural, inherently reads like a feminine noun.

Native speakers, particularly those who do not speak any other languages, cannot grasp the concept of gender-neutrality, especially when associated with people. The third-person singular pronouns 'el' (male)/'ea' (female) do not have a common plural form, like 'they' in English. In Romanian, the third-person plural is still binary: 'ei' (male)/ 'ele' (female). Therefore all words are binary as the Romanian language does not have the pronoun 'it' - to describe a gender-neutral object or an animal. Every word in Romanian is assigned a pronoun as per its gender, which can only be male or female.

Similarly, the respectful pronouns 'dumneaei'/dumnealui' are still binary, although there is a glimpse of neutrality in the plural 'dumnealor' which does not have another form. This is as close as the Romanian language gets to they/them and is, as of now, the only gender non-conforming pronoun available for the gender fluid/agender/non-binary community to use. However, this pronoun is particularly difficult to use because it is a plural, so many Romanians will look at you with raised eyebrows if you ask them to use it to address you, a single person. This lack of understanding also amounts to people completely ignoring your gender identity and preferred pronoun (limited as it is), because they cannot associate it with one person.

This is a key reason why the agender/non-binary/gender fluid community in Romania is not only frowned upon but often not understood at all, in the context of gender identity. In an interview for PAINT, Zee, a Romanian based in Bucharest who identifies as non-binary, describes their struggles to make people understand that they do not identify as a woman every time they are misgendered.

"Because of my short stature and thin voice, I usually get a female pronoun. I tell them I'm not a girl, and they reply 'what are you then, are you a boy?' I tell them I'm not a boy either, and then they ask me 'how do you pee?' That's my business, why do you need to know that? There were many times when I was hit with: 'Huh? That's not real. You're either a woman or a man, there's no in-between. Accept what you are, you were born as one [gender]. Accept it.'"

This attitude is common particularly among monolingual Romanians, which is what most of the population aged 40 and over qualifies as. Under Communism, the foreign languages taught in school were French and Russian. These languages were, at the time, binary languages, so a lot of Romanian adults have no notion of gender-neutral pronouns.

Language is a key factor in how our brain perceives everything around us. For someone who only knows binary words and pronouns, perceiving non-binary identities might be challenging. As a native Romanian, it took me a while to stop assigning genders to English words, when in my own language everything is either male or female. Trees are male, flowers are female, the air is male, rain is female, animals usually have two genders, so a male and female word for each, like 'leu' (lion) and 'leoaică' (lioness). Certain words in French have opposite genders to those in Romanian, for instance, 'libre' (book) is a masculine noun in French and feminine in Romanian, so I used to always assign the wrong genders to French words I perceived as the opposite gender in my native language.

This language barrier is also another reason why biological gender drives parents to impose binary standards on their children. Although this is still widely the norm regardless of one's language, it can be even more strongly imposed on children growing up within a binary language context. This is an identity issue Zee remembers struggling with growing up. Since they had no notion of any other genders but male and female, it took them until the age of 23 to discover and accept their identity. Up until that age, they felt trapped by society's expectations of them to conform to their biological gender and act accordingly.

"No one waited for you to grow up and make a decision. They just think: 'By that organ, that one is a girl, so I'm going to dress her up, style her hair, I'm going to call her a 'she'. And 'she' is going to grow up with a fake identity because I decided that. Because I, the society, decided to fake it'. So she's never going to feel okay in her own skin because she is not a 'her'."

It is important to note the language barrier is not the sole reason why the majority of Romanians fail to accept or understand gender fluidity. Indeed, as in many other Eastern European countries, there are systemic issues at play that still, sadly, affect marginalised communities. Among the most important is the Government's refusal to implement inclusive sex education in schools' curriculums, as well as the strong grip on the country's affairs held by the Orthodox Church, which strongly opposes the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Blaming people's lack of education and desire to be more tolerant and open-minded to diversity on language limitations would be unfair and take agency away from those who discriminate because they refuse to listen and learn.

Other languages of the same origin have been adapting their vocabularies to be more gender-inclusive, with French speakers increasingly using 'iel' as a gender-neutral alternative to il/elle which are binary pronouns. To become more receptive and understanding of the needs of the agender/non-binary/gender fluid communities, Romanians have to introduce more gender neutrality in their language as a first necessary step towards tolerance and diversity.