By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Gay bar owner and novelist Alex Andronic fears a referendum this weekend in Romania that aims to prevent same sex couples ever securing the right to marry not only darkens his future, it will also stir an intolerable level of hate and discrimination.
Romania does not allow marriage or civil partnerships for same sex couples. Nonetheless, the country will vote on whether to narrow the constitutional definition of marriage from a union of spouses to one between a man and a woman.
The referendum, which needs a 30 percent turnout rate was brought by a civil society group called the Coalition for the Family, which said the gender-neutral term "spouse" could see gay couples win the right to marry in the future.
It gathered 3 million signatures to generate the vote.
"Take the rights I'm already not benefiting from if it calms you down, brings you closer to God, tradition and family welfare," wrote 25-year-old Andronic in a Facebook post.
"Do exactly as you feel. Because I know what it's like to be unable to do as you feel."
His viral post drew support but also an outpouring of hateful, graphic and sometimes threatening comments illustrating the worrying rise in harassment and hate speech directed at Romania's LGBT community.
Dozens of human rights groups, which are encouraging people to boycott the ballot, have warned it will embolden further attempts to chip away at the rights of minority groups and push the European Union state onto a populist, authoritarian path.
The referendum needs 5 million votes to be valid.
Most EU countries allow either same sex marriages or civil partnerships, but Romania, whose populist government of Social Democrats and a junior coalition partner endorsed the vote, does not even recognise those performed abroad.
"This referendum gave people a reason to spread as much hate as possible and we will suffer because of it," said Andronic in the garden of his bar in downtown Bucharest.
The initiative is backed by the Orthodox Church and other religions and won support from all but one political party in parliament.
The Coalition also supports cancelling subsidies for contraception and elective abortion, forcing parents of minors to have counselling if they want to divorce, and lowering some taxes for married couples.
"We must understand how much our vote is needed, how much our children and grandchildren need our protection to defend their rights and future," it has said.
Some campaign posters and ads are falsely urging people to vote "Yes" or run the risk of gay couples stealing or adopting their children. The Orthodox Church has said a "Yes" vote would be Christian, democratic and patriotic.
"This brings hate speech from the fringes to the mainstream with an impact on all groups in society, and the rights of all minorities will be put under question," said Vlad Viski of LGBT rights group Mozaiq.
Earlier this year, Romania needed a European Court of Justice ruling to grant residency rights to gay spouses married in other EU states.
Romania decriminalised homosexuality in 2001, decades later than neighbouring countries. It ranks 25th out of 28 EU states based on legislation, hate speech and discrimination against LGBT, an annual study by ILGA-Europe, an umbrella organisation advocating equality, showed.
"Since this referendum was approved the number of transphobic episodes I've encountered has more than doubled," said Antonella, a 28-year-old transgender woman who is also part of the ethnic Roma minority at a rally in late September.
"We existed in the past, we will exist in the future, we must have a say."
(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)