Ioana Zamfir
Europe, Russia & Eurasia, Master of European and Russian Affairs, Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies

CERES MA student Ioana Zamfir's essay published in the 17th Volume of Aspasia, 2023

Ioana Zamfir is a second-year CERES MA student whose research focuses on queer lived experiences in Belarus and Moldova during the late communist period and the 1990s. Her article Between Holy Church and Holy Human Rights was published in 2023 in the 17th Volume of Aspasia and can be accessed here.

How did you come to your topic and what inspired you to research this subject?

In the summer of 2020, I was on a trip to Romania when I found out about the existence of a queer archive there which was collected by Adrian Newell Păun. He left Romania for San Francisco in the 1980s to escape communism and the country’s repression. From San Francisco, he sent materials to Romania and helped Romanians correspond with each other or with people living in the US and elsewhere in Europe. The archive consists of the correspondence he collected as well as press clippings and magazines from the 1990s.

Part of the archive was digitized so I contacted MozaiQ, the organization in Romania that was storing it, who granted me access. After looking through the contents, I knew I wanted to utilize this archive for an independent research project, which was possible at my undergraduate university, McGill. I asked Dr. Kristy Ironside if she would supervise, and she encouraged my interest in this project as she knew I had been writing on queer topics for a while.

What kind of materials did you engage with?

I started the project in Canada so could only access the parts of the archive that had been digitized. These weren’t even initially available online as there were technical issues with the server on which the archives were located. What had been digitized were mostly press clippings, a couple of copies of the first Romanian queer magazines, Gay 45 and The Third Sex, and five letters. I didn’t have much but that’s what I used to write the first paper.

In 2021 when I visited Romania, I digitized the whole archive, so I gained greater access to the materials. The materials I could access expanded when I got to Romania. Adrian has now donated his archives to ACCEPT, an NGO that advocates for LGBTQ rights in Romania, which is putting the materials I digitized on the website of the Queer Museum of Romania.

Did you write this piece with the intention of getting it published?

This paper was just supposed to be for the independent research project. I didn’t think about publishing it at all. It was Dr. Ironside who read the piece and urged me to get it published. I finished the paper and then a couple of months later she emailed me saying that the journal, Aspasia, was accepting submissions and that she said I should really submit this piece.

How long was this process? From your initial idea, to deciding you wanted to publish this piece, to it being published, what was the timeline like?

Three years in total. From the moment I submitted the paper to the journal, it took about a year and a half.

How did you find the process of conducting your research? Were there any challenges?

The most challenging part was getting the actual documents. The moment I heard about these archives I knew I needed to get access to them and to write about their contents because there was a clear gap in the scholarship. They would also fill in gaps in my own knowledge about Romania. I had only recently started hearing about Romanian queer life and how dreadful things were in the 90s for the LGBTQ+ community. I was learning this from my family and family’s friends, and it wasn’t written anywhere. I found out that places I had gone to as a child were used as cruising spots but were also locations where people were arrested and beaten. It was like uncovering this whole history that no one talked about and I’m not sure how many people knew about it. 

Adrian also did not have access to his archives as they were being housed at various organizations, first MozaiQ, then ACCEPT, who I ultimately had to go through to get them. In order to be able to read all the materials I essentially volunteered to digitize them, which I was happy to do because it let me have time with them and have access to them afterwards.

The other challenge was Romanian. My reading pace and the cursive lettering meant it took quite some time to read the letters.  

The emotional nature of the letters was also impactful. A lot of them were very hard to read because life for queer people at the time was largely still defined by the same societal and legal constraints as during the communist period.

Did you have any tools in place that helped you get through the emotional impact?

Taking breaks. I would read a couple letters, take a break and do something else, then come back to it when I felt like I was okay to continue. Writing the paper itself was also a way to help process the content because it required me to put the information in a historical context. At the end of the day, the human experience was the most important to me and as a researcher, you also have a human experience of going through the letters. I was sustained by the idea that I needed to recognize the past of this community in Romania especially because I have a certain privilege right now when I visit, that just twenty to thirty years ago people did not have.

Was there anything that surprised you?

The first five letters I had were from Bucharest and they were quite grim. But what surprised me about the whole archive is that the letters weren’t only from Romania, they were from all over Eastern Europe. Letters were sent from Latvia, Estonia, and Hungary too. This correspondence network extended as far as Trinidad. Despite homosexuality still being criminalized in Romania until 2001, transnational connections were established that allowed people to send each other materials over the border. When communism collapsed, people moved elsewhere, which allowed those who had emigrated to send magazines and various products back to Romania. People would send drawings or photos of themselves to try and connect in a more personal way with the recipients. The inclusion of artwork and the geographic expanse were really unexpected.

Could you describe the nitty gritty of getting a paper published? Getting feedback, making revisions. What’s that like?

Arduous! Professor Ironside suggested I send it in, I submitted it in December, then I heard back in February that it would be considered and sent to peer reviewers. Then I waited. I got the first round of reviews back about nine months later after not having heard anything throughout that time. I received constructive feedback on several aspects of the paper including to pay attention to the diacritics, so making sure all the accents and spelling of the names were correct. They also urged me to diversify my research with more primary sources. In the initial version, I was only working with five letters and the newspapers which included anonymous notes and dating ads as my primary sources. Then by the time I submitted to the journal I had digitized the archives so I now had access to those materials and could include them as primary sources in my revisions. I worked on rewriting the paper with the suggestions in mind, trying to read more secondary sources as well. I had from August until December to resubmit the paper with these revisions.

Then began another waiting period, to the point where I put the prospect of it being published out of my mind. Then one day when I was on my CERES internship in Budapest, I received an email with comments from a third reviewer. What was suggested were major rewrites with a deadline of one week. The feedback was to engage more with the scholarship, continue to diversify the primary sources by including reports and statistics about the persistent repression. For this, I drew upon reports from Amnesty International and ILGA, the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association.

Their comments also proved to me that I needed to emphasize that queer experience in Romania was vastly different than other post-socialist countries because homosexuality remained criminalized. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary and Poland, for example, decriminalized homosexuality in the Socialist period. Romania didn’t, which meant that even NGOs and other groups could not openly operate as LGBTQ+ organizations, but as human rights organizations who could help people facing persecution.

For six straight days from 8am to 8pm I worked on the revisions. Luckily since I had been working on this topic for years, I was very familiar with the sources, so I knew where to look for the materials I needed. I basically rewrote the paper, rearranged it, and cut much of the content.  I handed in this final draft and received word from the editor-in-chief that I would know if it was accepted or not by the next day.

A funny anecdote is that, seeing as I was away doing my internship, I went to the ballet the next evening, and by the time I left the performance—which had three encores!—I had an email in my inbox from Sharon Kowalsky, the editor-in-chief, saying that my piece would be included in the forthcoming issue of  the journal! Then, of course, there were final edits to do! Checking the diacritics, verifying the citations, all those small details that come in the last stages of editing.

What does this publication mean to you?

To me this represents the support of the people I have worked with and have been studying. In terms of academic support, Professor Ironside has been there for me from the beginning to the end. And the willingness of the community in Romania to help me access all the materials I needed. It also means giving a voice again to people who didn’t have a voice for so long. There is a certain comfort in knowing that there is at least one article out there that sheds light on the experience of queer people in Romania at that time. It is a doorway to what I want to do and the stories I want to tell with my research. It represents confirmation that this subject is important and that the field has a willingness to fill these gaps.

Do you have any advice to students who might consider putting their work forth for publication?

Make sure it is something you are passionate about and that you love. You want to work on a topic that you envision yourself dedicating hours to. Something you are only tangentially interested in will not necessarily keep you motivated throughout the long timeline of publication, but returning to something you care about sustains your ability to refine and develop your work. Ask advice from whoever is around you—scholars, your professors—this helped me to think more critically throughout the writing process. Engage with secondary sources and the scholarship and make sure you are aware of what is out there.  

Send it anywhere you think it might be applicable! Be patient and remain confident in your abilities. If it doesn’t go through the first time, take some breaks! Whatever happens is the right thing to occur in that moment. If I hadn’t had to wait so long to hear back, I would not have had access to the digitized archives which ultimately improved my paper to the point where it was able to be published. The wait and time ended up being to my advantage.

The process may be strenuous at times but dedicating time to a topic that is meaningful to you and important to address in the field makes it all worthwhile in the end.