An opinion piece by Lili Virág Szuhay Murciano
WHAT IS GOING ON IN HUNGARY RIGHT NOW
While some countries are slowly adopting progressive stances with regards to the LGBTQ+ community, Hungary’s handling of it is questionable — from passing legislations that outright attack transgender individuals to censoring children’s books that go against “traditional gender norms”.
The Fidesz party’s stance has been particularly hostile to the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ citizens in the past months, and one particular bill was passed during pride month of this year. This legislation would potentially ban public homosexuality and deviation from gender norms in Hungary on the grounds of protecting childrens’ rights.
In an age where many activists from countries such as Italy are fighting to protect LGBTQ+ citizens, Hungary’s actions are a blatant attack on human rights and individual freedom. But let’s delve deep into the subject and see the pattern that is unfolding in Orbàn’s political agenda before getting to the legislation in question.
THE ROOTS OF HUNGARIAN HOMOPHOBIA
To begin, we should probably hark back to the 1800’s to locate the roots of homophobia within the Hungarian Penal Code. The first edition of the Penal Code published in 1878 by Kàroly Csemegi dictated that homosexuality was punishable with prison up to one year; not only that, but homosexuality was described as a ‘perversion against nature’s law’, which is still an argument used today by people preaching homophobic ideals.
It was only in 1961 that homosexual activity was decriminalised, but only if it occurred above the age of 20, a number which was then lowered to 18 in 1978 by a newer version of the Penal Code. Unregistered cohabitation has been recognised since 1996, and since the 1st of July, 2009, same-sex couples can enter into registered partnerships. However, this was only a ‘security blanket’ for the Hungarian government, as a new constitution came into effect on the 1st of January 2012 that restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples and contained absolutely no guarantees of protection from discrimination on account of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Although in the years between 2020 and 2012 matters regarding LGBTQ+ rights hadn’t really had an impact on the nation (may these be positive or negative), it is disheartening to see that the struggles of the LGBTQ+ (or LMBTQ+, in Hungarian) continue to swell under Viktor Orbán’s political agenda.
AN EXPENSIVE CAMPAIGN FOR HATE
Throughout the years, Orbàn’s party, Fidesz, has mainly broadcasted its political ideals via fear-mongering campaigns that cost the nation 216 million euros (these funds ironically derived from EU funding, despite the Hungarian PM’s eurosceptic views) between 2010 and 2018, according to research by Átlátszó. These campaigns had previously focused on the spread of anti-migration sentiments, but as of late, Hungary’s political leadership has shifted its weight onto an aspect of everyday life that everyone should be able to experience: the right to express their sexual orientation and gender identity without having to suffer from legal and social repercussions.
BE YOURSELF — UNLESS YOU’RE TRANSGENDER OR INTERSEX
At the end of March 2020, a bill was submitted that makes it impossible for transgender or intersex people to legally change their gender, putting them at risk of violence and discrimination when they need to present their identity documents. This bill was almost immediately signed by President Jànos Áder on the 28th of May, 2020; in particular, it sought to redefine the Hungarian term ‘nem’, meaning either ‘sex’ or ‘gender’, to mean sex determined at birth by a certified doctor by primary sexual characteristics and chromosomes. Furthermore, first names now can only be chosen from a gender-divided list crafted by Hungary’s Academy of Sciences. Since when can we even talk about a “science of identity”?
It is crucial to remember the circumstances in which this law was presented, however; it is possible yet unthinkable that Orbàn instrumentalised the pandemic as a pretext to grab power and legitimise non-public health-related bills like this, yet that is exactly what Hungary’s political leadership did. What followed was a wave of protest against this new law and a fresh sweep of homophobia and transphobia from members of the government’s leading parties. Not only that, but Viktor Orbàn seems to conceptualise being true to who people feel they are as a matter of ideology, not as a matter of identity. The tensions between Fidesz and the opposition have begun to slowly seep into civil rights issues that are completely unrelated to political parties or ideologies.
MODERN BOOK SHREDDINGS
One of the most gross and backwards acts of the far-right in Hungary were the book shreddings conducted by Dùrò Dòra, Hungarian politician and former spokesperson of the Our Homeland Movement. The book in question was a children’s book titled “A Fairytale for Everyone”, written by Dorottya Redai and Boldizsàr Nagy and released on the 21st of September. Nagy, the book’s editor, said: “Our aim was to make children’s literature more diverse in Hungary and show children how colourful and wonderful life is”. Indeed, the book is essentially a retelling of traditional fairytales featuring diverse characters, such as a lesbian Snow Queen and a Roma Cinderella. While many rushed to book stores to purchase it, the book was not received well by Hungary’s government.
On the 25th of September, 2020, the deputy of the Our Homeland Movement jammed the book in a paper shredder in the midst of a press conference, referring to it as “homosexual propaganda”.
Many looked to Viktor Orbàn for an explanation. He replied:
“Hungary is a patient, tolerant country as regards [to] homosexuality. But there is a red line that cannot be crossed, and this is how I would sum up my opinion: Leave our children alone.”
At this point, it was quite clear that the protection of LGBTQ+ rights was nowhere to be found in Hungary’s political agenda — and, moreover, it was also clear that the protection of children’s rights was only a guise, as Roma girls who grow up in Hungarian orphanages, for example, are still exceptionally vulnerable to internal forced prostitution (according to information provided by Refworld). If Orbàn really had the interests of children at heart, then why isn’t he directing public spending to ameliorate the conditions of children in orphanages, public schools, and hospitals instead of building new football stadiums and attacking an already compromised demographic?
Orbàn’s path is paved along Andrzej Duda’s footsteps. Indeed, in January 2021, the Hungarian government ordered Labrisz (a publishing house) to place disclaimers in books that contain “behaviour inconsistent with traditional gender roles”. Although Labrisz has teamed up with Háttér Society (a Hungarian LGBTQ+ rights group) to sue the government, Hungarians are not very optimistic about the future. In a country where love is illegal and peace is no longer an option, many are exhausted and terrified of constantly having to prove that they have a right to their identity.
BACK TO THE ORPHANAGE
In December of 2020, Hungary passed a law that banned same-sex adoptions, and also prohibited single or unmarried couples from adopting children. Since Hungary had banned same-sex marriage in its constitution in 2012, this was a direct attack on the country’s LGBTQ+ community. Judit Varga, Hungary’s Justice Minister, claimed:
“The main rule is that only married couples can adopt a child; that is, a man and a woman who are married.”
This law was condemned by many, including Amnesty International, especially for the fact that it was adopted under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clearly, Orbàn’s strategy is strictly linked to his assumption that the LGBTQ+ community and its allies would be too preoccupied with the pandemic to worry about gross violations of human rights. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
The legislation did not stop there. Two additional amendments were added that targeted the transgender community, the first claiming that a legitimate family is one where “the mother is a female and the father is a male”, whereas the second amendment states that Hungary “protects the self-identity of the children’s sex by birth”.
As if this weren’t enough, this legislation was finalised on the eve of the Jòzsef Szàjer scandal, the far-right Hungarian politician who was arrested while fleeing from a gay orgy held in Belgium as a protest against COVID-19 regulations. The irony of the situation was a distinct echo in Hungarian politics in the months that followed, but no fundamental change followed.
BLURRING THE LINES BETWEEN CRIMES AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Remember Orbàn Viktor’s famous statement, “leave our children alone”? The essence of this statement was summarised in the bill passed on the 15th of June, 2021, in the third week of Pride Month.
The bill in question (T/16365.) was originally proposed in May, and at the time, it had only laid down stricter penalties for pedophilia following a slew of child abuse cases amongst supporters of Fidesz. One of the most abhorrent cases was that of Kaleta Gabor, the Hungarian ambassador to Peru, who had over 19,000 child pornography photos on all of his devices and was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence in 2020.
The vague wording, however, of the new draft approved in June has many implications. Like Russia’s law against “gay propaganda” passed in 2013 and Poland’s homophobic re-election campaign for Andrzej Duda, the bill takes on a similar form.
In Hungarian, the bill claims “a gyermekvèdelmi rendszerben az àllam védi a gyermekek születési nemének megfelelő önazonossàghoz valò jogàt”, which translates to:
“In [Hungary’s] child protection system, the State will protect childrens’ rights to self-identity based on their gender identified at birth.”
This statement, if connected with the bill of March 2020 (which claims that gender is based on the sex identified at birth), does not only mean that LGBTQ+ youth will be utterly unable to go through gender-affirming surgery or change their name; there are also other sinister outcomes. The bill goes on by saying, “e törvényben foglalt célok és gyermeki jogok biztosítása érdekében tilos tizennyolc éven aluliak számára pornográf, valamint olyan tartalmat elérhetővé tenni, amely a szexualitást öncélúan ábrázolja, illetve a születési nemnek megfelelő önazonosságtól való eltérést, a nem megváltoztatását, valamint a homoszexualitást népszerűsíti, jeleníti meg”, which means:
“The aim of this bill is the guarantee of the protection of childrens’ rights, and thus the introduction of a ban on the consumption of pornography under the age of 18, as well as a ban on accessibility to content whose sole aim is to represent diverse forms of sexuality that do not conform with traditional gender norms, or that promote changing one’s gender, or spread homosexual propaganda.”
But what does this mean, exactly?
While to the naked and untrained eye, this law is aimed at banning pornography for Hungarian citizens under the age of 18, if we read more closely, we can see that this bill has a hidden (yet not so hidden) aim: the introduction of a ban on public homosexuality or deviation from gender norms. What Orbàn Viktor has done is a gross case of promotion of stigma and homophobia. By lumping acts of pedophilia together with the very identity of members of the LGBTQ+ community, Hungary’s government has put queer individuals even more at risk of hate crimes and discrimination, as well as at risk of punishment for something that is completely natural. Furthermore, homosexuality or social studies regarding the acceptance of divergence in these fields will no longer be allowed at schools. Civil rights discussions on the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens have become taboo.
In Hungary, sexual diversity and gender non-conformance is now synonymous with adult media — something “dirty” to be hidden from children’s eyes. It is becoming a near-capital crime, and although many members of the EU have protested against this legislation, nothing has changed so far for Hungary’s LGBTQ+ community.
Lili Virag Szuhay Murciano