Hungary’s latest assault on LGBTQI+ rights
The latest attack on Hungary’s LGBTQI+ people has come in the form of a law enabling people to anonymously report same-sex families with children for violating the constitution. While currently the law has been stayed by a presidential veto, attacks on LGBTQI+ rights are far from over. Anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric has proved invaluable in helping right-wing populist leader Viktor Orbán solidify his dominant position, distracting from real problems and keeping his power base together. LGBTQI+ activism is resisting from the ground up – on social media and the streets – as well as through engagement with European bodies. Transnational action is vital to curb the global influence of Hungary’s anti-rights regression.
Content warning: this article contains language some may find offensive.
Hungary’s LGBTQI+ people face an intensified threat. Parliament recently passed a law that enables people to anonymously report same-sex families with children, or those contesting children’s right to ‘an identity appropriate to their sex at birth’, to local authorities for violating the constitution. Courtesy of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, the Hungarian Constitution now defines marriage as ‘between one man and one woman’ and states that ‘the mother is a woman, the father is a man’.
The latest attack, inserted in a law meant to domesticate a European Union (EU) directive protecting whistleblowers, was presented as a means to strengthen fundamental values. In a rare show of disobedience, Hungary’s president Katalin Novak vetoed it on the basis that its discriminatory nature instead weakened the protection of fundamental values, and urged parliament to remove the discriminatory text.
But this doesn’t mean the danger is over. Parliament can still override the presidential veto, and even if it doesn’t, this is only one of many current developments making Hungary an increasingly inhospitable place for LGBTQI+ people.
With war raging across its border, millions of recently displaced refugees in the region and an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, there are much bigger problems for Hungary’s government to tackle than meddling in its citizens’ private behaviour and sex lives.
But Orbán has his reasons not to let go. Anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric is a useful distraction from real problems that are harder to crack. They’re also the glue that holds his power base together.
When Orbán first rose to power in the late 1990s, he was a fairly mainstream conservative politician. He only managed to serve a single term before landing back in opposition. So when he returned to the prime minister’s office in 2010, he was determined to make it a long stay. To achieve this, he comprehensive deployed the weapons of populism, splitting the political arena into two opposing camps: the people and the anti-people.
His camp is portrayed as the standard-bearer of traditional Christian values, under attack by evil foreign and cosmopolitan forces. These include migrants, depicted as a threat to Hungary’s security and its national – religious, ethnic and cultural – heritage, and feminists and LGBTQI+ people, offering a challenge to the supposed natural order of the patriarchy and traditional family and gender roles presented as a core element of national identity.
Alongside these, Orbán’s narrative has consistently vilified the elites allegedly smuggling in western values and pushing a secret agenda of progressive change: the United Nations human rights system and the bureaucracy of the European Union (EU), rights-oriented civil society and independent media, and Orbán’s nemesis, billionaire-turned-progressive-philanthropist and fellow Hungarian George Soros.
This rhetoric resonates with a significant segment of the population, and Orbán has taken advantage of his support to introduce changes to make his position of dominance very hard to challenge.
Institutional reengineering has included electoral changes such as the redrawing of electoral districts and changes to campaign finance regulations, and constitutional changes that concentrated power in Orbán’s hands by reducing checks and balances and weakening the independence of key institutions, notably the judiciary. Laws, policies and regulations have been passed to reduce pluralism in the media, academia and civil society. Unnecessary administrative burdens and invasive controls and reporting requirements have been imposed on civil society organisations (CSOs), especially those receiving foreign funding. The Central European University, a renowned institution based in Budapest, was targeted with restrictive legislation that ultimately led to its relocation.
Orbán turned criticism into a badge of honour, proclaiming so-called ‘illiberal democracy’ as his model to follow. It only helped his conspiratorial narrative when institutions such as the EU criticised his policies of discrimination, human rights violation and erosion of checks and balances, and defended LGBTQI+ people under attack.
Given the uneven playing field, it was no surprise that Orbán comfortably won the April 2022 election even though he faced a united opposition. Following the election, the president of the European Commission announced the body would trigger a mechanism, enabled by a recent ruling by the EU Court of Justice, to cut funding to Hungary for its noncompliance with rule-of-law standards. When the EU threatened to suspend funding to Hungary, the government claimed this was motivated by its determination to promote homosexuality and paedophilia.
Given the electoral success of his strategy of stoking enmity towards LGBTQI+ people, Orbán has no domestic incentive to moderate his attacks.
Regression at lightspeed
In a matter of years, Orbán’s alt-right brand of populism has unravelled decades of progress. A barrage of stigmatising discourse coming from on high, often equating homosexuality with paedophilia, has increased social intolerance and paved the way for legal restriction.
In May 2020, Fidesz used its parliamentary majority to pass a law banning legal recognition of transgender and intersex people and stating that gender would be determined solely based on biological sex at birth. This prevents people from legally changing their gender identity and can undermine their access to healthcare.
One year later parliament passed, by a majority of 157 to one, the Child Protection Act. It increased punishment for sexual crimes against minors and banned access by minors to any content that ‘propagates or portrays divergence from self-identity corresponding to sex at birth, sex change or homosexuality’ – which effectively made it an ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law similar to that pioneered by Orbán’s Russian friend Vladimir Putin. Soon after, Hungary’s government-aligned media regulator published guidelines for broadcasters on how to comply with the new law.
The government is masking anti-LGBTQI+ legislation under the narrative of child protection, portraying LGBTQI+ people as paedophiles and claiming it is trying to ‘save the children’ from us.
This had a chilling effect on teachers and school psychologists. CSOs working on human rights and civic education in schools were denied access unless they promised they wouldn’t cover any LGBTQI+ issues. Complaints about alleged breaches of the new law mushroomed: Pride marches, books and films were reported due to the presence of children at events or as part of the audience.
A government-friendly newspaper labelled the Labrisz Lesbian Association ‘a paedophile’ for publishing a children’s book with gender-diverse characters, and a court ruled that this wasn’t a slanderous accusation because it was based on common knowledge communicated by the prime minister. Unsurprisingly, hate crimes against LGBTQI+ people rose.
The Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe on constitutional law matters, found this law in violation of the right to family life and the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions, warning that it contributes to creating a ‘threatening environment’ for LGBTQI+ children, ‘opening doors to stigmatisation and discrimination’.
In November 2021, parliament approved four homophobic and transphobic questions for a nonbinding referendum about the ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law to be held along with the April 2022 election. Voters were asked whether they supported the ‘teaching of sexual orientation’ in schools without parental consent, the ‘promotion of sex reassignment therapy’ for children, the exposure of children to ‘sexually explicit media content’ and showing ‘media content on gender-changing procedures’ to minors.
Human rights CSOs called on voters to boycott the vote. This was successful: the referendum failed because turnout didn’t reach the 50 per cent threshold – but an overwhelming majority of votes cast were in favour of the law.
Hungary now scores only 51 out of 100 points on Equaldex’s Equality Index, which ranks countries according to how LGBTQI+-friendly they are. It scores particularly low on the public opinion part of the index. A level of homophobic sentiment that was long there has been inflamed and mobilised to enable regression in the legal recognition of rights. Social homophobia is also making it harder to implement some of the legal protections that remain, including against discrimination.
Resistance and solidarity
It’s not in the DNA of a collective that has fought so hard and for so long for their right to exist to just stand by while rights are being swept away. In an unequal contest, Hungarian LGBTQI+ organisations are doing their best to fight back.
Voices from the frontline
Imre Zsoldos is a staff member of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance, an umbrella CSO that brings together seven LGBTQI+ groups with the aim of promoting communication, cooperation and joint action to confront social rejection, prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities in Hungary.
Public attitudes to the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign are shifting both ways, since everyone is reacting to the portrayal of LGBTQI+ people as a public enemy. On one side of the divide, people are getting outraged by the government’s propaganda and hence showing more support and understanding. On the other side, people are beginning to feel emboldened and legitimised to express discriminatory thoughts and act in discriminatory ways.
As all the major media platforms are in the hands of the government, our opportunities to shift public opinion are really limited. We can only use CSOs’ social media and websites for advocacy. For example, one of the members of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance is the Rainbow Families Foundation. It ran a large campaign, ‘Family is Family’, that reached an extensive audience thanks to a TV station broadcasting the campaign in prime time. But then the media authority fined the TV station, saying it’s only allowed to broadcast this kind of advertisement at night because its depiction of homosexuality sensitively affects children under 16, causing misunderstanding, tension and uncertainty among them. A court eventually nullified the media authority’s decision, but this kind of decision is why there is almost no newspaper or TV station where we could have the space to effectively resist the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign.
Activists are targeted by the authorities in diverse ways, such as smear campaigns fuelled by the dissemination of fake information about them, as well as audits and controls on their private or family businesses or pressure in their workplaces or on family members who hold any state position. This creates a constant stress situation, since we never know when, where or how we will be targeted.
But despite the hardship, we are doing our best to create safe places, build a community and provide legal and other forms of help to LGBTQI+ people.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Imre. Read the full interview here.
As the media space narrowed, LGBTQI+ activism turned to social media, and when institutional channels dried up, it redoubled its street presence. Every onslaught of the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ assault has been met with a civil society human rights campaign. Such was the case in response to the April 2022 referendum, and barely three months after the election gave Orbán a fourth consecutive term, thousands took part in the annual Budapest Pride march, against the backdrop of counter-protesters brandishing homophobic banners.
At the same time as they’re organising 2023 Budapest Pride, Hungarian LGBTQI+ groups are taking to the EU. Following a failed dialogue with the government over the infringement of EU legislation in the ‘anti-LGBTQI+ propaganda’ law, in December 2022 the European Commission referred the case to the EU Court of Justice, a decision made public in February 2023. In March, the European Parliament voted in favour of joining the case.
Individual EU states had until April to send their written observations and effectively join the case. Hungarian and European groups including Budapest Pride, Forbidden Colours, Háttér Society and Reclaim Europe started a campaign to encourage European citizens to send a letter to their national representatives requesting them to do so. By the deadline, 15 EU states had joined the legal case against Hungary.
Transnational action is vital because what happens in Hungary has impacts far beyond its borders. Orbán has become something of a hero among the European and US far right. Last year the US far right even held its influential Conservative Political Action Conference in Hungary, and the USA has recently seen a wave of anti-LGBTQI+ legislation in Republican-led states. The kind of anti-trans attacks Orbán pioneered are now gaining ground in the UK, among other countries. In the face of this insidious international influence, global solidarity with Hungary’s LGBTQI+ people and organisations is needed more than ever – to defend their rights, and help protect rights everywhere.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The European Union must follow through and urge Hungary to comply with European human rights standards as a condition of receiving funding.
European and international civil society should offer solidary and support and help amplify the voices of Hungary’s LGBTQI+ groups.
Other European Union states should commit to following the highest standards in upholding LGBTQI+ rights rather than follow Hungary’s example.
Cover photo by Ferenc Isza/AFP via Getty Images