Hungary’s politics of homophobia
Ahead of the 2022 elections, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is stoking enmity towards LGBTQI+ people to appeal to his supporters. This is a political tactic seen increasingly across Europe, notably in Poland, and now spreading to countries such as Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. Despite these political attacks, LGBQTI+ people have still made some gains in advancing equal rights and normalising their presence in public life. Mobilisations such as Pride events remain a key part of the response, particularly when they show intersectional connections with other struggles and make it harder for politicians to isolate LGBTQI+ people as their targets.
Hungary’s LGBTQI+ people are the targets of a confected moral panic. Driving it is hard-line Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who faces an election next year.
In June, the government passed a law banning LGBTQI+ people from featuring in TV shows or adverts aimed at under-18s. The law resembles Russia’s 2018 ‘gay propaganda’ law and threatens to have a similar impact: to make LGBTQI+ people less visible in everyday life and drive them to the fringes.
By implying that young people should be protected from homosexuality to prevent child abuse, the law offensively equates LGBTQI+ people with paedophiles, an intentional smear. Not for the first time, the confected enemy of ‘gender ideology’ is also being invoked as a threat to national values – with political leaders the self-appointed arbiters of what those values are.
The new law is part of a broader effort to further marginalise Hungary’s LGBTQI+ people. In December 2020, constitutional amendments excluded LGBTQI+ couples from adopting children and affirmed Hungary’s ‘Christian culture’ and the ‘right of children to self-identify according to their sex at birth’, institutionalising intolerance of transgender people. In May 2020, the Registry Act was changed to recognise only ‘sex at birth’, at a stroke making it impossible for transgender and intersex people to change their legal identity.
Orbán probably cares less about this issue than he does about winning elections. In 2022 he faces a novel threat: a united opposition. While in past elections Orbán has been able to pick off divided opponents, for 2022 six opposition parties have agreed to unite behind a single candidate in every seat. Currently they are level pegging with Orbán’s Fidesz party in the polls.
Orbán desperately needs a new enemy. His past successes have rested heavily on vilifying key targets to appeal to a socially conservative support base; those targets have included migrants and refugees and civil society organisations (CSOs).
A politically convenient referendum ahead
The passing of the law banning LGBTQI+ people from TV caused international controversy, but this may well play to Orbán’s advantage in making LGBTQI+ rights a mainstream election issue.
Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, criticised the law and in July the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning it. Orbán’s response was to double down by calling a referendum on ‘child protection’, something that promises to keep the issue alive and intensify polarisation.
Announced on the eve of the Budapest Pride march, the referendum is filled with loaded questions that position Hungary as taking a brave stance against European Union (EU) attempts to force an LGBTQI+ rights agenda on member countries. It will be held in early 2022, keeping the issue front and centre in the run up to the election.
The use of a direct democracy mechanism such as a referendum is a smart move because at first glance it looks like a democratic exercise; however, it is yet another example of a practice seen many times in recent years – including in Guinea, Kyrgyzstan and Russia – of top-down referendums being used by authoritarian leaders to undermine democratic institutions and enhance their power.
Genuine referendums are driven by public demands and can broaden the space for political dialogue and improve the quality of democracy. But this is not the aim here: the referendum means that those who oppose Orbán’s actions that harm LGBTQI+ people will be denounced as enemies of democracy. LGBTQI+ rights supporters may face a dilemma: whether to take part in the campaign and try to defeat the proposal or to refuse to legitimise the vote by calling for a boycott.
An EU problem
This is happening against the backdrop of controversy over the provision of EU pandemic recovery funding to Hungary and fellow authoritarian state Poland, both significant beneficiaries of EU support. Pressure has mounted on the EU to suspend its funding to Hungary over allegations of corruption and lack of transparency in the use of EU funds and political interference in the judiciary, and to Poland over rule of law and judicial independence concerns.
Rule of law provisions were introduced when EU recovery funding was agreed following fraught negotiations in December 2020, and in June members of the European Parliament voted for a resolution to begin legal proceedings against the European Commission over its failure to commence sanctions against Hungary and Poland; a report prepared for the European Parliament in July found that there were grave breaches of the rule of law in Hungary that would justify EU sanctions.
Orbán would much prefer Hungary’s voters to see his fight with the EU and any potential sanctions that result as being about his stance on LGBQTI+ rights rather than about corruption. He could potentially concede to EU demands on corruption – and European pressure can tell, as shown in May when Hungary repealed its restrictive 2017 NGO Law following a European Court of Justice ruling – while still positioning domestically as a strongman taking on the EU.
The problem this leaves is that the more European voices condemn Orbán’s politicised homophobia, the more it might work to his advantage.
Europe’s homophobic wave
It isn’t just in Hungary where the ruling party promotes homophobia for political gain. Poland’s 2020 presidential election saw the incumbent, Andrezj Duda, nominally independent but closely aligned with the ruling party, face a strong challenge from a politically more liberal contender. When the election went to a run-off vote, Duda ramped up his homophobic rhetoric, turning what had been a minor issue into a central part of the campaign. His opponent was forced on the defensive over his support for LGBTQI+ rights and the outcome was a narrow win for Duda.
Once activated, politicised homophobia doesn’t simply dissipate after elections. And it doesn’t stop at borders either; Hungary’s new law is emboldening homophobes elsewhere. This June, Poland’s education minister expressed his support for Hungary’s law and said that Poland should copy it. Two right-wing parties in Romania are pushing for a similar law on the grounds of protecting ‘family values’. The Czech Republic’s President Miloš Zeman reacted to Hungary’s law by describing trans people as ‘disgusting’.
What political leaders say about LGBTQI+ people matters. It helps further deny LGBTQI+ people rights others take for granted – not only to speak out without fear of violence, but also to marry, have children and access educational and work opportunities. LGBQTI+ people are being forced back into closets. In Poland, top-down political rhetoric has been reproduced at the local level, with ruling party local administrations declaring ‘LGBT-free zones’ where many LGBTQI+ people feel cowed into silence.
In Latvia, right-wing politicians have expressed support for ‘LGBT-free zones’ and introduced a bill to enshrine a definition of families as solely heterosexual in the constitution. In May a parliamentary committee rejected a proposal to include sexual orientation among the grounds for hate crimes.
In neighbouring Lithuania, a law was passed in January on the protection of minors that contained anti-LGBTQI+ provisions under the guise of protecting ‘family values’; that same month, social media posts showed people burning rainbow flags. The president of Lithuania later refused to sign a letter endorsed by leaders of 17 other EU states committing to support LGBTQI+ rights.
In Turkey, where authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has described protesting LGBTQI+ students as ‘terrorists’, the government carried out its threat to withdraw from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence in March, stating that it had been ‘hijacked’ in an attempt to ‘normalise homosexuality’. In June an attempt to hold a Pride march in Istanbul was suppressed with teargas and multiple arrests.
Poland has also expressed its intention to pull out of the Istanbul Convention and is reported to be planning to develop an alternate international convention framed around opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.
That words matter was proven again in Georgia, when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili – who came to power in the deeply divided nation following his predecessor’s resignation in February – criticised a Pride event, leading to lethal consequences. Garibashvili said that March for Dignity, due to be held in July in the capital, Tbilisi, should not go ahead because the majority of the population found it ‘unacceptable’. He also claimed that his bitter political enemies, the United National Movement, were behind the march’s organisation with the aim of causing ‘unrest’ and ‘civil confrontation’.
His remarks had the effect of dramatically ramping up the tension. Violence followed. A far-right mob ransacked Tbilisi Pride’s offices and were filmed tearing up and burning rainbow flags. Over 50 journalists were attacked while covering the violence, and tragically, camera operator Alexander Lashkarava died of his injuries after being severely beaten by the mob. The Pride march was cancelled.
Moments of hope
It has not all been bad news: 2021 has seen some small steps forward in the recognition of LGBTQI+ rights in some European countries. In Ireland this March, a female same-sex couple became the first to be legally recognised as the parents of their child at birth. In Croatia in May, the courts ruled that same-sex couples can adopt children, after a five-year legal battle. In France in June, following two years of protests, parliament voted to give lesbian and single women the same access to fertility treatment as women in heterosexual couples, a right that already existed in multiple other EU countries.
Gains have not only come in Europe. In Angola in February the government enacted a law decriminalising homosexuality. In Jamaica that same month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published its report concluding that the government had violated the rights of two gay Jamaicans, and that its homophobic laws should be repealed – see our story. In Japan in March a district-level court found the country’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, triggering a process that should eventually see the issue come before the country’s highest courts, challenging Japan’s status as the only G7 state where same-sex marriage remains illegal. Even in Malaysia, where LGBTQI+ people face severe repression, in February an LGBTQI+ man won a court case that overturned a Sharia law ban on sex ‘against the order of nature’ in the state of Selangor.
All these steps forward help normalise the idea of equal rights and show that societies are robust enough to accommodate change. These victories often come after years of civil society efforts that combine multiple tactics, including protests, political advocacy and legal action.
External political pressure, although often valuable, can, as in Hungary, also risk playing to political discourse that deliberately misrepresents LGBTQI+ rights as a foreign importation. Such discourse rings hollow when domestic efforts are visibly led by self-organised people, articulating home-grown demands for equal rights.
As part of this, it’s crucial to assert visibility and normalise the presence of LGBTQI+ people in public life, even though as the Georgia experience shows, backlash can follow.
At the epicentre of the current politicised wave of homophobia, LGBQTI+ people are refusing to fall silent. In Poland, 2021 saw the rise of ‘solidarity workouts’, in which hundreds of people visibly defy homophobia by exercising in public under rainbow flags. People also took part in an ‘equality jog’ in the city of Gdansk. This came after two people from the LGBTQI+ association Homokomando were hospitalised following a violent attack, in a further sad indication of the ways in which politicised homophobia can enable physical violence. In June, thousands marched in an equality parade with rainbow flags through the capital, Warsaw.
Polish activists are also working with more progressive mayors and councils to foster zones of tolerance in counterpoint to ‘LGBT-free zones’; hopes for the future lie in the fact that a young generation seems to be more tolerant than their political leaders. Campaigners are also increasingly connecting the fight for LGBTQI+ rights to other struggles, including the movement to reverse Poland’s recent extreme restrictions on abortion rights and to defend the Istanbul Convention.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Krzysztof Śmiszek is a member of the Polish Parliament and chair of the Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights. Before entering politics in 2019, Krzysztof had been an activist for almost 20 years.
Right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society. After six years of witnessing hate speech, people who normally would not have been interested in LGBTQI+ issues have started to care. Civil society is much more progressive and open than the politicians in power. As an activist I see a huge energy that goes beyond the big cities in Poland: there are formal and informal initiatives springing up everywhere.
Although we are going through hard times, the strong civil society reaction against the government’s intolerance and homophobic discourse and agenda makes me feel optimistic. This year we had around 20 Pride events throughout the country. There is positive mobilisation within society, compared to the situation 20 years ago, when I first became an activist.
So the situation is more complex than you would think: while Poland does have its homophobic side, with organisations fuelled with a lot of money coming from the right wing, there is also a big movement supporting LGBTQI+ organisations and activists with money, time, energy and solidarity.
LGBTQI+ activism is using a wide range of tactics, from perfectly designed social media awareness campaigns including short movies about the normal lives of rainbow families to building connections with potential allies, even unlikely ones. A while ago an organisation working against homophobia allied with progressive Catholics, which was really smart because Poland is still regarded as a majority Catholic country. It was very wise to involve someone considered as ‘the enemy’ in the movement. There are also ongoing collaborations with politicians.
All the while the government spreads hate, younger generations, people between 18 and 29 years old, are increasingly normalising LGBTQI+ rights and actively and fully supporting the LGBTQI+ agenda. Of course, this does not mean that all young people are gay-friendly: as everyone else, they are divided between openness to European values and the intolerance of the radical right wing.
The Intergroup on LGBTI Rights includes members of different parties represented in parliament who meet and discuss about LGBTQI+ issues. we organise press conferences and invite government representatives, we collaborate with the EU and the European Parliament, where there’s also an LGBTQI+ group, we keep in touch with international partners and we try to make international audiences aware of what is going on in Poland. For example, when facing proposals to declare ‘LGBT-free zones’ throughout Poland, we brought it to the attention of the European Council and showed it proof that the Polish authorities were discriminating against the LGBTQI+ community. This is something that as politicians we are able to do.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Krzysztof Śmiszek. Read the full interview here.
September saw the Kaunas Pride march finally take place in Lithuania, with over 2,000 people taking part, after organisers took to the courts to overturn a ban imposed by the city mayor. In the face of aggressive counter-protesters, participants presented demands for protection and non-discrimination, access to healthcare and education, and partnership, marriage and adoption rights.
An estimated 8,000 people joined in Bucharest Pride in Romania in August to protest at the proposed law. And thousands took part in Budapest Pride in Hungary in July, making it one of the country’s biggest-ever such gatherings, with several of the opposition parties who will be standing together against Orbán next year represented. The battle lines have been drawn, and rather than becoming collateral damage in a political scrap, Hungary’s LGBTQI+ people are fighting back.
The kind of intersectionality being practised by many young people, connecting the struggles of the various groups under attack, seems to offer one possible key for the fightback, in Hungary and beyond. Civil society must build coalitions that make it impossible to isolate LGBTQI+ people, until authoritarian politicians like Orbán run out of people to attack.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The EU should increase its monitoring and scrutiny of compliance with human rights standards by Hungary, Poland and other states that are attacking LGBTQI+ people.
International civil society should support and amplify the voices of LGBTQI+ groups in Hungary and in other countries experiencing politicised homophobia.
Cover photo by Janos Kummer/Getty Images