High on the list of things that Viktor Orban doesn’t want you to know: homosexuality is a Hungarian invention. Before human rights campaigner Karl-Maria Kertbeny sat down to write a quiet letter to a leading German activist in 1868, the word homosexual did not exist. Neither did heterosexual. When he invented these terms, Kertbeny became the first European thinker to give queer people a neutral label for their experience, and to say it was equal to straightness. Many people continue to lay flowers at his grave in Budapest in recognition of this important Hungarian contribution to the history of LGBQ* dignity.
Until recently, Hungarian society has continued in this vein, not always a pioneer but frequently showing its neighbours an example of steady advancement in the field of human rights. Homosexual sex was decriminalized there in 1961, relatively early compared to other contemporary socialist states in Europe – East Germans and Bulgarians, for example, had to wait until 1968. In the EU era, Hungary’s parliament adopted the bill to approve civil partnerships in 2007, making them accessible to their citizens substantially faster than in Croatia (2014), Greece (2015) or Italy (2016). And earlier this year, an independent poll demonstrated that the Hungarian people are still carrying on this tradition of reaching gradually for social progress: 59% of Hungarians believe that gay couples should have equal rights to adopt a child, an increase from the 42% who felt the same way in 2013.
Photo credit: Diana Iorgulescu
This historical trajectory is rather inconvenient to Mr Orban. He would like Hungarians to believe the European value of LGBTQI* freedom is a Western import, a foreign ‘ideology’, rather than something their country did much to realize long before the inception of the European Union. Fidesz, his ruling right-wing party, has a particular passion for victimizing LGBTQI* people, parcelling up actions that trample on trans and queer people’s human rights with measures designed to shut down intellectual life and access to education. Academic gender studies have been banned in Hungarian universities since 2018. In 2020, transgender and intersex people were robbed of their access to legal gender recognition. Summer 2021 saw the regime manoeuvring its wide-ranging package of amendments to “Child Protection” and “Family Protection” laws into place: as of July, it is illegal to share information about LGBTQI* lives with young people under the age of 18. Sexuality education that tells the truth about the range of human sexuality and gender has been banned in schools; no content relating to queer or trans people can be shown on television if a child might see it; booksellers within two hundred metres of a school or a church face prosecution for stocking literature featuring queer or trans characters.
Political homophobia spreads
Hungary is of course not alone in falling victim to such deterioration. These measures are fed by, and feed into, a wave of human rights rollbacks threatening millions of Europeans. Hate against LGBTQI* people is increasingly legitimized through measures that forbid any public mention of their existence, on the pretext of shielding children from supposedly harmful knowledge. In Romania this summer, far-right party AUR felt emboldened enough by Hungary’s latest move to announce its own proposed law to “limit the representation or promotion of homosexuality and gender reassignment among minors”. While the party are not currently in government, and were likely angling for attention during a quiet period, this threat comes hot on the heels of several years of attempts to give parents the right to control what information about gender and sexuality their children receive in school, and to enshrine homophobia in the country’s constitution with a proposed amendment regarding marriage rights.
Just as in Hungary, a homophobic, transphobic and anti-education bill that was presented in Poland’s parliament in 2019 was dressed up as a protection against paedophilia. It would make anyone providing comprehensive sexuality education to young people in schools a criminal. That bill is currently frozen in legislative process, neither adopted nor rejected. Recent announcements suggest that it will soon reappear in the form of a much broader, more dangerous anti-LGBTQ* law, more similar to Hungary’s, that will apply to many other settings beside schools. Since then, there has been a continuous escalation in brutal state violence committed against those protesting Poland’s shutdown of reproductive healthcare – their shocking testimonies must be read to be believed. Anyone following the situation can see how a law preventing street demonstrators even mentioning LGBTQI* rights – in case a child reads a placard - will be hugely destructive for any and all people taking a stand on these connected struggles.
The paradox of conservative censorship
Thinking about public expression is key to understanding what exactly is going on here. It is, after all, categorically strange for right-wing parties to be so enthusiastic about state intervention in private life, and so violently opposed to the protection of that profoundly libertarian value: the right to say what you like. This is not a phenomenon unique to central Europe, but a trend across the continent – consider the appetite for sexuality-related censorship of far-right groups Fratelli d'Italia, VOX in Spain, and Portugal’s Chega. Certainly for those hardline conservatives who are in power, one goal is to misdirect public attention from their mishandling of economic, and latterly pandemic, issues. Framing LGBTQI* citizens as the current major threat to national stability is a smoke-and-mirrors diversion tactic, designed to disguise holes in a manifesto or deflect state accountability for preventable deaths, rocketing unemployment, and spiralling hopelessness. These leaders are exploiting multiple issues that trigger primal fears (“other” groups threatening social order, harm coming to one’s children and so on), in order to make loss of freedoms seem more palatable and therefore get away with shutting down dissent.
A clear message from European leaders
The fight to win back decades of gains in human rights, sexual autonomy and self-determination depends on affected citizens participating fully and freely in national and international exchange. This is what IPPF EN seeks to facilitate. We bring together activists operating on different progressive causes in challenging European contexts to share knowledge, increase their sense of community, and help them develop their tactics. The strong stances we saw from European leaders expressed in June’s letter from the EU Council have been an encouraging sign of international solidarity, as have the Commission’s infringement procedures launched against Poland and Hungary in July, and the tabling of a wider parliamentary resolution on protecting LGBTQI* rights across Europe in the September 13th plenary. As these darkly conservative narratives play out to the same rhythm, again and again, it’s clear that such messages from European leaders must be backed up with financial support for activists if we want to combat an increasingly organized international threat.
It might seem counterintuitive, but the upcoming referendum that Orban has scheduled on his offensive law should offer a glimmer of hope. The referendum questions are patently biased, written to confuse and manipulate, leaving people no way to express disagreement with the law and therefore no choice but to boycott it if they don’t support hate. We should see this as an admission of weakness. Orban fears he cannot count on a free vote to deliver a result against human rights, and so has engineered a rigged one. He knows there are plenty of people left who will resist him if they feel it is possible. It is down to the rest of us to ensure that it is.