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Culture Wars

Hungary’s new anti-LGBT law is mostly about the upcoming elections

On 10 June, a new amendment was submitted to the long awaited child abuse law by MPs of the Prime Minister’s party in Hungary which basically banned the „promotion and representation of sexual minorities.” The recent changes have caused both national and international outcry. Surprising as it may seem, the new anti-LGBT law fits perfectly into the government’s recent communication narratives, which focuses on fear-based campaigning. But it is also true that it can have serious consequences. The law came into force on 8 July.

Initially it was only about pedohiles

Originally, the bill would have nothing to do with LGBT people. More than one month ago, on 18 May, Máté Kocsis, leader of the governing party of Hungary (Fidesz) and another MP from the party proposed a long-promised bill against child sex offenders. In order to achieve this, the bill:

  • significantly increases the penalties for child sex offenders and introduces new qualifying offences, including sexual crimes against children under 12 or or crimes commited while holding a public office.
  • tightens employment rules for child sex offenders: pedophiles are banned from many occupations which are designed for children
  • extends limitation periods in the most severe cases
  • suggests the creation of a searchable, national sex-offender database containing the names and other personal data of those who have committed sexual crimes against minors

Although there were some disputes about the details – Bernadett Szél independent MP stated that „the problem with this law is what’s left out of it” referring to the fact that is forgets to focus on important aspects like prevention and victim assistance) – there was an uncommon consensus in the Hungarian Parliament between the governing party and the opposition.

The criminal reform of sexual crimes against minors became a hot political topic in the country following the scandal of Hungary’s former ambassador to Peru, Gábor Kaleta in 2020. In spite of the fact that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán likes to refer to himself and his party as a defender of conservative, Christian values, and families, Kaleta’s case was kept in secret for more than one year, as he was removed from his position in the beginning of April 2019. The case only got publicity when it was reported by an independent Hungarian news site, Index.hu. Kaleta was arrested in a multi-national investigation into a worldwide child porn network, after which Hungarian authorities quietly evacuated him from Lima to the Hungarian capital.

For the possession of more than 19,000 pornographic images of minors, he was sentenced to suspended prison and a fine of Ft540,000 (~1500 euros). After the nationwide scandal, the Fidesz party vowed to reform child protection legislation in the future, and introduce heavier sanctions. They also mentioned the possibility of keeping public lists of the perpetrators.

Last-minute changes

However, on 8 June a last-minute amendment was submitted by MPs of the governing party Fidesz, which basically conflates pedohilia with sexual minorities. The new bill contains the following provisions: it will be prohibited to make pornographic content available to minors, as well as contents that depict sexuality for its own sake. But it also outlaws the “portrayal and promotion of gender identity different from sex assigned at birth, the change of sex and homosexuality” in schools and in public service advertisements for persons under 18.

With these news changes, the bill bans all products, advertising and media content featuring gay or transgender people from people under the age of 18, banning the appearance of LGBTQI people in public service advertisements as well as any school programme that “promotes” homosexuality, being transgender, or transitioning.

This would also mean that the government could restrict or ban more liberal NGOs from sex education, as only registered individuals and organisations would be allowed to give such lectures in schools.

The act sparked a major controversy, on the evening before the final vote, two weeks ago, local NGOs organised a demonstration with 10.000 participants protesting against the modifications. As the organiser wrote:

„MPs in the governing party submitted exclusionary and hateful proposals aimed at completely erasing LGBTQI people from the public eye and banning vital school programmes that both help young people access information and guarantee a more accepting and safer environment for all.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission referred to the bill as a shame,  stating that it goes against the fundamental values of the EU. On 22 June, altogether 17 EU Member States expressed their deep concern in a joint declaration about the adoption of the bill.

Conflicts within the opposition alliance

Many believe that besides creating a new enemy (in the form of sexual minorities) the law was also a form of political trap in order to weaken the alliance of the six opposition parties uniting for the upcoming elections in 2022, because opinion polls indicate the united opposition is running neck and neck with Orban’s party.

The tactic is simple: confusing pedophilia with LGBT rights makes it possible for the governing party to blame the opposition for „supporting pedophilia and child abuse” consequently ignoring the fact that the original version of the bill was supported by all political parties

Another important aspect is that for the former far-right, now more moderately right-wing party from the opposition, Jobbik, there wasn’t really a good choice regarding the bill. If they had decided not to vote in favour, even with the debated modifications, they would have to face with accusations from the governing party for „supporting pedophilia”. But what is probably more important, they might have had to risk losing some of their conservative, traditionally right-wing voters from the countryside, which could have been a great loss for them before the upcoming elections.

But if they voted for the law (as they eventually did), it is clear that they had to expect severe criticism from left-wing parties, thus weakening the unity of the alliance – which is also not beneficial, especially only a few months before Hungary’s first-ever primary elections.

The leaders of the six opposition parties who agreed to join forces in the 2022 parliamentary elections. Source: kozosalap.hu

Most parties from the opposition (LMP, MSZP, DK, Párbeszéd, Momentum, and also independent MPs) decided to stay away from the voting as an act of boycotting the protest. Eventually the proposal passed with 157 votes in favour. Unlike its allies, Jobbik decided to vote in favour of the bill, even with the modifications. Later, they explained that in case of a victory in 2022, they would remove some “off-topic” parts.

A further step towards discrimination

According to local NGOs, the law is a further step towards the discrimination of LGBT people in Hungary. „These proposals, which have dark echoes of Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda law”, will further stigmatize LGBTI people, exposing them to greater discrimination in what is already a hostile environment” – said Director of Amnesty International Hungary, David Vig.

As NGOs pointed out in their joint statement, the new amendment – which eerily mimics the Russian „gay propaganda law” of 2013- would further poison public opinion. 

However, the recent bill against LGBT people is not an isolated case. On 23 June, Viktor Orbán told the German news agency, DPA that „the Hungarian state not only guarantees but also actively protects the rights of homosexuals”, adding that the liberty of the individuals is the most important value. Contrary to the words of PM, as Hatter Society, the largest and oldest Hungarian LGBTQ organisation explains, in recent years, there were several „attacks” against the rights of sexual minorities.

The government and its parliamentary majority has been systematically undermining the freedom and equal rights of sexual and gender minorities ever since they came into power in 2010, and especially since the spring of 2019.

The anti-LGBTQ law came into force on 8 July. As an act of protest, activits set up a giant rainbow balloon in front of Parliament on the same day. Source: Facebook/Amnesty International Hungary

Timeline:

  • In 2010, the Hungarian Parliament – with Fidesz majority – decided to revoke the previously adopted Civil Code which would have allowed partners – including same-sex partners – to adopt each other’s biological or previously adopted child, so that both members of the couple could become the child’s parents.
  • In 2011 the Budapest Police Headquarters banned the Budapest Pride parade. The court later ruled that the decision was not only unlawful, but also explicitly discriminatory.
  • In the same year a fourth amendment to the Fundamental Law was made. The related laws entered into force in 2012 which no longer allows civil partners to adopt each other’s children. Another change is that the Family Protection Act declared the definition of family as of “marriage and parent-child relationships”, stating that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. With this, it basically excludes alternative family models, like same-sex relationships from the protection of law.
  • In 2019, the government gender studies at universities by issuing a decree that revoked accreditation and funding for these programs. Spokesperson of the Prime Minister later told CNN that „the Government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female”.
  • In the same year, László Kövér, Speaker of the Parliament compared same-sex couples wanting to have their child and thus a family, to pedophiles, by saying that „in a moral sense” there is no own difference between the two things. He also added that „a normal homosexual is aware of what the order of the world is… they try to adapt to this world without necessarily considering themselves equal.”
  • The regulation of LGBT contents could be first noticed in October, when Coca Cola was fined for featuring #loveislove posters in the capital, which depicted same sex couples.  The company had to pay a 500.000 HUF (approximately 1,420 euro fine.)

In 2020 and 2021, when the world struggled with the global coronavirus pandemic (which affected Hungary in a severe way, leaving the country with the highest COVID-19 death toll per capita in the world) the Hungarian government managed to take yet another steps against sexual minorities and LGBT people.

  • In October, a book about traditional fairy tales (A Fairytale for everyone) was published, which retell the stories in contemporary settings, with more diverse and inclusive characters, including themes about sexual minorities. Yet, shortly after its release, it became a target of the government and other politicians including Hungary’s far right opposition, Mi Hazánk, who tore apart the book’s pages during a press conference adding that it contains „homosexual propaganda”. Later, several mayors (from the Fidesz party) announced to ban the use of the book for educational purposes.
  • A few months later, in December the ninth amendment to the constitution defined parenthood where „the mother is a woman, the father is a man”. Another law at the same time prohibited unmarried singles from adopting children as they could before. From this time on, only married couples can adopt, in other cases, a special permit from the Minister of Families is needed. Minister of Families, Katalin Novák openly admitted that the main aim of the law is to prevent same-sex couples from adopting a child.
  • In May 2020, a law made it impossible for transgender and intersex people to legally change their gender and name on official documents, as it ties a person’s gender to their biological sex, restricting later modifications, which was unprecedented in the EU.
  • In January 2021, the Media Council, consisting exclusively of delegates from the governing party, launched an investigation against television company RTL Klub for airing a video about rainbow families as a public service advertisement.

„Protecting our children”

Apart from the above mentioned examples, the appearance of gender and LGBTQ issues are in public discourse and propaganda can be also noticed in the past few years. The changes in the Hungarian media system, and the gradual expansion of the pro-government media empire since 2010, when Orbán’s party, Fidesz, won the election with two-thirds majority also made it easier to spread these kinds of messages. Nowadays, if someone decides to search for the keyword „LGBT” in any pro-government news site, there are only articles and stories where the term is used in a negative context.

Most of the time, the narratives are simple: politicians from Fidesz keep saying that they only want to protect children by keeping „gender ideology and homosexual propaganda” away from them, for their own sake.

Following the international uproar, several politicians from Fidesz tried to explain their views on the new law. According to PM Viktor Orbán it only means that from now on, only parents can decide on the sexual education of their children. In an interview later, he even declared himself a fighter for LGBT rights. The government also states that the law is not discriminatory, as it also bans material aimed at children that promotes sexuality in general.

The protest against the new law. Source: Áron Halász

Hot topic for the upcoming election

Targeting groups that are fighting for gender equality or the rights of sexual minorities could also be explained with the upcoming national elections in 2022. Lately, the success of the government was based on the successful creation of an enemy for most Hungarians (in the form of migration, and George Soros) and now, it’s the same tactic all over again. With an increasingly and now openly hostile rhetoric and several acts against LGBT people, „gender ideology” is slowly reaching the level of migration among demonised phenomena.

However, Hungary is not the only country, which uses the power of fear against various minorities as a political gain. In fact, the same cultural war can be noticed in Poland, where hostility to LGBT rights characterised political discourse in the past few years.  According to local human rights organizations, the quality of living conditions of sexual minorities has been deteriorating in the country ever since the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015.

Similar, hostile rhetorics and decisions can be noticed in Poland too, just like in Hungary and the party successfully exploited voters’ fears over homosexuality during last year’s national and European elections. According to the index of an LGBT rights group ILGA-Europe Poland is the worst-performing country (43.) in the EU in terms of LGBT rights, whereas Hungary is somewhere in the middle, in 27th place out of 49 countries.

The new law can have serious consequences

Besides the expected political gains behind the law, it doesn’t take much imagination to predict the effects of a legislation like this, concerning the LGBT community. The psychological effects of the new legislation will also be significant: mental health problems, depression or anxiety, school bullying, suicide. (According to Hatter Society, out of  Hungarian LGBTQI people, 42% have thought about suicide and 30% have also attempted it.)

Because of all this, the arguments of the government, saying that the protection of children is the top priority for them are especially false: negative consequences could be much more common among children and young people, particularly when they lack a supportive family.

So the question arises: how many children’s lives will be affected by the consequences of the law, and thus, by stigmatisation or exclusion?

This is also why Eurochild is also deeply concerned about the new Hungarian law, according to their statement.

Another possible consequence is the social polarisation and discrimination, with the possibility of increasing numbers of hate crimes and other atrocities. The law could spread hatred and separate certain groups of the society from the rest, in a country where the gap between different ideologies and political parties is already almost wider than what could be bridged.

The tension within the society through the creation of enemies and political polarisation seems to result in terrifying consequences. Just to mention a few: the campaign for the primary election had begun with several atrocities affecting the opposition parties: Fidesz voters punching a politician and a voter in the face, a man pulling a gun at a campaign event. Two homosexual doctors, beaten unconscious in the downtown Pécs, far right counter-protesters, toring down rainow flags and distrupting a Pride event at Szeged – unfortunately the list with recent examples could go on endlessly.

All in all, one thing is sure: this new law doesn’t make Hungary look good in the eyes of EU member states or on an international level, where already many are saying that the state of democracy is alarming in Hungary, and the euroscepticism of the government pushes us further away from the West.

Zita Szopkó

This article originally appeared on Oko.press. The Polish version can be found here. Cover photo: Facebook/Amnesty International Magyarország

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