BRIGHT sunshine and blue skies were the backdrop to Budapest Pride on Saturday. An estimated 30,000 people, the largest turnout in the event’s 26-year history, joined the march from Madách Square, in the city centre, to the leafy Tabán park on the other side of the Danube.
Small far-Right groups, totalling perhaps 100, hectored the procession from behind police lines, as it crossed the Freedom Bridge that unites Pest with Buda. Protesters gave the Nazi salute, and carried banners expressing support for the Hungarian government’s new anti-LGBT law.
The problems facing LGBT people in Hungary are, however, more serious than those small numbers of counter-protesters might suggest. Alongside stronger criminal penalties for paedophilia, the vaguely worded new law that was passed last month proscribes the “exposure” of people under the age of 18 in schools and other public settings to educational or cultural content that refers to homosexuality. It has provoked strong international criticism and had a chilling effect domestically.
On the day that the law came into effect, the German-owned TV broadcaster RTL Klub covered up advertisements for a popular soap opera whose next episode was to feature a same-sex marriage. Budapest bookshops selling works on LGBT themes now sport warning disclaimers at their entrances, which alert shoppers that they may encounter material inside that contains “non-traditional content” about sexuality and gender. This month, a fine was imposed on one bookshop that had not clearly distinguished such literature from other content.
In January, meanwhile, the Hungarian government issued instructions to a publisher to affix special labels to children’s works that contained depictions of “behaviour inconsistent with traditional gender roles”.
Last week, the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, announced a five-question referendum on LGBT-related topics, which was seemingly pitched to dominate public discourse in the months leading up to next year’s parliamentary elections.
THERE is also an international dimension to this focus on LGBT issues, however. Stoking controversy around LGBT issues allows Fidesz, the governing party, to blur perceptions about the conflict with Brussels over the general deterioration of the rule of law in Hungary with charged Euro-Atlantic “culture war” topics. The move also creates a “wedge issue”, dividing Central and Eastern European governments from Western counterparts.
This strategy is important for Mr Orbán’s government, as it partially offsets the country’s increasing diplomatic isolation, closing distance with its culturally conservative regional neighbours, who have been keen to underscore their opposition to Budapest’s strongly pro-Kremlin foreign policy.
While Fidesz’s hostility to the LGBT community has risen to international prominence of late, it has, in fact, been longstanding.
On 18 May 2015, the international day for combating homophobia, Mr Orbán told a reporter from the independent news site index.hu that, in Hungary, homosexuals were treated with “patience”, and declared himself “grateful to the Hungarian homosexual community for not exhibiting the provocative behaviour against which numerous European nations are struggling”. He emphasised that “tolerance . . . does not mean we apply the same rules for people whose lifestyle is different from our own.”
In May 2019, László Kövér, a founder member of Fidesz who is now Speaker of the Parliament, declared publicly: “There is no difference morally in the behaviour of a paedophile and gays who want to adopt.” This June, the Deputy Prime Minister, Zsolt Semjén, leader of Fidesz’s affiliate Christian Democratic People’s Party, expressed his disquiet about the possibility of serving alongside an openly gay colleague in the Hungarian cabinet because “I am the President of a Christian Party . . . [and] manifested homosexuality is a sin.”
The enthusiasm of Fidesz politicians for expressing such views is puzzling, given the government’s record on issues of sexual morality and the protection of Hungary’s children.
In December, József Szájer, leader of the party’s MEPs in Brussels, and author of the 2011 constitution that identified Hungary as a Christian state, resigned after police found him attending a gay orgy in Brussels, in defiance of lockdown regulations.
Earlier in 2020, Gábor Kaleta, formerly Hungary’s Ambassador to Peru, received only a suspended sentence after being found to have more than 19,000 pornographic images of minors on his computer’s hard-drive. Given Mr Kaleta’s close ties to the Fidesz government, the lenient sentence raised serious concerns about the integrity of Hungary’s judicial system.
AS PART of its present campaign, the government has taken no steps to raise the age of consent in Hungary from 14: the lowest in the European Union. More worryingly, a recent United Nations report drew attention to a persistent culture of sexual abuse of disabled children in residential institutions managed by Hungarian state authorities. These concerns had first been raised by a monitoring body four years earlier, and remained unresolved. The UN further flagged concerns about practices of forced abortion, coerced sterilisation, and institutional separation of disabled children from their parents for lack of adequate state financial support.
Mr Orbán has sought to justify the anti-LGBT measures in Hungary as being necessary to protect children from “LGBT-ideology”, and to protect the nation’s “Christian freedom” from liberals who “are in fact communists with degrees”. Some might argue that the greatest danger to both comes from Hungary’s present government.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.