50.50: Feature

Hungary’s homophobic referendum failed. But its anti-LGBTIQ war goes on

It’ll take more than spoiled votes to defeat Viktor Orbán’s policies – although it’s a great start

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6 May 2022, 8.13am

A billboard in Budapest urging voters to participate in the homophobic referendum: “Let’s protect our children! Vote No on April 3rd!” | Nóra Mendrey for openDemocracy

“It is difficult to be gay in a country where the government propaganda insists that we should all be similar – there should be no differences in skin colour, clothing or sexual orientation,” says Jutka Szabó.

“From here, it is just one step to say that those who do not fit into the ‘normal category’ are inferior.”

Szabó is a gay woman in her 70s who lives in Hungary. She was among many who felt a sense of relief on April 4, when a divisive homophobic referendum that was meant to cement support for Viktor Orbán’s anti-LGBTIQ policies backfired spectacularly.

Critics said the referendum was intended to portray LGBTIQ people as a potential threat to children by conflating homosexuality with paedophilia.

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Orbán’s populist government had asked voters whether they supported four things: 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.

In the end, 1.6 million people spoiled their ballots, following a campaign by 16 NGOs – mostly human rights groups. The referendum was declared invalid, with fewer than 50% of eligible voters casting valid ballots.

It was an unprecedented act of public protest against a nonsensical referendum; the legislation being voted on had already passed into law in July 2021. The government intended the vote to serve only as public ratification of its increasingly anti-LGBTIQ agenda – but its plan failed dismally.

We cried for days. How can one humiliate people like that?

Tamás Dombos, the project coordinator for Háttér Társaság, Hungary’s largest LGBTIQ organisation, believes the high number of invalid votes was a great achievement, especially considering the government promoted the referendum in all possible public and private media channels.

“The government was keen on getting a strong backing from society to legitimise its [agenda] when it comes to debates with international organisations, and especially with the EU,” Dombos told openDemocracy.

Although 3.6 million people voted in line with the government, what counts at the end of the day, Dombos said, is that the vote was not legally binding.

Restricting LGBTIQ rights

A sense of increasing insecurity has spread through Hungary’s LGBTIQ communities in recent years as a result of restrictive legislation and hostile propaganda.

Orbán’s government has never been particularly welcoming of sexual minorities, saying they do not fit its conservative family ideals. When, in 2007, the last leftist-liberal government passed a bill on registered partnership for same-sex couples, it was vehemently opposed by Orbán’s party, Fidesz.

Three years later, when Fidesz gained power, the party engraved into Hungary’s constitution that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman – killing any hope of the country legalising same-sex marriage. The government has since pursued a series of policies designed to restrict the rights of LGBTIQ people even further.

“Tolerance towards same-sex [relationships] has improved a lot since the democratic transition in 1990,” says Szabó, “but unfortunately, the trend was reversed in the last three to four years.”

As a result, Háttér Társaság estimates that thousands of young LGBTIQ people – especially those who are transgender – have left the country. For many, the turning point came in May 2020, when the government stripped transgender people of the right to change their birth name on official documents.

“My partner was just days from submitting all the papers [for the name change] when the government issued the ban. We cried for days. How can one humiliate people like that?” asked Ágnes Sebők, a trans woman from Tatabánya, a town 60 kilometres from Budapest.

The government needs an enemy, and we are too weak to strike back

Sebők experienced dysphoria from an early age. Her childhood was crippled by loneliness, which led to depression, panic attacks and inferiority complexes. When she tried to discuss her sexual orientation with her father, he beat her. Neither her family nor teachers would help her.

In the past ten years, things have got a bit better for Sebők: she has a partner and works for a company where she feels accepted and supported. But she still feels Hungary is moving backwards.

“I do not think there will be a change for the better until Fidesz leaves government,” she explained. “They need an enemy, and we are just too weak to strike back.

“Actually, I believe [Hungary is] moving towards a Russian model, with more discrimination ahead.”

In December 2020, months after transgender people were banned from changing their name on official documents, the government effectively banned same-sex couples from adopting. Previously, it had been possible to do so if a single father or mother applied for adoption on their own, but now doing so requires the approval of the minister of family affairs. The country’s constitution was also amended to include the sentence: “The mother is a woman, the father is a man.”

Then, last summer, the government passed the laws on which the referendum was later held; banning the ‘portrayal’ of LGBTIQ people and what it called the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality to children under 18, creating an almost impossible situation for media and publishing. This led to loud criticism from the international community and triggered legal action from the European Commission, which is ongoing.

Despite the government’s crusade against the LGBTIQ community, Dombos said the majority of the Hungarian society is tolerant. “But there is a homophobic minority, which now feels encouraged by the government media to attack gay people.”

Recently, Háttér Társaság has received reports of a lesbian couple being attacked with eggs, a man being threatened with a knife on a bus in a homophobic attack, and verbal attacks taking place in the streets.

“The numbers [of attacks] are definitely growing,” said Dombos.

Deepening misinformation

Neither Szabó nor Dombos has been subject to attacks. They feel lucky.

“I was born in a very tolerant family, I had no problems at the university or at places where I worked,” said Dombos. “I live in Budapest. But I’m sure in smaller settlements where there is less information, people can face more discrimination.”

Though Szabó is from another generation, she said she also has not faced open discrimination. Before the democratic transition, she explained, homosexuality was a taboo, but it was more or less tolerated – people just did not speak much about it.

Sebők has worse experiences – she has felt regularly discriminated against and humiliated in the Hungarian healthcare sector, mostly by doctors.

Szabó, Dombos and Sebők all agree that, despite the unsuccessful referendum, the recent anti-LGBTIQ legislation will lead to less information about their community, more misinformation, and a striking lack of support for younger generations.

Organisations that could previously offer help and guidance to teenagers have effectively been banned from schools, while teachers are increasingly scared of addressing LGBTIQ issues, which the law entrusts to parents alone.

Yet as Sebők’s case proves, not all teenagers can turn to their parents for support. In fact, research from 2017 found that 44% of Hungarians would be ashamed to have LGBTIQ people in their families. Of the European countries surveyed, this was the third highest rate, after Russia and Lithuania.

Many in Hungary still believe that just discussing homosexuality is enough to make children or teenagers question their sexual orientation. As such, Dombos said, “the government would like to keep people in the darkness and ignore these issues”.

But Sebők believes the reality is even worse: “This regime wants to keep people uninformed so that it can manipulate them.”

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