On 15 June 2021, the majority of Hungarian MPs – representatives of the Hungarian Civic Alliance (FIDESZ) and the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) – voted for a bill that contained several provisions added to the original draft act, originally intended to enhance the protection of children and tighten sanctions against pedophile offenders. These new provisions introduce an explicit, harsh ban on the "portrayal and the promotion of gender identity different from sex at birth, the change of sex and homosexuality" for persons under the age of 18.
They add this regulation to the Child Protection Act, the Act on Business Advertising Activity, the Media Act (qualifying all such content as category V, that is to say, unsuitable for minors, which also bans the publication of such material as public service advertisements), the Family Protection Act and the Public Education Act. Thus, such topics cannot be part of sexuality education, schools cannot invite external speakers or representatives of NGOs for education on "sexual culture, sexual life, sexual orientation or sexual development" unless they receive a special licence by the state to do so, and participating in such activity without a licence is a misdemeanor.
There are no other special criminal or administrative sanctions introduced, but of course failing to abide by these rules can result in disciplinary sanctions against professionals, administrative procedures against companies publishing advertisements, media broadcasting or printing such content, retailers selling such publications, and potentially can also lead to criminal liability for endangering children.
According to Háttér Society (Háttér is the largest and oldest non-governmental LGBTI organisation in Hungary, which also works on legal advocacy) and many political analysts, the above restrictions, which are in line with the Russian type of propaganda laws, serve a political goal: FIDESZ wanted to make sure that opposition parties would not vote yes on the “anti-pedophilia law,” and thus those parties can be criticized and depicted as impeding the government’s actions against pedophilia. FIDESZ also saw the added value in creating a tension between Jobbik (relatively recently a far right party trying to align center, with significant support in rural Hungary) and the other parties of the opposition, now forced to cooperate in order to try and achieve a Parliamentary majority next spring.
But what processes led to selecting the group of LGBTI people and supporters of their equality as focal points in the fight for power and against everyone endangering the rule of FIDESZ? From previous campaigns, we can see that FIDESZ is interested in the extreme polarization of the population – recognizing that much of the population not only accepts and likes “defense of the family” type arguments (being used with respect to the illusory notion, of the, stable nuclear family as the only place of solace and safety in a world full of danger), and leans to the paternalism they offer, but is also prone to take sides along lines like nationalism versus universal values, or national pride versus European citizenship.
LGBTI people and organizations seem to be especially vulnerable when political actors decide to mobilize their constituency through the polarization of societies, using conservative and traditionalist narratives. “Gender ideology” narratives have proven successful at mobilizing socially conservative constituencies of conservative and extremist parties and other political formations in various countries of the world. “Gender ideology” narratives, that is, anti-LGBTI and anti-feminist narratives strengthened by governmental communication and action, have gained momentum in Hungary in recent years as well.
This can be seen most clearly in the banning of gender studies programs (October 2018); the rejection of the Istanbul Convention by the Parliament (May 2020) based on the reference to “gender” in the treaty text and obligations to receive refugees persecuted on grounds of sexual orientation or gender; and adopting legislation banning legal gender recognition for trans people (May 2020). These moves have been accompanied by fear-mongering in the public sphere by pro-government and government sponsored conservative NGOs about the powerful “gender lobby,” as well as by attacks by extremist groups against LGBTI events in the summer of 2019 and 2020.
“Gender ideology” narratives block advocacy efforts promoting the human rights and equality of LGBTI people; limit social support for civil society organizations working on LGBTI issues; and undermine efforts to promote a more just and equitable vision of society. And this is advantageous for FIDESZ, which has indeed been reinforcing negative public sentiments around these issues. Incitement to hatred against sexual and gender minorities have been on the rise: in recent years not only extreme right wing politicians, but also leading government officials made prejudiced statements against these groups. House Speaker László Köver, for example, likened homosexual couples raising children to pedophiles in 2019, and Prime Minister Vikor Orbán said homosexuals should “leave our children alone” in 2020.
These statements are particularly harmful as LGBTI people are one of the most discriminated social groups in Hungary, and both public attitudes and experiences of discrimination have worsened over the past years. A 2019 poll by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found that 49% of Hungarian LGBTI respondents, and 64% of trans respondents have felt discriminated against due to being LGBTI in the 12 months preceding the research.
As the Memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Hungary, issued recently by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe affirms, civil society representatives and human rights defenders have also been demonised as “foreign agents” and “traitors to the nation,” particularly when protecting the rights of migrants, Roma or LGBTI people. Legislative amendments in recent years have shown blatant disrespect for the important role that civil society organisations play in modern democratic societies. In June 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union found the registration and publication obligations imposed on civil society organisations who receive support from abroad to be in breach of Hungary’s obligations under EU law, as they undermined the organisations’ right to freedom of association and created a climate of suspicion and stigmatisation towards them. Following the judgment, the Prime Minister talked of “liberal imperialism in Western Europe” and “conspiracies to manoeuvre for power,” referring to “political organisations in Hungary that are striving to erode the independence of their own country.”
Freedom of expression by LGBTI NGOs and companies supporting LGBTI equality have also been under attack by extremist groups, and most recently by public bodies as well. In October 2019, Coca Cola was imposed a fine of 500.000 HUF for featuring a gay and a lesbian couple in their billboard campaign #loveislove. The consumer protection authority argued that the portrayal of same-sex couples in advertisements damages the physical, mental, emotional, or moral development of children and adolescents.
In September 2020, a lesbian organization, Labrisz Lesbian Association published a fairy tale collection called Fairyland is for Everyone (Meseország mindenkié) with diverse (including LGBTI) characters. In an interview following extremist attacks against the book and bookshops where it was sold, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said homosexuals should “leave our children alone,” and Minister Gergely Gulyás threatened professionals using the book in educational settings with criminal charges.
In March 2021 the Media Council launched an investigation against RTL Klub, the largest commercial television channel for airing a video about rainbow families as a public service advertisement before 9 p.m. The Council argues the video featuring same-sex families and experts was harmful for children under the age of 16. The inequity advanced by giving way to homo- and transphobic governmental propaganda and also reducing the public media space on offer to LGBTI people fuels a general climate of hostility against the LGBTI community while, at the same time, making them invisible.
In December 2020 the Parliament adopted amendments to the Civil Code and the Child Protection Act that restrict adoption by unmarried couples. Joint adoption has always been limited to (different-sex) spouses, but those living with their same-sex partners were allowed to adopt as individuals. The new provision does not completely outlaw adoption by an unmarried person, but it is only possible with special permission from the Minister of Family Affairs; thus the decision on who is a suitable parent will not be made by professionals but by a politician. Furthermore, the current minister made it clear in a public interview that the aim of the amendment was to make sure that persons living in same-sex partnership cannot adopt. Adoption specialists and child rights advocates including UNICEF Hungary criticized the move, arguing that it would result in longer adoption procedures, and by decreasing the number of adoptive parents it would force more children to live out of families or be adopted abroad.
Legislation on assisted reproduction technologies is openly discriminatory: while it is possible for married couples, different-sex cohabiting couples and single women to access such services, lesbian couples (whether in registered partnership or cohabiting) are excluded.
The lack of recognition for same-sex parents creates legal and practical problems for the growing number of children living with same-sex parents: they cannot receive an inheritance from their non-biological parent without a will, and if there is a will their inheritance tax is significantly higher; in the case where the parents’ relationship dissolves, they are not entitled to receive child support from their non-biological parents; and the non-biological parent of these children cannot make even urgent medical decisions on their behalf.
Since 2017, the Legal Program of Háttér Society has been participating in monitoring the EU Code of Conduct, an agreement between the European Commission and social media platforms (2016) to counter online hate speech. The 6th monitoring round ended in April 2021. The official results will be published in the coming months, but we could already clearly see that there has been a sharp increase in anti-LGBTI hate speech over the social media pages of conservative and extremist parties and other political formations during 2020 and 2021.
In summary, the recognition and encouragement given to anti-LGBTI speech by political and government-supported or -supporting media actors; the smear campaigns directed at LGBTI organizations both by the government and extremist parties and organizations; legislative changes having very negative impacts on the lives of transgender people as well as same-sex couples who raise or plan to raise children and the children of LGBTI people; building anti-LGBTI “defence of children” arguments into the Fundamental Law and other acts to discourage media representations of LGBTI people or teachers from referring to LGBTI people and issues in any way in educational institutions (where many young LGBTI people face severe discrimination and abuse); and, finally, the growth of anti-LGBTI hate speech on social media platforms are all signals of dark times for LGBTI people in Hungary – times when anti-LGBTI propaganda is broadcasted through all public channels of communication, further eroding the social fabric in Hungary.
Of course the erosion of the social fabric and amplifying negative sentiments and hatred is exactly the purpose of governmental actions and communication. Unfortunately, those who have not been blinded by these tactics seem to be quite uncertain of what can be done to make more people realize that scapegoating minorities (be they the Roma, “migrants,” or LGBTI people) is a deliberate tactic to divert attention away from major social problems in the country; and that instead of acquiescence to autocracy, all Hungarians, and especially those who have political influence have a responsibility to stand up against hatred and for a democratically functioning society.
This article was first published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Prague office.
 Cf. Háttér Society’s report on the experience of LGBTI students in Hungarian schools (2017), https://hatter.hu/sites/default/files/dokumentum/kiadvany/school-environment-report-en.pdf