A new law in Hungary, passed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prevents trans people from legally changing their gender. CIVICUS speaks to Krisztina Kolos Orbán, Vice-President of the Transvanilla Transgender Association, a Hungarian organisation that advocates for trans people’s rights. Founded as a grassroots initiative in 2011, Transvanilla is the only organisation registered in Hungary with an exclusive focus on transgender rights and gender non-conforming issues. It drives advocacy on gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare at the national level. It also monitors discrimination and violence based on gender expression and gender identity and facilitates community gatherings and other events to raise the visibility of transgender issues and transgender people in Hungary.
What has been the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary over the past few years?
In 2012, ILGA Europe ranked Hungary ninth among 49 European countries regarding the rights of LGBTQI+ people, but in 2019 we had regressed to 19th and in 2020 we have further dropped down to 27th. This past year Hungary’s rating has declined the most, and there are various reasons. In 2012 things looked pretty good on paper, but since then new measures were introduced as the human rights landscape has changed. Hungary has not moved forward or followed international recommendations. The other factor has been the huge backlash that we have experienced over the past couple of years. Previously this government had not taken rights away from people, although it had certainly tried, and we knew that it was not LGBTQI+-friendly. But now we are having our rights being taken away.
If we focus on transgender rights, gender identity is a specific ground mentioned in our legislation on both anti-discrimination and hate crimes, which appears to be rather good. But this only exists on paper, as no hate crimes based on gender identity have been taken to court thus far. Similarly, there have been very few cases focused on anti-discrimination because the law is not being implemented. There is no national action plan to combat discrimination based on gender identity.
Therefore, transgender rights were never guaranteed by law. When it comes to legal gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare there were no laws or national guidelines. However, practices had improved. Since 2003, transgender people have been able to change their birth certificates, gender markers and first names based on a mental health diagnosis; no other medical intervention was required. Back then this was amazing. The government promised to create legislation but failed to do so. Until now, no government even addressed the issue. As a result, no legislation backed these administrative procedures, which were not even published on the government's website. But for the time being things were okay because the practice was reliable and procedures were rather trans-friendly. Those who provided the required documentation were able to change their birth certificates and it was relatively easy and fast. But the fact that the practice was not protected by legislation was not a minor detail. We see it now that the practice has become illegal. It has been a huge step backwards.
In 2020, new regulations that only recognise the sex assigned at birth and prevent transgender people from legally changing their gender and obtaining new documentation were passed by parliament by a 133 to 57 vote margin. They are contained in article 33 of an omnibus bill that was introduced on 31 March and approved on 19 May. Article 33 contradicts not just international and European human rights standards but also previous rulings by the Hungarian Constitutional Court, which has previously made it clear that changing your name and gender marker is a fundamental right for trans people. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights issued a report in 2016 and another in 2018 that stated that the authorities need to enact proper legislation because this is a fundamental right.
This law change fits into the fight against gender led by the Christian Democratic party, which is part of the governing coalition. This party has already banned gender studies and has argued that there is no such thing as gender, as in the Hungarian language there are not even separate words for ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. But in the past year, it has resorted to using the word ‘gender’ in English so as to be able to attack gender as a concept. So this is part of a larger attack against so-called ‘gender ideology’. The protection of what the new law calls ‘sex at birth’ is a part of this. For the past six years we have worked to come up with legislation on these issues, and initially we thought the authorities wanted to tackle it as well, but after a while it became obvious to us that our initiatives were being blocked along the way.
It is difficult to engage with the authorities. We don’t get much information from them. We cannot get to those with decision-making authority; we can only talk to low-ranking officials, who are obviously afraid to give us information. There is no public discussion and civil society is not involved. We were not consulted regarding these specific changes to the Registry Act. The proposal came from the government, and specifically from the Christian members of the government coalition, and was supported by civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote so-called ‘family values’. Timing also raised a lot of questions. Why was it so important to address this issue in the middle of a pandemic? Why now, and why in this way?
What are the main restrictions that the Hungarian LGBTQI+ community experiences on their freedoms to organise, speak up and protest?
In Hungary there is an NGO law that requires CSOs to register if they receive foreign funding, if their income is above a certain amount. The threshold is relatively low, so many CSOs, including us, must register. There is a list of foreign-funded CSOs that is published and publicly available. It is no secret that we seek foreign funding because we cannot access funds in Hungary. The government refers to CSOs, and particularly to those that criticise the government, as ‘enemies’ of the Hungarian people. This has obviously affected LGBTQI+ organisations too.
This is not just rhetoric. In practice, the government does not consult with CSOs that are independent or that they don’t like, including us. Instructions to marginalise these organisations come from the top levels of government, and while some lower-level officials might want to try to engage with us, they are not allowed to do so. How can CSOs conduct advocacy or engage with the authorities if public officials are banned from any contact with us?
Additionally, most media are controlled by the government, and the rest tend to have a neoliberal perspective, which usually makes them difficult to access for organisations that do not follow their agenda, like Transvanilla.
Our freedom to conduct our legitimate activities is also being challenged. Last year, for instance, there were several attacks against events organised around Pride month. A speed-dating event for pansexual people that had been organised by Transvanilla was interrupted by far-right activists. We couldn’t continue the event and the police didn't protect us. Far-right activists video-recorded participants for over an hour and we were not allowed to close the door. They were obviously acting illegally but the police took no action against them. In other instances, venues were ruined or damaged by far-rights activists. This was a new development – in the past, our events had received police protection when such things happened.
Year after year there have also been attempts to ban Pride events, but the courts have declared that these events cannot be banned. It’s a constant fight. The authorities have fenced off Pride routes on the pretence of protecting marchers, but this was obviously an attempt to restrict their movement.
How did the LGBTQI+ community react when the new law was passed?
It was a traumatic event because it was a clear attack against us. This amendment only affected trans and intersex people who would like to change their gender markers and trans people who don’t want to change their gender markers but would still like to change their name, which is no longer possible in Hungary. But the whole community now feels like second-class citizens, like outcasts who the government does not respect.
Personally, as a non-binary person, it had a huge effect on me, because I was already far from being recognised in my documents and now I am a lot further away from that. Many of my friends who were in the process of changing their legal gender recognition are in a limbo. At least a hundred applicants’ cases had already been suspended in the past two and a half years, as requests were not being evaluated. Those people have now lost all hopes. They are frustrated and devastated.
There is also fear because we don’t know what is next, what else is coming to us. Even though the law can be challenged, it might require many years. And even if we get rid of this law, the situation may not improve. Some people are suicidal, and many people want to leave the country. A big part of the community is just suffering silently and has no voice. While some activists have emerged from this situation and these activists are gaining visibility, the vast majority are suffering at home, alone. People were already isolated before, and it will not get any better. From now on, more people will hide their identity.
Since 2016 there have been problems with administrative procedures, so increasing numbers of people who began to transition may look different from the sex registered in their documents. And if someone is openly and visibly transgender it becomes difficult to find a job; discrimination is part of everyday life. And now it is becoming more serious. We have seen a rise in discrimination, not just in employment but in everyday life. In Hungary you often must present your ID papers, so you have to out yourself all the time. People don’t believe you and you are questioned. For example, recently a trans person was trying to buy a house and the lawyer who was drawing up the paperwork raised questions about their ID document because it didn’t match their gender description.
Given the restrictions on peaceful assembly imposed under the COVID-19 pandemic, what sort of lobbying and campaigning have you been able to do to stop Article 33?
Transvanilla is very strategic: we only engage in activities that might have an impact. Therefore, we did not focus on the Hungarian context. In parliament the opposition is powerless because Fidesz, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party, has two thirds of the seats and can thus win any vote. We also knew that we could not mobilise enough people – the masses would not be out on the streets because of the pandemic, so this wasn’t even an option. If this had not happened during the pandemic, other organisations might have tried to organise protests. Until the amendment was introduced, Transvanilla was not publicly highlighting the issue of legal gender recognition because we were doing silent advocacy. On 1 April, when we found out about the initiative, we called on international actors to raise their voices publicly and to engage in multilateral dialogue with our government on this issue.
We grabbed international attention and many international voices were vocal against the proposal. In April 2020 we also turned to Hungary’s Commissioner on Fundamental Rights and we asked him to do whatever he could to stop the amendment. We of course engaged with international and national media. We launched a petition and managed to get more than 30,000 signatures. We now have another petition that is addressed to the European Union (EU) and we hope it will have an effect.
So, we resorted to the ombudsperson, who could have intervened but didn’t, and we put international pressure on the government, which sometimes works but this time did not. The law was passed, and the day it came into effect we launched two cases at the Constitutional Court. The court could turn them down for whatever reason, but we hope that it will not. At the same time, we are putting pressure on the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights because he has the power to request the Constitutional Court to look into the law, and if he does, then the court must do so. Pressure is very important, and many international actors are helping, including Amnesty International Hungary, which has launched a campaign. We have 23 cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), all of which deal with gender recognition, and the applicants are represented by our lawyer. The government and the other parties involved were given time until June 2020 to settle these cases, and if they didn’t, the Court would move forward for a decision. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline for the government was pushed to September 2020, which is not good news for us. But based on ECHR practice, we are confident that it will respect transgender rights. We will also take more cases to this court and represent people who are specifically affected by this law. We want to put pressure on the Court to make a decision as soon as possible.
We also continue to engage with EU human rights mechanisms, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. We got CSOs to sign a statement to put pressure on the European Commission (EC), which so far has been silent on this. We want to make sure that what happened in Hungary doesn’t happen in other countries, so we have created a civil society alliance to convey the message that if other governments try to do the same, they will face huge resistance. And of course, we keep trying to engage with the ministries, although we have sent them letters and have received no response.
How can an increasingly authoritarian government like Hungary’s be held accountable for its actions?
We have tried to engage directly with the government to hold it accountable, but it has not worked so far. We represent a minority group and cannot fight this government alone. But international institutions do sometimes influence the government's actions. We hope that a court decision from the ECHR or the Constitutional Court would have an effect.
Unfortunately, what we have seen since 2010 is that the way it is designed, the EU cannot take definitive action against a country, especially if it is not alone. And this is the case here, as Poland and Hungary always back each other. People believe that the EU lacks political will to take action. We cannot repeat often enough that the EU should cut off funding, because Hungary is living on EU money and if it cuts off funding the government would start to behave differently. But the EU refuses to do it.
The EU should act not only on this specific legislation but also on other, bigger issues related to the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary. It should do something about its own member states, or else it should not pass comment on any non-EU country. The fact that the EC fails to mention Hungary explicitly is outrageous. When the Authorisation Act was passed in late March, giving Prime Minister Orbán extra powers to fight the pandemic, EC President Ursula von der Leyen made a statement that was clearly about Hungary, but did not mention it by name, and then Hungary was a signatory to the statement. The EC’s Commissioner for Equality was recently asked to condemn Hungary for the anti-transgender amendment and she refused to do so; instead, she decided to speak about trans rights in general. This is something that we cannot accept.
The EU should not just speak up, but also act on Hungary and Poland. If the EC keeps refusing to address the situation on the ground, then we really don’t know where else to go. Thus far, the government has followed ECHR decisions, but it has stopped following Hungarian court decisions just this year, which is very worrying. In 2018 there was a Constitutional Court decision in the case of a transgender refugee that required parliament to enact legislation on legal gender recognition for non-Hungarian citizens, which it has not yet done.
What support do Hungarian CSOs need from international civil society?
It is important to attempt to unify the different movements and to act as bridge between them and I think international CSOs can play a role in this. As a trans organisation we are responsible for trans people, but trans people come in all sizes and shapes – there are migrant trans people, Roma trans people, disabled trans people – and we all have to come together. Also, while trans people are currently under attack in Hungary, we don't know which vulnerable group is next on the list, and I think international CSOs should focus on everyone. They also need to assist in raising awareness in international institutions – in Hungary, for example, international pressure is important because Orbán still sometimes cares about how Hungary is perceived. So the engagement that comes from the international community is helpful. International civil society can also assist in presenting good examples, because the better the situation is in other countries for trans people, the more shame it can bring to the Hungarian government. But if other EU countries start to follow Hungary, then the government will get away with this. Organisations like CIVICUS can bring CSOs together.
Civic space in Hungary is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Hungary also currently features on our Civic Space Watchlist.
Get in touch with the Transvanilla Transgender Association through its website and Facebook page, or follow @Transvanilla on Twitter and @transvanilla.official on Instagram.