CIVICUS speaks about the Hungarian government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign with Imre Zsoldos of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance.
Founded in 2009, the Hungarian LGBT Alliance is an umbrella civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together seven LGBTQI+ groups with the aim of promoting communication, cooperation and joint action to confront social rejection, prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities in Hungary.
What are the latest developments in the government-led anti-LGBTQI+ campaign?
To begin with, Hungarian legislation explicitly forbids same-sex registered partners from adopting children. There is another law prohibiting unmarried single people from adopting children unless they have a special permit issued by the Minister for Families, which has been made almost impossible to get to prevent same-sex parents adopting separately.
On top of this, in April 2023 the Hungarian parliament passed a bill enabling people to anonymously report on same-sex couples raising children, or those who contest the ‘constitutionally recognised role of marriage and the family’ or children’s rights ‘to an identity appropriate to their sex at birth’. This law specifically targeted rainbow families and transgender young people. No specific evidence or details would be needed to report same-sex families and other ‘offenders’ to the authorities. The law also mandated the establishment of a reporting platform.
President Katalin Novak did not sign the bill into law, arguing it weakened the protection of fundamental values, and sent it back to parliament for reconsideration. My assumption is that parliament will pass it again with some changes.
Previously in March, the government filed a counter claim to the Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) to defend an education law passed in 2021, which was in fact just another anti-‘gay propaganda’ law. Initially, the law was meant to impose harsher punishment for sexual offences against minors, but legislators from the ruling Fidesz party introduced several changes so that the law ended up criminalising the portrayal or ‘promotion’ of homosexuality or sex reassignment to minors and restricting sexual education in schools. It was condemned by 17 EU member states.
The 2021 Child Protection Act enshrines children’s right to ‘education in accordance with the values based on Hungary's constitutional identity and Christian culture’. The government is masking anti-LGBTQI+ legislation under the narrative of child protection, portraying LGBTQI+ people as paedophiles and claiming it is trying to ‘save the children’ from us.
The same narrative is also used to criticise the EU: the government claims the EU suspended over €6 billion (approx. US$6.5 billion) in funds for 2021-2027 because it promotes paedophilia, while in fact the funds were cut off due to a decline in the rule of law and judicial independence and concerns about corruption.
How is the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign affecting people?
This hostile rhetoric resembles the way Jewish people and other minorities were targeted in the run-up to the Second World War. We are losing the feeling of security in our own society. We feel outlawed and can’t understand how this can be happening in Europe nowadays. Many LGBTQI+ people are starting to think about whether we should leave the country before it’s too late.
Public attitudes to the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign are shifting both ways, since everyone is reacting to the portrayal of LGBTQI+ people as a public enemy. On one side of the divide, people are getting outraged by the government’s propaganda and hence showing more support and understanding. On the other side, people are beginning to feel emboldened and legitimised to express discriminatory thoughts and act in discriminatory ways.
What are the conditions for LGBTQI+ organisations in Hungary?
The majority of Hungarian LGBTQI+ organisations are run by volunteers because they very rarely have resources to pay employees, especially in fixed positions. Our funding is strictly tied to projects to be implemented.
As all the major media platforms are in the hands of the government, our opportunities to shift public opinion are really limited. We can only use CSOs’ social media and websites for advocacy. For example, one of the members of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance is the Rainbow Families Foundation. It ran a large campaign, ‘Family is Family’, that reached an extensive audience thanks to a TV station broadcasting the campaign in prime time. But then the media authority fined the TV station, saying it’s only allowed to broadcast this kind of advertisement at night because its depiction of homosexuality sensitively affects children under 16, causing misunderstanding, tension and uncertainty among them. A court eventually nullified the media authority’s decision, but this kind of decision is why there is almost no newspaper or TV station where we could have the space to effectively resist the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign.
Activists are targeted by the authorities in diverse ways, such as smear campaigns fuelled by the dissemination of fake information about them, as well as audits and controls on their private or family businesses or pressure in their workplaces or on family members who hold any state position. This creates a constant stress situation, since we never know when, where or how we will be targeted.
But despite the hardship, we are doing our best to create safe places, build a community and provide legal and other forms of help to LGBTQI+ people.
What further support does Hungarian civil society need?
Alongside financial support, it would be extremely helpful – not only for LGBTQI+ people but also for other minorities, the political opposition and civil society as a whole – to have a widely accessible communication platform to reach older people beyond the capital, Budapest. While we can easily reach out to young people through social media, we are unable to reach those who get their information from television, newspapers and their churches, all of which are predominantly controlled by the government.
Civic space in Hungary is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.