LGBTIQ+ people caught in the crossfire of election

Visiting Eger, a regional city of about 50,000 people in northern Hungary, this week, Orban urged people to vote “no” in the name of “child protection”.


“If we go and vote ‘no’ four times, the referendum will settle this issue for a long time to come,” he says. “The father is a man and the mother a woman, and our children should be left alone.”

Orban says what was at stake in the referendum was “whether we will keep our common sense”, demanding teachers and schools not “re-educate our children”.

“Hungary is a free country where adults can decide how they want to live,” he says. “We don’t want to interfere in that.

“But children — that’s a red line,” he added, saying that “foreign fads” must not be allowed to make their way into schools.

But the Teachers’ Union, entangled in a long-running pay dispute, hit back on Friday, rejecting Orban’s claims.

A drag queen waves a rainbow flag outside Hungary’s parliament last year.

A drag queen waves a rainbow flag outside Hungary’s parliament last year.Credit:AP

“There is no ‘gender insanity’ either in schools or kindergartens, so there is nothing that should be stopped, just as there is no education for gender reassignment,” it said in a statement. The referendum questions, according to the union, “lack any basis”.

In recent years Hungary has gained an international reputation as a country hostile to many minorities – whether it be Romani, pejoratively known as gypsies, Muslim asylum seekers or, lately, LGBTQI+ people.

It wasn’t always the case. Hungary led many Western nations – including all Australian states – by decriminalising homosexuality in 1961. Sexuality-based discrimination is outlawed by Hungarian law. Gays are welcome in the military. Civil partnerships became legal in 2009 but in 2012 – under Orban – marriage was defined as between a man and woman for the first time in law.

And in Budapest, a cosmopolitan and progressive city, gay nightlife is much like that of Paris, Barcelona or Berlin, although in recent times Western tourists have been advised to keep overt displays of public affection to a minimum.

In May 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Hungary ended legal recognition of trans people. The following November it amended the constitution to ensure homosexual and trans couples could not adopt children.

Laws were later passed banning the depiction of homosexuality or gender reassignment to minors in school education program and media content.

Tamas Dombos, a board member of the Hatter Society, Hungary’s oldest LGBTQI+ rights organisation, says it was clear the referendum was being used as a distraction by Orban’s government to shore up core support and “reframe” domestic politics.

“As a central theme in the election campaign it is good for them politically,” he says. “With their core electorate, this topic flies well.”

Dombos says despite the government’s narrative, promoted in state-friendly media and on billboards, support for LGBTQI+ communities was actually growing in Hungary. In July last year tens of thousands of people attended Budapest’s Pride Festival march.

Demonstrators march during Budapest’s 2021 Pride Festival.

Demonstrators march during Budapest’s 2021 Pride Festival.Credit:Getty Images

A recent poll by Amnesty International found 73 per cent of Hungarians reject the government’s narrative regarding LGBTQI+ people, putting acceptance at a historic high.

But he says the campaign was “encouraging certain segments of the population to feel entitled to express negative, homophobic views”.

“The number of hate crimes reported to my NGO has increased significantly. We have had some awful stories relayed to us.”

Dombos says recently a lesbian couple kissing in the street were pushed in front of a moving car by a man after he angrily confronted them. Another couple with a rainbow flag in the window of their apartment block had homophobic slogans painted on their door in the middle of the night.

Maria Kristofy, known to her friends as Kymi, is an out-and-proud 72-year-old lesbian. Having been married to a man for 25 years and had three children, she “came out” at 47 and in her 50s joined the volunteers at the Labrisz Lesbian Association.

“The problem for me when I was married was what to do about it. There was no information, nothing, about homosexuality. I’d go to the library to look for novels.

“Now, we see more people out in the open,” she tells The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “But on the other side, the right wing is also more and more aggressive.”

Mária Kristófy came out later in life.

Mária Kristófy came out later in life.

A retired classical singer from Budapest, who for years toured concert halls across Europe with the Hungarian Radio Choir, Kristofy says she knows many “rainbow families” who have left Hungary for Berlin or London because they feel unwelcome in their own country.

The referendum is valid only if more than half of all voters take part and will be successful if more than half of all participants answer “yes” or “no” to the questions.

Kristofy says her group, and others, believe their best chance of frustrating the referendum is to urge people to cast invalid votes – marking both answers for each question.

“I think, for many years, Hungarians want to live in a tolerant society. It was bad under socialism for a long time, but it is now looking like getting just as bad again,” she says.

“It used to be ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ … Now it’s like ‘if you’re not with us, you are the enemy’. And that is not right. Everyone knows someone who is LGBT and this is causing much hurt.”

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