Linking sexual diversity to otherness is an old phenomenon 

Bence Bari interviews Tamás Dombos, the representative of the Hungarian LGBTQI organization ‘Háttér Society’ concerning the recently adopted Hungarian anti-LGBT measures, their transnational and historical background with respect to the global dynamics of acceptance, and homophobia in the West and other parts of the world.

Bence Bari: We will first talk about the recent and quite infamous Hungarian law that is locally known either as the ‘Child Protection Act’, the ‘Anti-Pedophile Law’ or the ‘Homophobic Law’ according to its various interpretations, and which became often referred to in international media as the ‘Hungarian Anti-LGBT Law’. 

Then, we will discuss not only the local importance and context of both the law and the surrounding discourse, but also its transnational implications and connections. Thus, we will talk about the historical precedents and the contemporary parallels of the law and the surrounding discourse, both in the Eastern and Western hemisphere. 

I think the first main question to be discussed and to clarify would be: what are the exact measures and what is the local context of the Hungarian law in question?

Tamás Dombos: This is a recently adopted and entered-into-force law. It was debated and adopted in the Hungarian Parliament in June 2021, and entered into force a few days later. It is originally meant to be an anti-pedophilia law. Following years of discussions about how to strengthen the Hungarian protection of children from pedophilia, the original aim of the law was to increase criminal sanctions, create a register of sex offenders, and it did not have any anti-LGBTQI content. 

However, just a few days before the final vote, when already all the committed discussions had taken place, really last moment, the governing parties introduced new provisions into the law that have a clearly homophobic and transphobic language. 

The law access forbids of minors to any content that portrays or “promotes” homosexuality, transgender identities, or gender affirming. It has very broad provisions in the Family Protection Act and the Child Protection Act, ‘broad provisions’ meaning that basically everyone in Hungary has to abide by the law. Even parents cannot provide access to such content to their children.

It also contains more specific provisions regarding media, schools, and companies’ commercial advertisement. When it comes to media, all content that features LGBTQI-persons or this topic can only be shown after 10 o’clock in the evening. So, this will basically mean that no discussion of the topic should take place in prime-time television. Commercial advertisements that feature homosexuality or transgender identities cannot be shown to people under the age of 18, which, looking into how advertising is done, a billboard poster cannot be restricted to under 18 or above 18. In practice, this would mean a ban on LGBTQI-featuring advertisement. 

In schools, it makes it impossible for NGOs and experts to be invited to schools to talk about questions of sexuality unless they receive a special license from a state body. It’s still not clear what state body will do this. Of course, most likely the organizations that would have favorable or objective information about sexual or gender minorities would never get such a license. Basically, it means that educational programs that have been happening in Hungary for the past 20 years which introduce school kids (usually teens between the age of 14 and 18) to these topics will no longer be able to operate. 

Furthermore, there have already been a few implementing legislations that have been published, the first one covering commercial activities. It says that within 200 meters of schools, churches and youth organizations, such content, books, or films cannot be sold. If they are sold, they must be sold, no matter where, in a special packaging separate from all the other publications. This basically means a stigmatization of any content –  whether in the form of print, online, or audio visual, it cannot be made accessible to people under the age of 18.

Which means that this law actually regulates a very broad spectrum of public life.

Exactly. There are basically three major problems with the law. The first one is, any law that picks on one minority and targets only that minority is a problematic law. This is a clearly a stigmatizing law that says that homosexuality or transgender identities are dangerous for children and should not be discussed and it has an overall stigmatizing and chilling effect on public discussions on LGBTQI issues. 

The second is the specific harm it has on minors. Of course, there is always a discussion about how to talk about issues of sexuality with anyone, but specifically with minors. We are of the opinion that at every age these issues have to be discussed. Of course, always in an age-appropriate way. This doesn’t mean that children in kindergarten should be shown pornographic imagery. That’s not what we’re talking about. 

But there is a way to talk about questions covering sexual and gender minorities in age-appropriate ways, and this law makes this impossible.

It makes access to any content, even content that is meant for the protection of children to be inaccessible. 

For example, we know that many LGBTQI youth have questions and problems with their own self-acceptance. They don’t know what’s happening to them, they don’t know who they are. They feel that they are alone in the world with feeling the way they feel. They very often face depression, even self-harm and suicide. Of course, people under the age of 18 also enter into sexual engagements with other people. It’s not like you turn 18 and then you start having sex. Safer sex practices and information on that would be crucial for these people as well. So, from all of this, really vital information will no longer be accessible to minors, and it will really undermine their physical and mental health.

Finally, the law has, and unfortunately we’ve seen this happening in the past few weeks, encouraged homophobia and transphobia in the country. We’ve seen that the law entitles or encourages people, who probably had homophobic and transphobic views before but they were silent about it, or even if they voiced it at least they were not violent about it… unfortunately, we’ve seen in the past few weeks an increase in homophobic hate speech and hate incidents, meaning also physical abuse. We’ve seen same-sex couples tackled on the street and pushed around. We’ve heard of people who had the rainbow flag in their window and then people try to force entry into their homes. We’ve heard of people assaulted on public transportation. I’m not saying that these incidents never took place before, but clearly there is an increase in the number of such incidents. 

We can surely say that the law impacted Hungarian public life and of course legislation in a huge way. But as you mentioned before, and which actually creates controversy itself, this was a last-minute modification to the plans of an anti-pedophile law in Hungary, which I think brings up the good question: did this come out of the blue? How has the Orbán government related it to the local LGBT-community, and what kind of themes has the government media emphasized when it comes to this whole issue?

I don’t think it came out of the blue, actually for the past 11 years we’ve seen incidents of government homophobia and transphobia. Those following Hungarian political development since the 2010s, a few weeks after the Hungarian government came into power, can remember that they said they’re going to introduce a new constitution, a new fundamental law. It became very clear that they wanted to introduce a ban on same-sex marriage in the constitution and that happened. The constitution that has been enforced in Hungary since 2012 defines marriage as a union between a woman and a man. 

Also later on, there was a so-called “Family Protection Act” which was adopted by the Parliament that included an exclusionary definition of family. Now, the Constitutional Court at the time found that is unconstitutionally exclusionary. But instead of respecting the decision of the constitutional court, the Hungarian Parliament then adopted another amendment to the new constitution defining not only marriage but also family in an exclusionary way.

So, this has been really with us since the beginning of the 2010s and even before: in opposition, Fidesz was always voting against any kind of positive developments, whether it was about equal treatment legislation, hate crime legislation, or the introduction of registered partnership for same sex couples. These were all major pieces of LGBTQI-legislation adopted in the period 2002-10 when the country was governed by socialist-liberal and then a socialist-only government. 

Fidesz always has had a track record of not being LGBTQI-friendly, but what happened in the past two years is a concentrated and very strategic building-up of a campaign against LGBTQI people. It started with the house speaker, Mr. Kövér, saying that same-sex couples raising children are like pedophiles because they only care about their own well-being and they don’t care about the children. He also said a normal homosexual understands that they are second-class citizens and doesn’t want to do anything about it. That was a very important Hungarian politician using language that, even with the homophobia and transphobia of Fidesz, was uncommon. This kind of linking homosexuality to pedophilia, saying “second-class citizens”,  this was not part of the vocabulary of Fidesz up until 2019. 

After the speech, we’ve seen an extreme increase in anti-LGBTQI content in the public media and also in pro-government commercial media. In Hungary, a wide section of supposedly independent and private media is actually controlled by pro-government businesspeople who bought this media with government loans. So, even though legally speaking it’s independent media, in practice it’s very government micro-managed media, not just the public but also this commercial media. 

We’ve seen reporting especially about developments in Western countries around LGBTQI issues, and really this kind of fearmongering about how a transgender person was allowed to go to schools or how a person changed their gender 100 times in two years. These kind of scandalous stories have been published week after week, and slowly we saw that this kind of government-initiated propaganda is taken over more and more by mainstream politicians as well. Then they started adopting legislation that is in line with this. 

First, they started with transgender people. In the spring of 2020, legal gender recognition for trans people was banned. While before it was possible for a transgender person to have their documents changed to reflect their gender identity, so their name and gender marker was changed, that is no longer possible for trans or intersex people in Hungary since 2020. Then there was a restriction on adoption introduced. It was never possible for a same-sex couple to adopt as a couple, but it was possible for a person living in a same-sex relationship to adopt individually. Even though that’s not completely outlawed now, you need to get special permission from a politician (the Family Affairs Minister, Katalin Novák) who made it very clear that she will not authorize any such adoption. In practice, a ban on adoption by same-sex couples or anyone living in same-sex relationships.

We’ve also seen the abolishment of the Equal Treatment Authority, which was the Hungarian equality body that focused on discrimination against minorities. The role of the Equal Treatment Authority has been taken over by the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, a person that is appointed by the Parliament and is clearly loyal to whatever the government is saying, as opposed to being an independent body, to the level that it’s no longer accredited as an independent Ombudsperson according to the International Organization of Human Rights Institutions. So, it’s not just us who’s saying it’s no longer independent, but it is widely acknowledged that the commissioner is no longer an independent public body. The office should be responsible for enforcing non-discrimination, human rights, and fundamental rights of LGBTQ people as well, and unfortunately that’s not happening. 

Finally there was also an amendment to the Fundamental Law introducing two provisions – one says that the father is male and the mother is female. A lot of people are asking what exactly it means, and no one knows. Strictly speaking, it might be read as a transphobic provision about biological men who might be legally female, and thus it’s a question whether they’re a mother or a father. There probably have been five cases in the world where that issue arose, but apparently the Hungarian government thinks that such a crucial issue that it has to be declared in the Constitution. Or maybe also a broader interpretation is that this means family consists only of modern father and thus it somehow could be interpreted to relate into same-sex households or same-sex families. That’s not clear. 

There was another provision added into the Fundamental Law that says children have the right to be raised according to Christian values and according to the gender identity in line with their sex at birth. Basically, a ban on raising a child to be transgender, although I don’t think any parent or any teacher is primarily planning to do that, but there is such a provision there again in the Fundamental Law. This is where we were last December, in late Spring when the propaganda law or the homophobic law was finally adopted.

So, this is basically a political campaign that, according to you, has intensified in the last two years, right?

Exactly, very clearly. I think this is the modus operandi, the working logic, of the Hungarian government for the past 11 years. They find an enemy or social group or social actor, and they build a communication campaign around this group that it’s really harmful or dangerous, but then they say the Hungarian government will protect you from this imminent enemy. 

That enemy has been homeless people, utility companies, banks, Brussels, George Soros, most importantly of course, migrants for the past four or five years. I think the anti-migrant campaign was no longer working very well. I think Hungarians didn’t care about it that much. It was just so saturated, and the public discussions around migration no longer worked. So, the Hungarian government needed a new enemy that they could play with and  fight, and unfortunately LGBTQI people became that enemy.

There were also two other political reasons why this is useful for the Hungarian government. One is that we are less than one year before the general elections scheduled for next spring in Hungary. For the first time in 12 years, we’re going to have an election when there will be a clear governing party against a coalition of all the opposition parties, meaning also Jobbik. 

Jobbik used to be an extreme right-wing party with very homophobic and transphobic views. They organized violently against pride marches about a decade ago. So of course, by putting LGBTQ issues on the political agenda, it’s really easy to split the opposition parties. 

Because Jobbik wants to have some kind of consistency with their core voters, this means they would have homophobic, or at least a moderate, point of view, while most of the other opposition parties are now favoring full equality of LGBTQI people. So of course, putting this issue on the agenda splits the opposition parties and it might even explode the coalition.

I think there was also a consideration that it was very known that the European Commission, so EU institutions, would likely be employing sanctions against Hungary in the coming months and years because of Rule of Law violations, systematic corruption, lack of media plurality, lack of independent institutions, etc. Those kinds of criticisms have been coming from the EU, and the Hungarian government knew that if they put such a proposal on the agenda which clearly violates not only international human rights norms but EU laws as well, the commission would not let this go. And it’s true, the Commission has started infringement procedure against the country for these laws. Very quick infringement as opposed to what’s been happening before. 

Of course, the government is now using this to say that “the European Commission is threatening to hold funds from Hungary because we are not letting LGBTQI activists to go to our kindergartens and brainwash our children!” So, opposed to speaking about more difficult topics such as Rule of Law and judicial independence, they can just say, “the EU is punishing us because we are saying no to LGBTQ propaganda.” It also gives the possibility for the Hungarian government to reframe politically its relationship with the EU and to undermine the still quite high credibility of EU institutions in Hungary, which it seems like the government is trying to do. It’s trying to have a campaign against the EU and this anti-LGBTQI campaign is partly an anti-EU campaign as well.

It sounds like the government is posing itself as if it represents a nationally-exceptionalist discourse: that “we” have the native values of the Hungarian nation under protection against external threats. That the “LGBT ideology” as they would put it, that is backed up by the EU as a foreign empire, that would like impose its will upon Hungary. I think this brings up the question of whether this is an exceptional case, whether this is a Hungarian invention by the government and its media, or whether there are transnational parallels and legal precedents to the Hungarian anti-LGBT law and its discourse. 

I don’t think it’s specific to Hungary. Of course, there are always national specificities. I just read a book that started with a quote saying that we need to protect our society from the foreign homosexual imposition – and this was a quote from the 19th century in the UK. 

Linking sexual diversity to otherness is actually a political trope that has been with us since the beginning of modernity and since public discussions about homosexuality started.

It has been there in Eastern Europe as well, starting most importantly with Russia that has for over a decade now opposed homosexuality, opting for a “traditional family values framework” in various United Nations declarations that have been posed or crafted by Russia, a coalition of like-minded countries having this debate in the UN between Western and non-Western powers.

We’ve seen in Russia the adoption of a propaganda law quite similar to the Hungarian one. Legally speaking, it’s a bit different. The Hungarian law not only talks about promotion but also portrayal of homosexuality. The Russian law in that sense is more restricted, and the Hungarian one is broader in its censorship. But the Russian law has very clear sanctions – administrative, not criminal, but still sanctions. The Hungarian law doesn’t have direct sanctions coming with it, although some general sanctions in the media law or in commercial activities might be at play, but there are no direct sanctions specifically on violating these provisions. So, the Russian law is in one way worse than the Hungarian one, in other ways it’s not as bad as the Hungarian one. 

We’ve also seen similar campaigns against LGBTQI people pop up in other countries. We’ve seen referendums on same-sex marriage and registered partnership taking place in Slovenia and Croatia in recent years, a failed referendum in Romania about the inclusion of a heterosexual definition of marriage and family in the constitution… This issue has been used by Eastern European politicians to mobilize the electorate, usually in times when they have some other political problems and they want to divert attention away. It seems to work very well to re-thematize the political discussions – to put this agenda and then it can take attention away from what’s happening in the country otherwise.

I think it’s interesting to see the pattern in Hungary as well. We had the first cycle of the COVID crisis in Hungary. The day after the state of danger was declared by the parliament, the banning of legal gender recognition was introduced. Then, the second cycle of COVID came and, on the same day as the state of danger was adopted by the parliament, the amendment to the “Propaganda Law” was proposed. Finally, two days after the Pegasus scandal around the use of spyware against journalists and businesspeople in Hungary hit the Hungarian media, a referendum was called on this clause. 

Maybe once it’s coincidence, but when it’s so systematically happening, this is really about how to reframe and re-thematize public discussions around an issue where the Hungarian government thinks they have the majority, whether that’s right or not, it’s more debatable. 

There have been some recent public opinion polls that actually show that Hungarian society is quite split. With the specific questions that the government is putting on the agenda, they have the majority, but if asked a bit differently, more broadly, and looking into their implications, then actually the Hungarian majority is not as homophobic as our government is, but it’s true that the core electorate of the governing parties is way more homophobic than the average Hungarian society as well. 

So, with their core supporters, these political moves they make seem to work, and of course that’s what they need to do. They need to mobilize their own voters next year when it comes to elections.

Can they mobilize new layers of society?

That’s a good question. It seems like there is still quite a large, though ever-increasingly-small, number of people that are undecided on these questions, that don’t have a strong opinion about it. There was an analysis actually that shows that there is a large chunk of undecided voters. They used to be extremist voters and currently are with Fidesz, but they are not committed Fidesz voters, who are very homophobic. Then, it might make those people stick even when there are economic problems, etc., which easily splits them from Fidesz. But if there is a strong ideological connection with Fidesz then they might stick around. So maybe it relates to that. I don’t think it’s bringing in new people that are currently not voting for Fidesz, but it might keep the camp together, so to say.

On the other hand, many point out that the homophobic discourse in various countries, in the form of colonies, for example, has a Western influence on them. They adopted the Western scientific discourse in the 19th century, colonial laws imposed homophobia in a new way, unknown before to these societies. Then, you come to the Russian law that you mentioned, many mention that it is directly influenced by the so-called “Section 28”, introduced by the government of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain in 1988. So, can we also trace not only opposition between West and East, but also a dynamic of transferring such ideas from one hemisphere to another?

Very clearly. I think if we look at it in a historic perspective, then European culture, Judeo-Christian culture, or Judeo-Christian-inspired Western culture was not safe haven for sexual and gender minorities, the exact opposite. Historically speaking, Judaism and Christianity were very strongly opposing homosexuality. Of course, the text in the Bible can be recited. For many hundreds of years, homosexuality or same-sex sexual relations were persecuted in Europe, while many regions that we currently label as homophobic or transphobic, specifically Arab countries, had thriving same-sex desire if you look at literature or just any assessment of social toleration. There are dozens of European travelers who describe how surprised they were by how relaxed these societies were about sexual relations, especially between men.

Historically speaking, Europe was not the pioneer in LGBTQI rights. Even within Europe, it’s not like Western Europe was the source of gay liberation in the beginning. The first movement that started in Europe against the punishment or persecution of homosexuality, was of course the French Revolution.

Then as an organized movement it was Germany with very strong links to early Hungarian gay pioneers. So, for example, many people might not know that the word “homosexual,” which was a creation of the 19th century in order to come up with a neutral term as opposed to “sodomy” or “paederasty” or those religiously inspired and very degrading terms, was introduced first in the German language by a Hungarian poet and social reformer. So, even Hungary played an important role in those very early homosexual or homophile movements.

If we look at the United States, very often perceived to be the haven of gay liberation, in some states up until 2003 homosexuality was a criminal offense. It was only a decision by the American Supreme Court in 2003 that declared that homosexuality under the US Constitution cannot be persecuted criminally, or that it’s a part of private life and it should not be governed by criminal law. And that’s 2003. In many Eastern European countries it happened in the ’50-’60s. So again, these dynamics that we see currently, historically speaking, were not there.

And as you were right to point out, in the 1980s, related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a lot of prejudices around that, they prompted the United Kingdom conservative government of Margaret Thatcher to have a similar anti-homosexuality campaign that resulted in the adoption of Section 28 that banned any use of public money for promoting homosexuality and having discussions on these issues in school. So yes, the Russian propaganda law is inspired by Section 28, either directly or indirectly. It is very important to not pretend that these historical developments were not there and never to disregard the fact that Europe played a role in not only positively shaping attitudes towards LGBTQ people, but also more historically, also negatively around the World. 

I think it’s the discussion and if someone looks at recent literature in transnational relations, international relations, transnational movements etc., there’s this idea of homo nationalism, which is basically using the positive acceptance of homosexuality and LGBTQI people as a marker of civilization and saying, “oh, we are the civilized West as opposed to all those countries that are uncivilized, they’re barbaric and they kill and penalized their sexual and gender minority”. This discourse is very strong. Many people say now that historically, it was the situation of women that was used like that. That “in the West, women have been liberated and all those barbaric countries, they still oppress their women.”

Increasingly, it is LGBTQI people in UN documents and many of these intergovernmental organizations. I don’t think that we need to say that means this topic should not be discussed. That’s not what we’re saying, but 

when all these Western powers are criticizing non-Western countries about their approach to sexuality and LGBTQI people, we should always be a bit more critical and say, what is exactly happening here? Is it not about portraying themselves as a somehow morally superior, more civilized country and then misusing or abusing the situation of LGBTQI people to create that image of themselves as civilized and moral?

I think these are very important observations for the whole discourse but you mentioned that in the era of the Margaret Thatcher government, basically, the anti-LGBT discourse in Great Britain was of course influenced by the “AIDS pandemic” as they would put it, but it was also centered around the perceived rights and health of children. The same would repeat in Russia and in Hungary afterwards. I find it interesting that these discourses go in parallel to local discourses of immigration and the threat to the nation in this sense. Is this discourse necessarily related? Can we trace parallels between the racist or anti-immigration discourse and the homophobic discourse in these cases?

For some people, it was very surprising when in the early 2000s Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, a gay, right-wing politician, was very pro-gay but very anti-migration. That was a very strange mixture for many people in Hungary and around the world, because of course, historically we think about right-wing authoritarian people as against all the minorities, including sexual and gender minorities, women, religious minorities and migrants. Then, there are all those left-wing or liberal parties that support all these people. 

And, at least in Hungary, but I think I’ve seen it in a few other countries as well, the argument goes that all those Western countries need the migrants because they are in a demographic crisis, because not enough children are born. And not enough children are born because homosexuality is promoted and accepted. So, the Hungarian government is partly saying that “we will not need the migrants, because we support traditional family values, so we will have a lot of children. We don’t support homosexuality, we will have a lot of children, so we will not need migration.” So, this is another way of how the migration and the LGBTQI issue is linked. Of course, in yet another discourse, and we’ve seen this increasingly even in Hungary as well, this argument that you cannot represent a point of view that promotes the rights of sexual minorities as well as migrants, because those are fundamentally opposing and “migrants” are murdering sexual and gender minorities in Western Europe. This discourse is present in Western Europe, but also increasingly in Eastern European countries, I think, when politicians recognize that the social attitudes towards LGBTQI people have changed and they try to change their discourse a bit. 

It’s really interesting to see, actually, in speeches by Orbán who very often talks about traditional family values and how we think marriage is important and that we don’t believe in equality of LGBTQI people, etc. Then a few days later when he talks about something else, he says, “we don’t want migrants, because we don’t want to import sexism and homophobia.” We have quite a lot of sexism and homophobia already, yes, Prime Minister… 

According to my knowledge, this whole emphasis on family as a value, as opposed especially to other “corrupting influences”, is an American Evangelical slogan. Can this be traced somehow to the often-cited influence of the American alt-right or Evangelical discourse on what Orbán and the government party has to say in Hungary?

It is very clearly traceable that the Russian traditional family values, frames and organizations, and United States fundamentalist evangelical movements are very strongly linked. They go to meetings. There are these major international events, the World Congress of Families, for example, where Russian geopolitical games and the American religious games somehow meet. We’ve seen that a lot of money is put into homophobic and transphobic campaigns or anti-LGBTQI campaigns by American conservative religious groups. 

Christianity does have that kind of view that we can spread the religion, and it’s important to spread these kinds of views everywhere. But it also is explained partly by them losing ground at home. I mean, it’s just very difficult in the US to mobilize and to spend the money, because they lost the public opinion in the US. So, they moved to Eastern Europe, they moved to African countries. A few years ago, there was a major debate about Uganda. It was a country that was always criminalizing homosexuality, but they wanted to make the legislation stricter and in some cases would penalize homosexuality with the death penalty. By now, it’s clearly traced that the whole government campaign was financed by a few major American religious donors and they helped with money as well as with campaigning techniques. So again, the “clear” East-West dynamic, that “the West is perfect and the non-West, or the South, is just homophobic and transphobic” is a much more complicated picture with different actors in different countries playing their political games with this group.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos

Contact Us