The Hungarian state endorses the institution of marriage as a consensual form of a civil union between men and women, while considering families the bases of national prosperity. Families are formed through marriage, or parent-child relationships.
This is Chapter L of the new Hungarian constitution created by the Orbán regime after 2010. Months ago, I quoted this Chapter in a London university classroom during a seminar discussion regarding the representation of minorities across Europe. It is rather unsurprising that most participants were shocked, as most of them were from countries where gay marriage has been around for a while, or gay people can at the least live in some form of a socially-dignified civil union. However, the fact that the teaching assistant from Romania was somewhat blown away – she said something amongst the lines of “I thought my country was as bad as it gets in this regard, but this actually seems worse” – is more note-worthy, as Romanian law does not recognise same sex partnerships in any form.
When one looks at the general typology only, Hungary is not such a bad place for gays in Europe. While marriage is not available for them, the country falls into the second best category, containing countries where forms of partnerships differing from marriage are available. But typologies and standardised generalisations are often misleading, as they are in this case.
A number of European countries do not recognise same-sex relationships legally, but only a few deliberately limit marriage to those of the opposite sex in the constitution. Furthermore, the Hungarian constitution also states that families can only be based on marriage or parent-child relationships, and as gay individuals or couples cannot adopt children, they cannot form families. Same-sex couples can live in a civil partnerships recognized by the state, but there is a clear notion of these being less worthy and non-genuine relationships by the regime. This notion is clearly supported by the fact that when members of the Hungarian LGBTQ+ community were asked about the most pressing concern they face, not being allowed to get married was the most frequent answer.
While the Fidesz regime tacitly accepts the existence of sexual minorities, its members regularly make homophobic remarks and official statements. Their two main arguments against same-sex marriage – the decrease of population and Christian values – are riddled with serious misconceptions, such as a belief that being attracted to the same sex is a matter of choice, or that population growth is related to the rights of sexual minorities (same-sex marriage is legal in five European countries with the highest population-growth rate), or they are simply logical fallacies. Additionally, they present a false affection for conservative social norms amongst voters.
Politically, the rejection of same-sex marriage is highest amongst supporters of the regime: 71%. In general, it is rejected by 56% of all Hungarians. Therefore, from a vote-maximising aspect, it is only logical for the regime to reject it, as their supporters seem to be its strongest opponents, while the Hungarian majority rejects it as well. But the data show that this rejection does not originate from a consequently religious-conservative view of interpersonal relationships. About 80% of Hungarians approve of straight couples being together without marriage, almost 70% believe couples need not be married to have children, and 60% reject the claims that same-sex marriage harms families and influences children negatively – these numbers indicate a normatively less conservative view of society compared to the regime’s claims, thus social homophobia cannot be purely explained by overwhelmingly conservative social views in general. But why are we so homophobic?
While the full answer is rather complex, there are two crucial aspects that should be pointed out. First, it is important to emphasize that homophobia in Hungary was not born under the post-2010 regime. Prior to the democratic transition of 1990, sexual minorities were marginalised and not discussed socially/politically. The governments leading up to 2010 were not actively homophobic in rhetoric or policy, but they were not actively propagating the emancipation of sexual minorities either.
The Budapest Pride parade has been held annually since 1997 with tacit support from governments, and this toleration led to the legalization of registered gay civil partnerships by 2010. The Hungarian society, however, became significantly homophobic in general, as the LGBTQ+ community was something they barely had personal experience with and did not understand, and despite the dedicated work of certain civil organizations, due to the lack of access to significant resources, they were not capable of reaching masses. And the fact that tacit political toleration was replaced with frequent homophobic remarks and a deliberately homophobic constitution after 2010 furthered the social confusion regarding this group.
As for the opposition, Jobbik used to be radically homophobic, encouraging their supporters to violently disrupt the Pride parade. While they de-radicalized in recent years, they still consider homosexuality an unnatural, unhealthy form of mental illness.
The Socialist Party never had a straight-forward policy or even a well formalized opinion on the matter, hence it is not surprising that their supporters are the most polarized regarding this issue.
The green-leftist LMP failed to make an official party statement on the matter in its 9 years of existence. Still, the supporters of gay marriage constitute a majority amongst their supporters, so is the case for supporters of the central-leftist DK.
Marginal oppositional parties Együtt, PM, and MLP, alongside their supporters, are the most pro-emancipation of sexual minorities, and the newly-formed Momentum has also made a statement supporting equality for sexual minorities. However, the 3 parties with popular support worthy of consideration are either openly homophobic or fail to guide their supporters in either way. And in Hungary, especially regarding post-materialistic issues, policy influences people’s ways of thinking, not the other way around.
The fact that the support for legalizing adoption for gay couples is significantly higher than that for marriage (36% vs. 46%) must be connected to this fact: The alleged dangers of same-sex marriage are frequently featured in political discussions and regime statements, whereas the issue of adoption is almost absent from them. It was easy for Orbán’s regime to capitalize on the already existing confusion and fear of the gay community, and amplify this fear even further using half-truths about demographics and traditions. A key element to the success of Orbán’s populism was constructing a base of individuals who believe anything the regime tells them. This is how George Soros became in their minds the devil incarnate, and this is how gay marriage became a national security threat. And this base is large enough in numbers to win elections.
The reason why inadequate policy and political rhetoric are successful is the lack of personal experience: about ¾ of Hungarians have no personal connections to the LGBTQ+ community and thus have serious misconceptions about its members. Hence, an average Hungarian can easily believe that gay people want to harass straight people, turn them gay, and practice public oral sex whenever possible – and this brings us to the importance of the Budapest Pride Parade.
In places like Budapest, a gay parade means more and must aim to be more than only a cheerful celebration. On the one hand, it is a form of protest: it shows the regime that the LGBTQ+ community and its supporters are not a marginal group that can be overlooked, thus strengthening the demand for equal rights by presenting a significant mass of people. This protest element should make it pivotal for supporters to actually show up and participate, even if they dislike parades in general. But even more importantly, the pride parade familiarizes other members of the Hungarian society with the LGBTQ+ community; they can finally have a personal experience, deconstructing their misconceptions and fears.
When I attended my first Budapest Pride parade and noticed the police force and barricades bordering the parade’s path all the way to its end, I thought that its aim is to keep the gay people inside the route. Soon I realized that the cordons and closed-down paralleling streets meant that no one else was getting in, and thus our message was not getting through to others either. As they failed to keep the LGBTQ+ confined within four walls, they brought the walls to us, making sure the public remains as uninformed as possible.
Surely, participants of the parade are to be protected from violent intruders, but the police is capable of doing so with actual police officers. The complete isolation of the parade from the city it is held in is unjustified. This year, the organizers declared they will not march between the walls, and if the police set up full barricades, the participants themselves will take them down, even entertaining the possibility of a complete cancellation of the event should the police insist on the constraints. We can only hope we are going to be able to have a march sufficiently protected, but also one capable of reaching out to people from outside of the immediate circle of the group. To deconstruct mental barricades after the physical ones.
All empirical data used in the article regarding the LGBTQ+ community in Hungary has been taken from a country-wide representative survey conducted by Závecz Research in October 2016 and comissioned by Budapest Pride and Integrity Lab