Voices of Hope: Hungarian Activists Fighting for LGBTQI+ Rights
Meet Zsolt Virág and Eszter Mihály - two passionate human rights activists from Hungary who are fighting for LGBTQI+ rights in their country. Their dedication to the cause has led them to attend a programme in the Netherlands where they connected with fellow activists, shared stories and strategies in the pursuit of progress. In this interview, they share their insights and experiences, offering a glimpse into the ongoing struggle for equality and acceptance in Hungary.
Hungary's law adopted in 2021 restricting access to information and media about LGBTQI+ topics for individuals under 18, also known as the propaganda law, has sparked outrage and concern both within and outside the country. The European Commission has initiated an infringement procedure against Hungary, citing potential violations of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and EU values, that has led to an EU Court case against Hungary.
According to Eszter, this is not a new issue for Hungary. "Following the amendment of the Fundamental Law in 2013, which restricted marriage to heterosexual couples, Hungary has been slowly moving towards homophobic and transphobic law making with an all-time low in 2020, when amendments to the Registry Procedure Law made legal gender recognition impossible.’’
Zsolt is the leader of Szimpozion Association. His organization has been working since 2002 to support LGBTQI+ people in Hungary on their journey of self-acceptance. One of the ways they reach out to the broader community is through their high school visiting programme called ‘Getting to know LGBT-people', which provides interactive workshops led by scientists, sociologists, and psychologists. The propaganda law denied them the opportunity to visit schools, something they have done for over 20 years.
The amendments state that only registered organizations or persons can hold lectures about sexual orientation and sexual development in educational institutions. The propaganda law also authorized the minister responsible for education to lay down the detailed conditions for registration in compliance with the law. According to Eszter, the minister did not fulfil this responsibility, so organizations are unable to register and educate in schools about LGBTQI+ rights.
Eszter highlighted the impact of the anti-LGBTIQ propaganda law on educational programmes by organizations such as Amnesty International, which can no longer be given in public schools. "Although our education programmes are still available, this law has had a significant impact on our ability to educate and support the LGBTQI+ community in Hungary," she says.
Explaining how the community is viewed in Hungary, Eszter highlights that "Most of the anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment is promoted by the government and some far-right hate groups feel the validation to act out, therefore we definitely notice a spike in hate speech and hate crimes."
Last year, a referendum was held, intended to validate anti-LGBTQI+ legislation. However, Amnesty International Hungary, along with 9 other human rights groups, called for citizens to give invalid answers to the referendum. "As a result, the referendum was declared invalid as more than 1,7 million Hungarians cast invalid votes to reject the government’s manipulative and fear-mongering referendum. “The message is clear: the government’s stance on LGBTIQ+ rights is the government’s alone and it draws no support from our society."
Additionally, it's worth noting that 72% of the population believes that transgender people should be able to change their name and gender, based on a representative public opinion survey conducted by Median on behalf of Háttér Society. Despite this, new legislation targeting LGBTQI+ rights is being developed and is expected to be introduced in September, says Zsolt.
Reversing Anti-LGBTIQ Laws
In the ongoing struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary, one of the burning questions is whether the discriminatory laws can be reversed. Zsolt shares his perspective: "Theoretically, the laws can be reversed, but I do not see that happening anytime soon. It is not only a political issue but also a legal issue, as the Hungarian constitutional court is very hesitant to step up lately.’’
Eszter, who works for Amnesty, an organization that has been actively advocating for an infringement procedure against Hungary, agrees, "Unfortunately, I am not very hopeful about that. For this reason, we have turned our attention towards international pressure. Also, the implementation of sanctions such as taking away funds can help. It is about connecting consequences to these actions that go against human rights. I view international pressure as one of the few remaining ways to fight back."
Challenges and Setbacks
NGOs in Hungary frequently work together, but they face challenges due to their reliance on volunteers and insufficient funding, according to Zsolt. Working with politicians can also be difficult, but Eszter notes that last year a parliamentary group called 'For a Diverse Hungary' attempted to take action. "Although they do not have a lot of power, at least they are trying," she adds.
In addition to political obstacles, the Hungarian government's control over the media is a significant challenge for NGOs. "The propaganda law also made it impossible for us to advertise the annual Budapest Pride March," says Zsolt. He points out that homosexuality is now banned from television, which is a major setback for the representation of the LGBTQ+ community.
Human Rights Programme
As part of a programme initiated by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, human rights activists Eszter and Zsolt traveled to the Netherlands to learn more about the LGBTQI+ rights movement. For Eszter, who is relatively new to activism, the experience was transformative. "This programme really helped me to learn more about the field and find new ways to stand up for minorities," she explains. "It also contributed to my network as I got a chance to meet my peers.’’
For Zsolt, who has been involved in activism for some time, the experience in the Netherlands provided new insights and inspiration for their ongoing work in Hungary. "Although changes in the political field are next to impossible, we still hold hope within the community," he says. "Being here in the Netherlands gives us new ideas on how to go the extra mile. We would like to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Among the attendees of the human rights programme in the Netherlands, there are human rights activists from neighboring countries as well. Eszter reveals: ‘’We had thorough discussions with them about the situation in their countries and what they are going through. According to them, whom I now can call friends, they experience very similar trends in their countries."
Zsolt adds that even neighboring countries like Slovakia and Romania are taking cues from Hungary's anti-LGBTQI+ legislation. "The Slovakians said that their government learns from ours. Also, Romania initiated anti-LGBTQI+ legislation similar to our not too long ago. So Hungary gives them a bad example and inspires them in a very bad way," he shared.
In the ongoing fight for LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary, hope is a powerful tool for Eszter Mihály and Zsolt Virág. Despite the challenges they face, they both maintain a sense of optimism and determination to make a change. For Eszter, recent victories have shown that progress is possible when people come together and organize. "It is going to take time," she says, "but we know what we are fighting for which is future generations in Hungary grow up in a society of equality and respect."
Zsolt has seen the devastating effects of discrimination firsthand, including the loss of friends and the tragic suicides of young people. "We have the responsibility to save them," he says. "Every human life is important. Every human deserves to live a happy life."
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