Imre Márton (53)’s fear image is a black car. Growing up as a boy in communist Hungary, one day a large black car with angry men in it drove up and took his father. Without saying why and where to. His father spent days in jail for what later turned out to be a false accusation.
“I am now awake again,” says Márton. “The scenario that I am in my own house, with my children and my grandchildren, and they come for me. That the neighbors call the police and tell them that I am showing homosexuality to minors. That I should go to jail.” Goosebumps appear on his tanned arms, while it is 38 degrees in Budapest and we are in a stuffy office. He shakes his head. “I can’t live in such a society again.”
The fact that Martón has children is because he was married to a woman “in a past life.” It wasn’t until he was in his twenties that he discovered that he was attracted to men. “I was traveling abroad for work and saw male bodies in underpants advertisements and thought: that’s what I really want!”
Before that, he didn’t know homosexuality existed. He didn’t know any people who were “out of the closet.” He hadn’t learned about it in school. And that, it seems, is exactly what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian regime wants to get back to. A country where homosexuality only exists behind closed bedroom doors, not in public life.
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A law introduced earlier this month prohibits “gay propaganda” against minors. Packaged in a package of measures promising “strengthening crackdown on pedophile offenders,” it states that films, programs and advertisements targeting children and young people under the age of 18 must not contain “deviation from gender identity, gender reassignment or the promotion or display of homosexuality.”
Information in schools, for example about sexuality, bullying or discrimination, will henceforth become the exclusive domain of government-approved organizations and should steer clear of sexual diversity. “Protection necessary for the physical, mental and moral development of children, and the protection and preservation of the unalterable identity of the child from birth.”
The homophobic and transphobic law has led to fierce reactions internationally. Seventeen EU government leaders condemned the law and Prime Minister Mark Rutte drew far-reaching conclusions before a European summit in Brussels. “Or they are members of the EU and the community of values that goes with it. Or they go out,” he said of Hungary (which has no intention of leaving the European Union, nor can it be expelled). Rutte and King Willem-Alexander are in protest Sunday absent in Budapest at the European Championship match of the Dutch national team against the Czech Republic.
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It took years after his personal discovery before Imre Márton coming out had. He underwent so-called homogeneity therapy, had affairs and contemplated suicide. “Every day when I was in the car and a truck came in the opposite direction, I thought: that’s the only way out.”
He could have been spared much suffering if he had known earlier that there are more scenarios than house-tree-beast. That is why, when he divorced his wife at the age of 40, he joined the volunteer program ‘Get to know LGBT people’. Transgenders, intersex people, gays, lesbians and bisexuals are invited in pairs to visit Hungarian schools to talk about their personal development, their family’s reactions and society. “And that we are happy people,” says Andrea Sztraka (29), another volunteer. It is intended to combat discrimination and especially to show young people who are struggling with their sexuality: you are not alone. That is now banned.
On the wooden table in front of Sztraka and Márton is a booklet for teenagers and their teachers entitled ‘Is it still a taboo?’, with a drawing on the cover of two girls holding hands with fear in their eyes. “Years ago we had a booklet ‘No Longer a Taboo’. It feels like we are going back in time,” says Sztraka. Márton: “We have to publish a new book: ‘It’s a taboo again’.”
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They can laugh about it, but the law and anti-LGBTI rhetoric have real consequences in their lives. Hungary has long been relatively liberal towards sexual minorities in Central Europe, partly because religion plays a much smaller role there than in Poland, for example. For example, in 1993, four years after the shaking off of communism, the first Pride manifestation took place in Budapest. Since 2009 there has been registered partnership for same-sex couples. But in recent years, equal rights have been in decline. For example, last year it was made impossible for transgenders to change their gender in their passports and adoption for same-sex couples was banned.
“During the migration crisis, asylum seekers were made scapegoats by the government. Until that hate campaign, Hungarians were quite open to refugees, but because of the propaganda, that support dropped dramatically. I’m afraid the same thing is happening to LGBT people now. That acceptance in society is declining,” says Sztraka. She learned at university that she could fall in love with women. She already experienced that in 2018 she went “without problems” with her then girlfriend to a family reunion, but in 2019 “we were no longer welcome”.
“The new law is a blow,” says Sztraka. “But it was preceded by years of propaganda.” The Hungarian media, almost all of which are affiliated with Orbán’s Fidesz party, continues to say that the education program is indoctrinating students, that the volunteers are waving their genitals in the classroom and chasing children. Sztraka: “Homosexuality is consciously linked to pedophilia. And who is not there to protect children?”
Orbán relishes the activist and international criticism of the law. In this way he can pretend to his supporters that it is not the LGBTI minority, but himself, and the conservative Hungarians for whom he says he stands, that they are the victims of reprehensible Western liberalism. There is more political motivation behind the timing of the anti-LGBTI campaign. Hungary will hold elections next year and for the first time since Orbán came to power in 2010, the entire opposition has united against him. They are neck-and-neck in polls. But the opposition, from Greens to the far right, is divided on sexual diversity. It is precisely on this theme that Orbán can play the parties off against each other.
He also saw how the moderately popular Polish president Andrzej Duda won elections last year by playing the organ against ‘LGBT ideology’. “Every minute the campaign is on this topic is not about real problems: how our rule of law is being undermined, the relatively high number of Covid deaths in Hungary or the fact that he is building a Chinese university here with our taxpayers’ money,” he said. Sztraka fixed. “He wants to be the savior of the nation by creating non-existent enemies. This time it’s our turn. It is unimportant to the government that young people commit suicide because they do not dare to be themselves, or people move because they can no longer handle it.”
How the new law should be enforced in practice is unclear. The text is deliberately vague. No one knows exactly what propagating homosexuality means. It is probably not intended to punish people, but to deter. Media, schools and citizens are likely to engage in self-censorship to avoid getting into trouble.” She notices it in the reactions of her family. “They don’t mind that I’m a lesbian, but they do mind that I’m coming out and being an activist. The story that we are spreading an ideology instead of just wanting to be ourselves is very catchy.”
Still, at least in her Budapest bubble, Sztraka doesn’t feel unwelcome or unsafe. But Márton is strongly considering leaving the country. “I am really terrified, desperate and depressed about that law. This Hungary is no longer my country.”