On July 2008, Michael Simmons marched in the tenth annual Budapest gay pride parade, just as he had in previous years. Established in 1998, Hungary’s pride parade is one of the longest established in Central and Eastern Europe, and for the first nine years of its existence it was marked by the festivities – transvestites dancing in flatbed trucks, loud music, colorful floats – familiar to inhabitants of most Western European and American cities. Back then, the conservative and skinhead counter protesters were a joke.
That changed in 2007 when large groups of right-wing thugs attacked the marchers with vegetables, rotten eggs, rocks and bottles. Some people who left the parade were beaten. The police response was inadequate, as they were unprepared for the sudden violence. In 2008, Simmons experienced the same thing, “well-organized and well-orchestrated attacks” by crowds of counter protesters.
“It was four hours of sustained attack and it never let up; there was never a breathing period,” said Simmons, a lifelong human rights activist, who took part in the civil rights movement in the American South and has worked extensively in Eastern Europe since the late 1980s. “Their [faces were so full of] hate. And their children were there. It reminded me of those pictures you see of lynchings, where young men are holding their girlfriends’ hands.”
Although police protection for the marchers improved after the first couple of years, the general situation of Hungary’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has worsened. The extreme right-wing party Jobbik, which is often associated with such hateful attacks, has grown rapidly. (They even have a paramilitary wing.) In 2007, Jobbik could be dismissed as a fringe group with no parliamentary representation. Today, Jobbik is the nation’s third-largest political party, with 47 of 386 seats in the Hungarian Parliament.
The nationalist conservative Fidesz Party, which controls two-thirds of the parliamentary seats and has been widely condemned for authoritarian tendencies, is less overtly discriminatory. But before Fidesz’s 2010 electoral sweep, LGBT rights in Hungary were rapidly progressing. Today, the new Constitution that Fidesz wrote and implemented unilaterally stipulates that marriage must be between a man and a woman. For the last two years, the Fidesz-controlled city government of Budapest has tried to ban the Pride March, citing traffic concerns and the presence of small children on the city streets. In both cases, the ban was challenged by LGBT groups and overturned by the courts.
“We are working in a context of rising extremism, which not only targets the LGBTQ community, but also the Roma and Jewish community,” said Dorottya Karsay, one of the organizers of Budapest Pride. “We’ve seen a number of hate crimes, hate attacks in recent weeks, both in Budapest and in the countryside…. Extremism has been on the rise in the region for the last few years; it definitely has something to do with the crisis.”
In this way, Hungary shares much with its neighbors in the former Soviet bloc. Both extreme right-wing and conservative nationalist parties have been a noticeable presence in the region since the collapse of Communism, but the economic crisis has granted them new strength. The European Union (EU), which requires a human rights baseline from member states, is unpopular, and rising homophobia can be understood in this context. For political actors seeking scapegoats, the LGBT communities – and other marginalized groups, like the Roma and Jews – make tempting targets.
Multiple polls have found that Eastern European attitudes toward “homosexuality” are far worse than those of other members of the EU. An intensive 2011 poll entitled “Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: European Report” found, “Prejudices against homosexuals…. are widespread, especially in Eastern Europe.” Eighty-eight percent of Poles and two-thirds of Hungarians (the two Eastern European nations analyzed) opposed same-sex marriage, while over 75 percent of Poles “find homosexuality immoral” – as do two-thirds of Hungarians.
The recession didn’t spirit these forces into being. The Communist regimes routinely punished or outlawed same-sex desire. Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in Romania was particularly brutal, instituting the notorious Article 200, which criminalized same-sex intercourse. There were still Romanians imprisoned through the 1990s due to Article 200, which wasn’t repealed until 2001 when the nation began the process of applying for EU membership. (Romania has since instituted a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation from the workplace.)
“Police authorities continue to act as if being gay is a crime,” said Iustina Ionescu, a Romanian lawyer who works with the LGBT advocacy group Accept (Romania just had its first pride march in 2006). “In terms of legal recognition of same sex couples, we are very much behind Hungary. We don’t have that or any recognition for same sex rights.”
But it is Russia that is spearheading a new form of legislative homophobia. A wave of disturbing laws has been passed in polities across the country, most recently in Saint Petersburg. These laws fine anyone found to be taking part in “public activities to promote sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transsexuality” that could be observed by minors. The wording of the laws is vague and they are often passed in tandem with similar laws regarding pedophilia. Russia’s Parliament is considering a national version.
Other regional right-wing governments and political parties have copied the idea. This May, the European Parliament condemned a spike in regional homophobia, specifically citing the new Russian laws, their counterparts in the Ukraine and similar legislation introduced in Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia and Hungary.
In Hungary, Jobbik is behind the Russian-style legislation that would ban the positive portrayal of “disorders of sexual behavior – especially sexual relations between members of the same sex.” Fidesz seems leery of such extremes and has expressed no support for the bill. Or as Tamás Dombos, of the Háttér Support Society for LGBT People, puts it, “the government is homophobic, but on a different scale.”
Fidesz’s policies are a regression for a nation that once boasted the region’s most progressive LGBT laws – including a recognition of same-sex domestic partners that dates back to 1996 (these partnerships were granted the same rights as married couples in 2006, except in areas related to children). In 2003, Hungary went above and beyond EU standards by passing an anti-discrimination law that extended beyond the workplace to education, housing and social benefits. Since Fidesz took power, progress has ended and hope for future gains looks bleak.
“[LGBT people] see all these homophobic groups on the streets, they see all these homophobic legislative initiatives and they really feel uncertain about their future,” Dombos said. “People come to our legal aid and ask if they should enter into registered partnership because [they fear] Jobbik [attaining] power and having a list of all the gays.”
Dombos sees hope, for Hungary at least, because of the prominent place LGBT groups have taken in the left-of-center anti-Fidesz opposition. But that will do little in the immediate future. And with the economic crisis looking unlikely to forsake Eastern Europe anytime soon, the forces of reaction won’t be losing momentum in the near future.