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“They say we’re the blight of the nation”: LGBTQ activists fear the worst in Slovakia and Hungary

Bratislava, Budapest – Though spring saw the coronavirus outbreak’s epicentre slowly drift from continental Europe toward the Americas, public attention in countries emerging from lockdowns remained firmly fixed on the jittery curve charting the infection’s spread. lgbtq hungary

Leaders in central Europe were eager to exploit the momentous distraction served up by the virus. With Poland’s looming presidential election grabbing most headlines, Hungary and Slovakia cashed in on the opportunity to quietly launch an assault on the rights and humanity of their sexual minorities, some observers claim.

Amid the virus-induced uncertainty, LGBTQ communities in the heart of Europe were left in a state of precarious limbo, their voices muzzled and identities deprived.

Burning identities

In Hungary, the establishment spearheaded by Prime Minister Viktor Orban pressed forward with a bill in mid-May that makes it impossible to legally change one’s gender throughout the course of their life.

“Sex at birth”, a strict choice between the categories of “male” and “female”, will be recorded cast-iron in the official civil registry and appear on all identification documents, such as passports and driving licences. The new law does not recognise any other gender category and forbids the use of gender neutral names.

The mental toll on trans, non-binary and intersex people will be unfathomable, experts suggest. “The everyday lives of these people will be profoundly affected,” Aron Demeter, program director at Amnesty Hungary, tells Kafkadesk. “They will have to explain everywhere they go why they ‘look’ different to the sex ascribed to them on their ID cards,” Demeter adds. lgbtq hungary

Shortly after the bill was signed into law by Hungarian president Janos Ader, a number of trans activists burned their birth certificates at a square in central Budapest to oppose what Remy Bonny, a political scientist and activist who monitors LGBTQ rights in Central and Eastern Europe, calls “an immense human rights violation” that “bans legal recognition of trans and intersex people.”

“And it could get even worse,” Bonny told Kafkadesk, “with the government setting its eyes on an ‘anti-propaganda law’ that we now see in Lithuania.”

The Baltic country’s piece of legislation was passed in 2015 and purportedly intended “to protect family values”. In reality, it discriminates against the LGBTQ community by repressing events that could “offend public morality”, such as Pride marches and other “equality festivals”, according to a report by ILGA-Europe, an NGO advocating equality for sexual minorities.

A similar provision could “destroy the visibility of the LGBTQ community in Hungary,” Bonny explains. The political scientist warns that a legal rescue mission led by EU institutions is unlikely. The European Commission reportedly refused to take action against the controversial Lithuanian law, leaving it untouched to this day. lgbtq hungary

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Hungarian rights organizations have warned that the situation of the LGBT community is quickly deteriorating in the Central European country.

The ombudsman’s reckoning

Although the Hungarian prohibition of gender legal recognition received some scolding from Brussels, with several MEPs expressing their concern on the back of European Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic’s statement of her “regret” over a “blow to trans people’s human dignity”, the international criticism was not as pronounced as it should have been, Bonny claims.

“Most embassies in Hungary didn’t even take notice, because they were too busy dealing with the pandemic,” the activist adds.

In a written statement to the European Parliament, the Hungarian government maintained that the new law“ does not affect men’s and women’s right to freely experience and exercise their identities as they wish.“

“In no way does the relevant section of the bill that some people criticise prevent any person from exercising their fundamental rights arising from their human dignity or from living according to their identity,” the statement concluded.

Although these government-sponsored words seem to have appeased the carping from abroad, they had the opposite effect on civil society at home.

Amnesty Hungary has launched a letter campaign that by late June saw more than 12,000 Hungarians and 25,000 people from abroad petition the ombudsman, known as the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, to send the new law to the Constitutional court for review. lgbtq hungary

Though some observers have questioned Commissioner Akos Kozma’s independence,  Amnesty’s Aron Demeter sees the mass petition as an opportunity for the ombudsman’s office to prove its worth.

“The law is clearly unconstitutional, and the ombudsman must see that. He has remained silent in the past when he said he did not receive any complaints. Well now he will have plenty of those to choose from,” Demeter says.

Amnesty Hungary is confident that three previous judgements of the Constitutional court, the latest of which confirmed in 2018 that gender and name change are basic human rights of trans people, will be enough to convince the Commissioner to challenge the new legislation.

But LGBTQ rights group Hatter Society fears the new bill could be expanded to people who had already went through gender change sanctioned by the old law. The organisation has already received calls from trans people mulling over leaving the country, or even suicide, board member Tamas Dombos told CNN.

“I don’t think the LGBTQ community in Hungary wants to kill itself,” activist Bonny says, “but they are feeling trapped. Civil society in Hungary is dead.”

Since coming to power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor has embarked on a crusade to dismantle independent institutions and root out the system of checks and balances in the country. His chipping away at the judicial system, civic organisations and the media has led commentators to describe the ensuing state of affairs in Hungary as a “hybrid regime between a democracy and a dictatorship.” lgbtq hungary

As long as Orban remains in power, Bonny asserts, LGBTQ Hungarians will continue to suffer. “I don’t see much room for improvement, not until Orban is overthrown. And that’s close to impossible at the moment.”

Too many human rights

Just across the river Danube in Slovakia, a more subtle charge against the local LGBTQ community flew under the radar around the same time as Orban waged his trans-battle in Hungary.

The Slovak parliament, controlled by a wobbly four-party coalition made up of a sundry blend of conservative and liberal hardliners under the lead of Prime Minister Igor Matovic, refused to acknowledge the ombudswoman’s annual report on her activities in May this year, citing the document’s “undue concern with the rights of sexual minorities at the expense of other problems,” as reported by the SME daily.

The parliamentary dismissal marked the current ombudswoman’s first instance of rejection by legislators. Maria Patakyova took office in 2017 and her yearly round-ups in front of lawmakers, though largely ignored, always received official acknowledgement.

This time, however, with her most recent account revealing more than a hundred violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms by public bodies in the past year, MPs felt less generous.

Only a small fraction of infringements dealt with by the public defender of rights involved members of the LGBTQ community. Patakyova’s more than 70-page long report involved a couple of mentions in support of the Pride movement and a brief set of recommendations from previous years to adopt legal unions for same-sex couples and support the transition of trans people, who at this time are required to undergo compulsory castration, according to trans support group Transfusion.

Yet, conservative MPs hurled a tirade of chidings at Patakyova and her report, decrying the “inappropriate space [given] to second generation human rights and other problems that are indirectly linked to the protection of fundamental human rights,” in the words of a government spokesperson as cited by The Slovak Spectator. lgbtq hungary

President Zuzana Caputova’s open support for the ombudswoman wasn’t enough to convince lawmakers. Merely 34 out of a total of 150 parliamentarians voted to approve the document, way short of the threshold required for an official rubber stamp.

Most legislators were not even present in the chamber where Patakyova read her statement.

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While Poland has dropped to the bottom of the EU ranking in the latest “Rainbow Map” which ranks European countries on the basis of laws and policies that have a direct impact on the LGBT people’s human rights, Hungary has registered the biggest fall.

The government vs. the people

“In Slovakia, there’s still a raging debate whether homosexuality is a disease. We’re not accepted and are often made feel inferior, or even non-human,” Roman Samotny, an activist who runs event and community platform Queerslovakia, tells Kafkadesk.

“There’s constant pressure, lies and hatred spread all around. It’s really hurting. We try to live an honourable life but all we hear is that we’re the blight of the nation. It’s hard to live like that, but we learned to get used to it. We believe we deserve a better social climate, though,” Samotny continues.

A recent Pew survey showed that Slovaks were the least tolerant toward homosexuality among V4 nations. Even in Poland, a third of which has recently been declared an “LGBTQ-free zone” with mounting threats of physical violence against sexual minorities, people express more sympathy for the LGBTQ community.

At the same time, a report compiled by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reveals that sexual minorities in Slovakia have one of the lowest levels of trust in the EU for their government’s ability to effectively combat prejudice and intolerance against their community.

Activist Samotny partly links this result to the paradoxical patch Slovakia is currently stuck in. While the LGBTQ community is coming out inch by inch and gaining support in society, he says, the government goes out of its way to clip the wings of inevitable progress.

“The lockdown exacerbated many issues that have long been swept under the rug,” Samotny says, referring to documented instances of LGBTQ couples being denied childcare payments or having to spend forced isolation behind closed borders in different countries with no legal recourse, as the law does not classify their cohabitation as marriage.

But instead of dealing with such pressing legal matters, “the conservatives in government keep talking about this ‘gender ideology’. But that’s a misleading term. All we want is equal human rights for all. The only real ideology is the growing influence of ultra-catholic religious spheres, even in government. But we are a constitutionally secular state!” Samotny explains.

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In neighbouring Poland, LGBT activists mobilized and took to the streets following inflammatory remarks by President Andrzej Duda ahead of this month’s presidential election.

The last crusader

Religious conservatism is seen as the hallmark of PM Matovic’s government even from within the public administration’s ranks. Olga Pietruchova, the former deputy for gender equality at the Ministry of Labour, resigned from her post in May this year after nine years in office, listing concerns over “following the Hungarian and Polish way.”

“Too often have I listened to my Polish colleagues at international fora reading government statements spurning gender ideology and the LGBTI agenda. I can’t do this and I won’t to this,” Pietruchova wrote in a Facebook post.

Labour minister and Pietruchova’s former boss Milan Krajniak from the conservative We Are Family party had famously dubbed himself “the last crusader” of traditional values.  Following his takeover of the ministry last March, then-deputy Pietruchova said in an interview with the Aktuality website that she feared a resurrection of “pogroms against LGBTQ people” in Slovakia was imminent.

Slovakia had been tainted with a lamentable track record in securing equality and fundamental human rights for their LGBTQ communities even before the pandemic struck.

A 2015 referendum aiming to explicitly outlaw same-sex marriage and the ability of same-sex couples to adopt children was partially struck down by the Constitutional court for human rights breaches.

But a slimmed-down version of the plebiscite was allowed to hit the polling stations. Though a turnout of less than 22% declared the referendum void, more than 90% of those who voted were in favour of banning same-sax marriages and adoptions.

With its amended constitution that defines marriage as a “bond between a man and a woman”, Slovakia remains among the handful of European countries that still don’t recognise any form of legal partnership between same-sex couples.

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Both Hungary and Slovakia rejected the ratification of the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on women’s rights and gender equality earlier this year.

Silent majority

The latest rendition of the Rainbow Europe Map, an annual overview of the social climate and human rights situation of LGBTQ people in 49 European countries, had Slovakia in 31st place, among the lowest from all European Union members.

Hungary fared only slightly better – at 27th, though the ranking was last updated before the ban on gender change came into effect.

Both countries were marked down for grave defects in their law books that failed to protect minorities from abuse and hate speech and blocked LGBTQ citizens from achieving legal recognition on equal footing with the rest of the population.

Highlights from these include the Slovak government’s ongoing resistance to introduce legal unions for same-sex couples, and the Hungarian constitution’s failure to unequivocally forbid discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

“Though visible all around the Western hemisphere in the past years, Central European countries voluntarily took up the international role of defending traditional families and values. But the real battle has been fought in the geopolitical arena, between liberalism and illiberalism. It’s no surprise that it only intensified now, under the cover of a pandemic,” political scientist Bonny ventures.

That said, Slovak activist Samotny sees the majority of people as either supporting the LGBTQ community or remaining silent on the issue and without a firm opinion.

“But the fanatical religious dogma and fascist cries flood the public debate and drown out our voices. They are the ones who create conflict. We’re doing our best to keep that public space free of lies and hatred.”

This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.

By Edward Szekeres

Edward is a freelance reporter from Slovakia with Hungarian heritage. He is currently based in Belgium and the Netherlands where he is completing his international journalism studies. He is a regular contributor to several platforms delivering news and analyses in English from V4 countries and a thick-skinned fan of sport clubs that only keep on losing. You can check all his articles right here!

1 comment on ““They say we’re the blight of the nation”: LGBTQ activists fear the worst in Slovakia and Hungary

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