Hungary’s New Dictatorship Takes Aim At Transgender Rights


Louie Neale

On May 19th, 2020,  the Hungarian government approved new legislation to end legal recognition of its transgender citizens. Deputies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán approved the controversial amendments to laws surrounding birth, death and marriage registry which will prevent any attempts to change a person’s documented “sex at birth” to conform to their gender identity or transitioned status. While still officially unconfirmed, many suspect the laws will also retroactively overturn the status of those who have already transitioned.

The laws cite the explanation “that the complete change of the biological sex is not possible,” to justify these changes. However, this simplistic view of biological sex in relation to gender is contrary to mainstream scientific thought in the fields of biology, psychology, and ethics, to name just a few. As such, the legislation was condemned by the Hungarian Psychological Society, the European Parliament, and the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights – along with numerous rights groups, who are demanding the laws be reviewed by the constitutional court.

Krisztina Tamas-Saroy, a researcher for Amnesty International Hungary, described the bill as something which “tramples the rights of transgender and intersex people” and “pushes Hungary back toward the dark ages.”

The daily reality of these laws for Hungary’s trans citizens will be one of dehumanization and legally sanctioned discrimination. Any exchange which requires official documentation – from buying alcohol or routine traffic stops to applying for jobs and housing – now involves making a trans person’s status visible against their will. In each of these situations, from the day-to-day to the life-shaping essentials of work and shelter, trans people will be inescapably highlighted as targets, forced to live at the mercy of others’ personal prejudices. Anti-discrimination laws can offer no relief to those who do not exist in the eyes of their government.

Beyond this, there is the fact that hate crime rates increase when the political climate is seen to confirm perpetrators’ prejudices. Trans people already represent one of the highest risk groups for targeted hate crime. A 2014 survey of 6,500 trans people across Europe by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights found 34% of those surveyed were threatened with or had experienced transphobic violence in the previous five years, with 15% experiencing it in the previous 12 months. A 2020 study by the same organization demonstrates how anti-LGBTQ discrimination and prejudices are still growing, so the current figures for transphobic hate crimes are likely to be even higher. Additionally, what cannot be captured sufficiently in statistics is the resulting ever-present fear of violent reprisal that accompanies simply existing as a trans person. This situation can only become direr as transphobia becomes enshrined in law.

The legislative package containing Hungary’s new anti-trans law was submitted by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, leader of the Christian Democratic Party. Much like the recently reported ‘Anti-LGBT’ zones dominating a third of Poland, these policies illustrate the way LGBTQ persons are used as scapegoats by Europe’s growing far-right and authoritarian regimes. By touting a ‘return to tradition’ or a ‘threat to family values,’ politicians are able to prescribe hatred and blame as a quick-fix for today’s complex social problems.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, has long championed anti-LGBTQ views. These fit neatly alongside Orbán’s far-right rhetoric of white supremacy and his fiercely anti-immigrant stance.

On March 30th, Orbán took advantage of the coronavirus crisis to consummate his flirtation with authoritarianism. The passing of emergency legislation has elevated Orbán to dictator status, allowing him to rule by decree with no set time limit. The legislation also prevents future by-elections, allows the suspension of certain laws, and makes it illegal to publicize “untrue or distorted facts.” The vague offence of publishing information “which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people” is now punishable by several years in prison. Such laws represent the perfect tool for silencing critics or opposition.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique in Europe. A recent report by Freedom House described a widespread “stunning democratic breakdown.” The report attributes some blame to the malign political influence of China and Russia, as well as identifying how U.S. President Donald Trump “failed to stand up for democracy in the region.” It also echoed the concerns of many rights groups in recent years in respect to the E.U.’s toothless responses to member states which flagrantly violate the human and democratic rights supposedly at the heart of the union’s ethos.

The rise of the far-right in Europe is not a new phenomenon, nor is the tactic of harnessing anti-LGBTQ sentiment for political aims. However, the coronavirus crisis provides the ideal atmosphere of fear and distraction for opportunists like Orbán to solidify their control.