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Hungary’s Path Puts Everyone’s Rights in Danger

The ostensible assault on LGBT+ rights in Hungary, Poland and Russia has a very big target—anyone who signs up to universal norms.

Published in: Social Europe
An activist holding the EU flag during a protest in Warsaw against “LGBT ideology free zones”.  © 2021 Attila Husejnow / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, used the visit by the pope to Budapest last month to advance his populist agenda. He said he had been encouraged by his meeting with Frances to advance ‘family values’. Indeed, Orbán claimed to have the pontiff’s imprimatur: ‘Moreover, he said: go ahead, go for it. And go for it we will.’

But what is Orbán ‘going for’, beyond the rhetoric?

With elections looming next year and a poor record in government so far, the increasingly autocratic Orbán has found a new target in attacking LGBT rights, in which ‘family values’ is a proxy for a whole other agenda. It started with refugees and now it is sexual and gender minorities. It is best understood as a cynical move to distract attention from Orbán’s bungling of the state response to the pandemic, as well as corruption scandals involving business oligarchs and dodgy dealings with China.

Under the banner of ‘family values’, in 2020 Hungary banned adoption by same-sex couples, barred transgender people from changing their legal gender and refused to ratify the Istanbul convention, which aims to protect women from violence. This year Hungary passed a law which equates homosexuality with paedophilia and bans ‘promotion and portrayal of homosexuality’ and gender diversity to under-18s, in sexuality education, films or advertisements.

Putin’s playbook

Orbán is taking a leaf out of Vladimir Putin’s playbook. The Russian president has used the spectre of LGBT rights as a wedge to consolidate a conservative support base at home, delineate regional zones of influence and forge global alliances. It started in earnest with the passage in 2013 of the ‘gay propaganda law’, an administrative regulation which forbids the positive portrayal of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ where minors are present.

In effect, the law inhibits any such presentation of LGBT identities in the public domain. It has a chilling effect on freedom of expression, being vague enough to make Russians afraid to fall foul of the law. Hungary’s law has strong echoes although it goes even further, banning any depiction of LGBT people to children.

Russia’s law has had a stifling effect on teachers and counsellors and has been used to shut down an online support network for LGBT kids. It has been associated with an upturn in homophobic violence. There is no reason to think the impact of Hungary’s law will be any different.

The ‘gay propaganda law’ has proved a very effective tool for Putin—if very harmful for many Russians. On a domestic level, the negative connnotations of ‘propaganda’, with its Stalinist associations, and the positive affirmation of purported national ‘tradition’, pitted against the forces of globalisation, have proved an effective shorthand. They have mobilise Putin’s small-town and rural supporters in the face of public protests in the big urban centres (in as much as these have been allowed).  

Regionally, the rhetoric has been used to contest spheres of influence between the Russian-backed Eurasian customs union and the European Union. On a global level, at the United Nations Russia has been at least partially successful in assuming the mantle of protector of ‘traditional values’—counterposed to universal norms such as human rights—and in the process forging geopolitical alliances with like-minded states.

Sustained attack

Poland under the Law and Justice Party (PiS) has become another outlier in Europe, where the independence of the judiciary, civil society and the media have been under sustained assault. The government has cast LGBT rights as a dangerous and subversive ideology, while local authorities have declared ‘LGBT-ideology free zones’.

Warsaw has systematically attacked reproductive rights and comprehensive sexuality education and threatened to withdraw from the Istanbul convention—the convention includes a reference to sexual orientation and a broad definition of gender. This was an election rallying point in 2019, designed to help the PiS secure a second term in office.

Leaders such as Orbán, or the key PiS figure Jarosław Kaczyński, and the parties they represent project an unalloyed vision of their societies. They present themselves as the authentic voice of ‘the people’, against ‘liberal elites’ accused of defying ‘common sense’.

This dangerous world of nationalist rhetoric produces ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, shoring up support by concocting imagined threats to the nation. In Hungary, migrants have been vilified as a perceived external demon, while LGBT people have been cast as both an internal threat and a foreign influence.

‘Gender ideology’

Why do advances in women’s or LGBT rights elicit such apocalyptic fantasies of destruction of the social order? Connecting developments in Poland and Hungary is the concept of ‘gender ideology’. This is closely linked to the idea of traditional values but more amorphous and, it seems, better able to rally disparate groups against a common perceived enemy. First coined decades ago by the Holy See, ‘gender ideology’ has become a ubiquitous term, strategically deployed to curtail sexual and reproductive rights.

As an ‘empty signifier’ (in semiotic terms), gender ideology simultaneously means nothing and everything. This has allowed it to become the symbolic ‘glue’, uniting disparate groups in opposition—to feminism, transgender equality, the existence of intersex bodies, elimination of sex stereotyping, family-law reform, same-sex marriage, access to abortion and contraception, and comprehensive sexuality education.

The anti-gender movement is increasingly well resourced and co-ordinated, and more strategic and sophisticated than in the past. It has mobilised against gender- and sexuality-based human-rights advances at the national level, as well vis-à-vis regional and global mechanisms relating to rights, development and public health.

The anti-gender movement has even co-opted the language of human rights—positioning itself domestically as protecting free speech and religious freedom against ideological conformity and internationally as protecting national cultural integrity against imperialism. In this way, LGBT identities have come to stand in for something much bigger, being construed as a threat to the fabric of society itself.

Proceedings initiated

Last month, LGBT activist groups submitted a legal complaint to the European Commission, asserting that Poland’s ‘LGBT-ideology free zones’ and other discriminatory measures ran counter to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation. In mid-July, the commission initiated infringement proceedings against Poland, because of local authorities having adopted ‘LGBT-ideology free zone’ resolutions (three have since reneged), and against aspects of Hungary’s disingenuous paedophilia law falling foul of its human-rights obligations.

Aside from violations relating to trade and the free flow of information, the commission asserted, the Hungarian provisions infringed rights to non-discrimination, human dignity, freedom of expression and information and respect for private life. The Polish authorities meanwhile had failed to respond adequately to its inquiry as to the meaning and impact of municipalities becoming ‘LGBT-ideology free zones’.

These are serious allegations, with far-reaching implications, and the commission is right to identify depredations of basic human rights and core European values. Both states enjoy the economic benefits attached to EU membership, yet under their current governments eschew the associated obligations.

Supporting the rights of, and equality for, LGBT people in these settings is thus more than defending members of a minority group, vital though that is. It is defending democracy and human rights for everyone.

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