How Hungary’s LGBT Activists Took on the State and won
In an exclusive UK interview with Sian Norris, a Hungarian LGBTIQ activist tells how a campaign filled with hope and collaboration stopped Viktor Orbán from winning an ugly referendum
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“We had a lot of people tell us, even older, conservative people in rural areas, that in their hearts they felt this is the right thing to do,” Luca Dudits, from Hungary’s leading LGBTIQ organisation Háttér Society, told Byline Times. “It was really beautiful”.
Hungary’s parliamentary elections took place alongside an anti-LGBTIQ referendum which sought to further restrict sex and relationships education in what was seen as the next phase of attack against the community. But despite a scaremongering campaign from the right, the LGBTIQ community succeeded in persuading people not to vote to attack gay and trans rights.
It was no surprise that Viktor Orbán returned to power with his party Fidesz. This is a Prime Minister after all, who had spent the previous 12 years filling the media, courts and national infrastructure with his cronies while waging war against refugees, migrants and LGBTIQ people.
But despite that war, which has included banning representation of LGBTIQ people in children’s media, a ban on legal recognition of trans people, and a ban on same-sex couples adopting, Dudits says for the first time in a long time, she is “hopeful. Maybe that’s naive”.
Her hope lies in the way the LGBTIQ community came together with human rights organisations and local volunteers to frustrate the referendum by encouraging people to spoil their votes. The months of solidarity and collaboration paid off.
“We had 400 volunteers from all over the country who were involved in the campaign for over a month,” she explained. “And not just in the cities but in smaller settlements too. A lot of them weren’t LGBTIQ people but allies. We had some negative comments but a lot of people listened and were supportive. One of our volunteers was a pensioner who had eight grandchildren and although none were gay or trans, she didn’t want them to feel they couldn’t come out. She saw invalidating the referendum as doing something for her country”.
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When anti-rights groups in neighbouring Romania forced a vote on the legal definition of marriage in 2018, LGBTIQ activists urged voters to stay away from the polling booth. Boycotting the vote meant that the referendum did not meet the turnout threshold and was therefore invalid.
Such a tactic would not work in Hungary however, as the referendum was held on the same day as the general election. Any attempt to tell people to keep away from the polls would be seen as sabotaging the main vote.
“We didn’t want our supporters to boycott the election,” said Dudits.
Instead, the LGBTIQ community urged the electorate to spoil their referendum ballots.
The strategy was a success – enough votes were considered invalid, meaning the number of votes cast did not meet the 50% turnout threshold it needed to allow the referendum to pass.
Questions on the ballot paper were deliberately leading and did not mention lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people specifically. Instead, the vote was framed as being about child protection. Voters were asked whether they “support the unrestricted exposure of underage children to sexually explicit media content that may affect their development?”, as well as questions on education about sexual orientation, gender identity and the “promotion of sex reassignment therapy for underage children”.
It is worth noting that none of this actually happens in Hungarian schools.
One voter spoiled her ballot, saying “for a stupid question, I can’t give a correct answer”.
For Dudits, the referendum campaign was a demonstration that when NGOs and civil society organisations collaborate, and when open and respectful conversations about human rights can take place, positive change is possible.
“I think our campaign shows that hope-based campaigns can work,” Dudits explained to Byline Times. “People want to have these conversations and they want change”.
The campaign focused on showcasing the family and friends of LGBTIQ people, as well as members of the community itself. “People would talk about how their family member or friend came out, how they accepted their child for being LGBTIQ, and how they were worried about how the referendum would affect their loved ones,” Dudits said.
“They talked about how being LGBTIQ affects their loved ones with everyday discrimination and harassment. This really offered a connection for a lot of people. It can be hard for someone to relate to an LGBTIQ person. But when a mother says: I want my son to be safe and this vote makes him feel unsafe, they can understand that”.
There were occasions when the volunteers met with verbal pushback, but even those conversations could be turned into something positive. “One woman told us to stop attacking Mr Prime Minister,” Dudits recalled. “But when it turned out her grandchildren were studying law in Budapest, and my colleague was teaching law in Budapest, there was a chance for dialogue and she went away saying she would watch our videos online”.
While the referendum represented a win for a community that has long been under attack, Orbán’s overall election win means the challenges LGBTIQ people in Hungary are far from over.
“The Government is already lying about the result,” said Dudits. “There is a very real fear and concern they will revoke more rights and freedoms”.
But for now, Dudits and her colleagues are holding onto hope. “I don’t think Hungarian society would react well to the Government stripping away anti-discrimination laws,” she said. “Most Hungarian people are not anti-LGBTIQ”.