Editor’s Note: Dorottya Rédai is an activist and academic who holds a PhD in gender studies from Central European University. She spearheaded the children’s book “A Fairytale for Everyone,” which includes LGBTQ characters. She is a member of the Labrisz Lesbian Association. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
This Sunday will be a defining moment in modern Hungarian history – a day I’m looking to with a mixed sense of hope and worry.
After 12 years of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing populist government – during which time he has turned the country from a liberal democracy to a self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” – Hungarians will vote on whether he stays on and continues his path towards autocracy.
The other option at the ballot box is an unprecedented six-party opposition coalition – and a chance to return our detoured country to the road of democracy.
But Sunday is not just a parliamentary election – it is also a referendum day. A referendum with manipulative questions targeting people’s unease and anxiety about sexual minorities.
The four-question referendum asks the public if they support the “promotion” of content related to sexual orientation to children. Essentially, the referendum is asking people whether they want their children exposed to homosexual propaganda in school and the media.
It includes questions like: “Do you support minors being shown, without any restriction, media content of a sexual nature that is capable of influencing their development?” Orban is urging citizens to vote “no.” Indeed, the questions are worded so that any reasonable person would say “no” to them.
The referendum comes on the back of an Orban government law introduced last summer – the so-called Child Protection Act – which severely violates young people’s right to access information about minority sexualities and LGBTQ people.
The European Union duly launched legal action against Hungary, a member state, over the legislation, saying that it violates the “fundamental rights of LGBTIQ people” under EU law.
So from a legal perspective, this Sunday’s referendum doesn’t really make much sense – it’s asking the same questions that are already regulated by law.
The true purpose of the referendum – given its timing – is to deliver the government’s election campaign message that Hungarian citizens and their children are threatened by ‘homosexual propaganda’ coming from the ‘decaying West.’ And that Orban, once again, is the great protector of traditional national values.
Being a scholar of gender studies, I could lecture endlessly about how this government’s approach to social issues is patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, nationalistic, racist and xenophobic. Or at least, I might have, until my very discipline was banned in Hungary in 2018.
Being a lesbian activist as well, this rhetoric has had an emotionally and psychologically devastating impact on LGBTQ people in Hungary. Our mere existence is called ‘propaganda.’ We are treated as an enemy (of whom exactly, we might ask), our sexual orientation and gender identity is conflated with pedophilia so, by a simple association, we are criminals.
In this discourse, children are treated as blank sheets – currently asexual but future heterosexuals – whose ‘normal’ sexual development may get ‘corrupted’ by adults. According to this world view, if you read a fairytale about two princes who fall in love to your child, you are guilty of turning the otherwise ‘normally developing’ child into a homosexual or transsexual. Because of course, no children would become an LGBT+ person otherwise.
I should know. I’m the coordinator (or fairy godmother) of the book project “A Fairytale for Everyone,” an anthology of 17 tales, five of which feature LGBTQ heroes, and the rest other disadvantaged or minority people.
The book was published in September 2020 by Hungary’s Labrisz Lesbian Association, a small grassroots NGO of which I have been a member since 2004. We host a lot of education activities, and our aim with the book was to give younger children, their parents and teachers, a tool to talk about issues ranging from discrimination to gender, race, class and sexuality. But the book is also about love, happiness, magic and finding one’s true self.
This book – which by the end of this year will be published in 10 languages – was seized upon by its opponents. It was immediately branded as “homosexual propaganda” by the Hungarian government. In a speech shortly after the book’s release, Orban said: “Regarding homosexuality, Hungary is a tolerant, patient country. (…) But there is a red line which cannot be crossed, and this is the sum of my opinion: leave our children alone!”
The sensational response started with Dora Duro, a representative from “Our Homeland,” a far-right party in parliament, publicly shredding the book. Though it was obviously not Duro’s intention, this violent act incited public outrage in a country with a Nazi and Communist history of book destruction. The book became a bestseller, and more than that, it became a symbol of resistance against the Hungarian governments’ oppressive politics against LGBTQ people and minorities in general.
Among the LGBT+ community, we already experienced, immediately after the implementation of the ‘Child Protection Law,’ an increased vigilance and legitimization to commit verbal or physical violence against us.
Acts range from the mayor of a small town telling the local librarian to remove copies of “A Fairytale for Everyone” from the children’s bookshelf, to censoring the lesbian kiss in an episode of “Jessica Jones” on state TV, to verbal and physical violence against LGBTQ people. According to Hatter Society, which supports Hungary’s LGBTQ community, incidents of violence against LGBTQ have increased since the law was introduced.
On the other hand, it has also brought more high-profile support for LGBTQ people. Many heterosexual people, including celebrities and influencers, who had never taken action in support of such issues, have stood up and spoken out against attacking the fairytale book, and later against the ‘Child Protection Law.’
Having an LGBT+ identity has become politicized, and standing up for LGBTQ rights has become synonymous with defending human rights and democracy in Hungary. Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin – an ally of Orban in anti-LGBTQ propaganda and traditional gender roles – has turned out to be a warmonger, whose realization of the values of traditional masculinity is bringing death to thousands of his own men and unimaginable suffering to millions of women and children. It remains to be seen whether Orban’s decadelong friendship with Putin will hurt him at the polls this Sunday.
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If the referendum succeeds and Orban’s Fidesz party wins, it can use the vote to justify further homophobic and transphobic legislation. And it can use it to defy EU and international sanctions for violating international human rights agreements, essentially saying, “this is what Hungarian people want.” That is why I and my fellow campaigners are urging voters to invalidate their ballots. The best way to do this is to mark both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ The referendum needs at least 50% of the electorate to cast a valid vote, to be deemed binding.
In this referendum, children have become a tool in the Orban government’s anti-LGBTQ propaganda. We cannot let it succeed.