Ivett Ordog, 39, is one of those affected by the new law banning legal gender changes. “While I would never go back to living the life of a male — that weird alien I used to see in the mirror — I’m also living in fear because I have no idea what’s next,” she says.

‘Living in fear’

Hungary’s new ban throws its transgender community into limboPhotographs by Akos Stiller/Redux Pictures
Story by Emma Reynolds, CNN

Ivett Ordog, 39, is one of those affected by the new law banning legal gender changes. “While I would never go back to living the life of a male — that weird alien I used to see in the mirror — I’m also living in fear because I have no idea what’s next,” she says.

The coronavirus pandemic presents a major threat to countries’ health systems, economies and most vulnerable people.

But advocates for the transgender community say Hungary has chosen this moment to bring in a law that hurts transgender people, one of its most marginalized groups. While Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was ruling by decree, the government brought in a new law banning legal gender changes — although it did not take advantage of its emergency powers to pass the law.

The bill, passed by parliament on May 19 and signed into law a week later, states that “sex at birth” will be recorded in Hungary’s civil registry — and may not be changed later on identification documents such as driving licenses and passports.

Hungarians are only permitted to choose from a registry of specifically “male” or “female” names in accordance with their ascribed sex marker. They aren’t allowed to use a name from the other sex category on their legal documents, and there are no gender-neutral names — so many intersex, transgender and non-binary people will be forced to be legally tied to a name that, they say, does not reflect them.

Iceland, Sweden and Finland had similar rules allowing names only from set lists until they were changed in recent years.

“When I first heard about this new law, I got very angry. Angry because this country, which is very much part of my identity — and I am very proud that I am Hungarian — says to me that it doesn’t want me to be who I am. It is very dehumanizing,” says Daniel Gyarmati, 20. He realized he was transgender four years ago, at around the time the government first suspended legal gender recognition, making him “despair.” Gyarmati wanted to go to university but feared people seeing his old name in the system. When the suspension was lifted for a few months before the April 2018 election, Gyarmati was able to change his name and start university “with a calm heart.” The change will stand despite the new law.

“My claim for name and gender change has not been approved yet, so I am one of the great victims of this law,” says Laura Andrassy, 28. “I am outraged. … I am upset, but I am not surprised, sadly. I will fight for my right because I want to have a family later on, but this law hinders me from that. If I can not do it here, I will do so in another place in this world.” Andrassy says she began to accept who she was after she got to know the trans community while living in France and the US. “In Paris, acceptance was never a question. Even in Utah, one of the most conservative places in the US, there is more acceptance than in Hungary,” she says.

Transgender rights groups say this change will mean trans, non-binary and intersex people are exposed to potential discrimination every time they use a bank, rent property or apply for jobs.

Photographer Akos Stiller, who is based in Budapest, wanted to capture portraits of the people who may lose the chance to determine their own identities under the new law.

“I knew that they must take a very hard road, as well emotionally, physically, to become the gender they wish to be — and this made me believe, these persons are facing really tough challenges.”

After the legislation was proposed, he said, “I started to feel that to share their stories is a necessity.”

“Society sometimes can be judged really by how it deals with its minorities, or deals with the most vulnerable members. I think it's very important to know these people's stories.”

Noé Horvath, 30, realized he was transgender when he was 18. “I was afraid of what would be if I told my parents about my identity — would I be kicked out of the family?” When he was 26, he decided “that if I want to live a happy life, I have to do something about this.” He began his transition on March 8, 2017, International Women’s Day. After two months of taking hormones, he says, “nobody could have seen that I was born as a woman, but my papers still showed that I was a woman.” He says he had some embarrassing situations where people didn’t know his bank card belonged to him. Horvath was one of a group of transgender applicants who filed a successful lawsuit through the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to change gender while the process was suspended.

Hungary is a member of the EU, but Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been forging his own path. He has introduced a series of laws tightening regulations on the media, central bank, constitutional court and non-governmental organizations, moves that EU leaders have warned would undermine Hungary’s democracy. In 2012, Hungary’s new constitution defined life as beginning at conception and marriage as being between a man and a woman, and failed to forbid discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. In 2016, the legal route to changing gender was suspended, and was only briefly lifted in the months before the 2018 election.

LGBTQ rights group Háttér Society tells CNN there are concerns the new law could be expanded to people who have already legally changed gender. Board member Tamás Dombos says the association has already had calls from trans people considering leaving the country — or even suicide.

While many countries have legal routes to change gender, how easy it is varies from country to country, and discrimination against trans people is common worldwide. The Trans Murder Monitoring project recorded 2,982 murders of trans and gender-diverse people globally between January 1, 2008, and September 30, 2018.

Ivett Ordog, left, says that as someone who is not visibly transgender, she faces “awkward and sometimes dangerous situations” whenever she shows her ID because she has to come out every time. Ordog had transitioned when she met her partner Atanaz Talos, 30. Talos was still living as a woman but wanted to transition, and has now done so. Ordog considered herself a lesbian at the time and says she had to consider how she felt about that. “I have come to a conclusion that it’s not his gender I am loving, and I can love him as a man.”

Anna Hídvégi, 28, took a long time to accept that she was transgender after she was called names as a child. “Elementary school was terrible for me. I was bullied a lot,” she said. She changed her name when she was 24. “When I first heard about this new law I got very mad for one day, very depressed for the next, but on the third, I thought, let’s do something about it. As an activist I am trying to talk as much about it as possible. They can try to change back my gender, but I will not cooperate with them in any way. I will go to jail if needed.”

The Hungarian government defended the law, telling CNN in an emailed statement that it "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 criticize prevent any person from exercising their fundamental rights arising from their human dignity or from living according their identity,” the statement continued.

Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has been chipping away at LGBTQ rights in Hungary.

Hungary recognizes legal unions for same-sex couples, but the ruling Fidesz party, which has become increasingly populist under Orbán, opposes the legalization of same-sex marriage. There have also been proposals in recent years to strip away rights from same-sex couples, warns Dombas, although these were not passed by the parliament.

In 2018, Orbán angered universities by banning gender studies programs and government lawmakers attacked Coca-Cola for running ads that included images of same-sex couples kissing. One government lawmaker called for a ban on the Budapest Pride Parade and the Speaker of the National Assembly called gay men and lesbians second-class citizens, and likened same-sex adoption to pedophilia.

Eszter Berencsi, 29, believes it is ”unethical” that the government brought in this law during the coronavirus crisis “as anybody against it doesn’t have the democratic right to oppose that — you cannot demonstrate against it, you cannot organize in person against it, because of the restrictions.” Berencsi says she knew since kindergarten “that something was not all right with me” but buried the feelings. At around 9 years old, she realized that she didn’t “have to live in this body forever” and found it “comforting” during puberty to know she could change later. In 2016, she began her transition. “I don’t receive anything negative in my everyday life, although they say I am quite ‘passing,’ meaning you wouldn’t say I have not been born as a woman,” she says.

A 2019 poll by Median research group cited by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) found that 70% of Hungarians believed that trans people should have access to legal gender recognition.

Katrin Hugendubel, advocacy director for ILGA-Europe, said in a statement that legal gender recognition was “the bedrock of access to equality and non-discrimination for trans and intersex people,” and without it, they would be “subject to immense stigma, discrimination, harassment, and violence” when performing simple tasks such as visiting the doctor or applying for a cellphone.

Rights groups including Háttér Society are now requesting the law be sent for review to the Constitutional Court, the principal organization protecting the Hungarian democratic state, which decides on the constitutionality of acts of parliament.

“In this case, this would be such a direct conflict with the government, and we are a bit afraid that they might not be brave enough to do that,” said Dombos.

Erik Erdős, 23, is a trans activist who spent years accepting who he was but now cannot legally change gender. “I am afraid to file my papers. I wouldn’t know in how many years they would be evaluated. There is such an uncertainty. I am afraid to get denied. It was a very long journey for me to realize I am transgender. I was around 20, and I had four suicide attempts before that. When I admitted to myself I am transgender, that was a huge relief for me. Finally I have realized what was the ‘problem’ with me all along.” When gender recognition was suspended in Hungary in 2016, he says, “I felt hopeless. I was alone then.”

Adam Csikós, 23, received his documents two years ago but says he has always dreaded that a law would take away his happiness. He says that in middle school, he tried to fit in as a girl but still cut his hair short because that reflected who he was. He felt that how he experienced things internally differed from what people around him expected from him. “I never had illusions that I can live happily ever after in peace. I have expected that after years, because of some law, my past will return. The many bad feelings will return because legally I couldn't use the name and gender I lived my everyday life with,” he says.

Háttér says it has been approached by thousands of transgender people seeking legal support, and plans to help some to challenge the law in the country’s lower courts. Meanwhile, 23 applicants have taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) with the help of Transvanilla Transgender Association. But the court process could take years, according to Dombos.

Photographer Stiller says Hungary’s new law looks like a plan to create “misery” for people who are often already dealing with self-doubt over their identity.

“This is really an effort for them to realize, actually, that’s how they should be, how they should live their life,” he said. “I think it’s really hard, and it should be respected.”

He hopes his photographs will make people in Hungary and around the world think more about transgender people and be “more sympathetic to their struggles, to their feelings, to how they want to live their life.”

As the world battles huge challenges, including a deadly virus, the simple wish to choose a legal identity now seems increasingly out of reach for Hungary’s transgender people.

Zsanett Séra, 28, began trying to change gender in August 2018 and recently had it certified after several lawsuits and back-and-forth processes through the system. “Even though I have received this change, I am afraid that this new law will withdraw this,” says Séra. “I find it outrageous that I fought for this name change for one-and-a-half years … and with just a stroke of a pen they take it back.” She believes only a small percentage of society sees trans people in a negative light. “This minority is very loud on the internet and very quiet in reality,” she says.

Akos Stiller is a photographer based in Budapest, Hungary. He is represented by Redux Pictures. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Photo editors: Brett Roegiers and Sarah Tilotta