This story originally appeared in openDemocracy on May 17, 2023. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0) license.
In Hungary, we want trans visibility. But not the kind that the Hungarian parliament imposed on us in 2020 when it banned legal gender recognition for trans and intersex people. Instead of erasing trans people – as the government originally intended – we have been forced to come out.
The new law replaced the term “sex” with “sex assigned at birth” in the Civil Registry Document, which is the basis for all legal documents in Hungary, making it impossible for trans and intersex people to change their documents in alignment with their name and gender identity. It was the first law passed during the Covid-19 pandemic after the government granted itself ‘extra rights’ to “react to the catastrophic situation” – despite the Hungarian constitution considering gender recognition a fundamental right.
This February, Hungary’s constitutional court issued a ruling that blocks new applications from transgender people for legal gender recognition (applications from before 29 May 2020 are still valid). In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission proposed a similar move to redefine ‘sex’ as ‘biological sex’, in a letter to the government in April.
The law change has made those of us in Hungary with ID that doesn’t match our gender walking targets for hatred and harassment. Our freedom to choose to whom and how we come out as trans people has been removed.
There’s nowhere to turn because our legal names are everywhere – in schools, banks, workplaces and other public institutions, on identity cards and travel documents.
We’re out, and not always proud. Sometimes we’re out and embarrassed, out and ashamed, out and angry, or out, silently crying, and endlessly tired.
As one of the organisers of the Prizma Community (a support network for Hungarian trans and intersex people), I know impoverished students who refuse to buy discounted student metro tickets because they’d have to show their ID – and therefore their trans status – risking harassment on the subway. Out of concern for their own safety, they buy tickets that are more expensive but anonymous.
Great minds with useful university degrees work as pizza delivery drivers, because there they are accepted, and they have lost all courage to try, yet again, to find a job in a transphobic world with the wrong ID.
A trans woman I met in Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, told me that many trans women in the country have engaged in prostitution because they’re fearful of being attacked in the regular job market.
This was echoed by a Roma trans girl, who told me: “I’m forced to sell my body, to give control to aggressive perverts. Because I have to pay for my room, food and medical transition. It’s eating up my soul.”
She added: “Telling me ‘It’s just sex work, like a normal job’, feels like a slap in my face, a cynical insult – in the best case, it’s hellish stupidity.”
One of the problems of a right-wing populist kleptocracy is that it will always have imaginary enemies to fight. After years of targeting migrants, the new imaginary enemy is the so-called ‘LGBTQ lobby’ and trans people.
In fact, the Hungarian government under prime minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling right-wing Fidesz party have a history of rolling out openly homophobic and transphobic bills.
Just last month, the government passed a bill calling on citizens to report ‘rainbow families’ – including same-sex parents and parents who respect their child’s trans identity – to authorities. Weeks before this latest bill, more than a dozen EU countries, including France and Germany, backed legal action brought by the European Commission at the European Court of Justice against Hungary over its anti-LGBTIQ laws, including one that effectively bans same-sex couples from adopting children, passed in December 2020.
Also in 2020, the government rewrote the country’s constitution (the Fundamental Law) to say: “Hungary shall protect the right of children to their identity in line with their sex at birth, and shall ensure an upbringing in accordance with the values based on our homeland’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.”
The following year, they launched a Russian-style hate campaign to ban LGBTQ-themed education in schools. In Orbán’s own words: “We are very tolerant, but there is a red line, not to cross: stay away from our children.”
The national media authority, whose president was nominated by Orbán, even investigated a Netflix cartoon because it contained a lesbian kiss. It found the cartoon had broken the law, and reported it to the authorities in the Netherlands, where Netflix’s European branch is based.
There are calls from politicians and the media to ‘protect’ children from so-called trans lobbies – yet they are silent on children in Hungary going to school hungry, or the country’s lack of teachers, or the fact children aren’t allowed to wear coats in cold classrooms in winter.
It is also forbidden to sell books that “do not represent traditional sexuality and gender roles” within 200 metres of schools and churches. Technically, this means that most plays by Shakespeare, as well as the Bible, should be banned because the description is not only foolish and evil but also vague. As a result, bookshops are wary and prefer to err on the side of censorship.
A few weeks ago, Hungary’s president Katalin Novák (a perfect example of gender-washing) pardoned and released from prison an infamous far-right activist, who had been convicted of terrorism. He and his friends often attacked LGBTQ events.
While the government actively pursues a severe misogynist agenda, vocal and influential left-leaning media outlets are busy criticising ‘transgenderism’ with ill-informed fears about trans people supposedly threatening the rights of women.
The government doesn’t always get its own way. In 2022, its homophobic referendum, which conflated homosexuality with paedophilia, backfired spectacularly when 1.6 million people – around 20% of registered voters – spoiled their ballots following a campaign by human rights groups. The referendum was declared invalid, with fewer than 50% of eligible voters casting valid ballots.
It’s a crucial reminder that good people are everywhere. The problem is that they are certainly not in power in Hungary.
As a trans person, it’s not easy to be a battleground in the culture wars between different left and right political groups. We have to live our lives carefully and cautiously. That’s not in our interest, I can tell you.