Why Hungary's Illiberal Government Attacks LGBT Rights

Authoritarians always need an enemy.

Currently, in the United States, gay and lesbian issues rarely draw much public controversy. The first active NFL player, Carl Nassib, came out as gay this week. This month, Vice President Kamala Harris became the first sitting president or vice president to join a pride parade. These developments were unthinkable 15 years ago. (The same is not true for transgender issues, which are the target of various bills.) 

Elsewhere in the world, illiberal leaders in countries such as Turkey and Poland use gay rights as a wedge issue between their governments and the West. This month, the Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, passed a broadly written law prohibiting the sharing of content featuring gay or transgender people with individuals under the age of 18. The law also forbids companies from showing solidarity with LGBT people in advertisements, if the government deems the advertisements to target persons under 18. (The Hungarian ruling party, Fidesz, has clashed with Coca-Cola over advertisements showing two men and two women enjoying Cokes with the title "Love is Love.") The government now will only allow individuals and groups on a state register to teach sex education in schools.

The government insists the law is to protect the rights of children and parents. However, by making claims of protecting children, the law plays on a canard equating homosexuality with pedophelia. The law has echoes of a similar anti-gay "propaganda" law passed in Russia in 2013. However, unlike Russia, Hungary is in the European Union, which is explicitly founded on principles of human rights and democracy. 

Like many other authoritarian governments, the Orban government has used an other to galvanize support. In 2015, the government used the wave of migrants coming from Central Asia and Africa as the other. Orban said he wanted to "preserve a Hungarian Hungary," erected border walls, fought with the European Union on its migrant policy, and enacted strict anti-immigration laws. In the past few years, the number of migrants flowing through Hungary has slowed to a handful.

With mass migration over, the Orban government has shifted to portraying LGBT people as enemies. In the ideology of conservative authoritarians, LGBT people are imported from the decadent West. 

Prior to the law, the Hungarian government has already sharply curtailed the legal rights of LGBT people. The government has banned gay marriage, gay adoption, and for transgender individuals, the right to change their sex assigned at birth.

Orban also uses external geopolitical enemies to gain internal support. He thrives on confrontation with Brussels, and the law has done exactly that with loud protests from European Union countries. The battle with the European Union appears to be a political ploy ahead of the 2022 elections, amid the government's poor handling of the coronavirus epidemic. Meanwhile, companies owned by Orban's friends and family have benefited lavishly from EU-funded procurement projects.

The European Union faces difficult choices in how to respond to the law. Since 2010, the European Union has condemned but given no significant penalties to Orban as his government has instituted anti-democratic measures that have caused the collapse of the independent judiciary and changes to voting laws that make elections easier to win for Fidesz. However, the conflict over gay rights appears to have generated a stronger rhetorical response than before, with the Dutch Prime Minister suggesting that Hungary respect EU values or leave the bloc. Its exit now is a remote possibility -- Hungary has strong economic links with German automobile companies that would suffer were they to find themselves outside the bloc. Still, E.U. leadership has indicated it could take Hungary to court over the law, which could ultimately result in financial penalties. 

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