Earlier this year, Hungary passed a law banning “the dissemination of content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change.” Under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungarian members of the LGBTQIA+ community have found their civil rights constantly under attack, with this trend of discrimination and violence ramping up in recent years. For example, legal recognition for transgender and intersex people was ended in early 2020, with adoption by same-sex couples prohibited later that same year.
Unfortunately, Hungary is not the only country in Europe to experience a crackdown on LGBTQIA+ rights. While other countries continue to work towards equal rights, Poland and Russia have also passed laws during the past few years that strip legal protections from LGBTQIA+ people. Furthermore, Poland and Hungary have also experienced democratic backsliding in recent years, with the leaders of both countries taking steps to restrict freedom of the press, judicial independence, and other fundamental rights. These changes have been framed by Orbán as being necessary to “[defend] European and Christian civilisation,” which also gives a religious undertone to the observed violations of LGBTQIA+ rights. Orban has also used propaganda to claim that LGBTQIA+ activists harm children by giving them “sexual education” to impressionable children “without parental consent.” This has allowed him to claim that his actions help improve the rights of parents and children.
Pro-LGBTQIA+ Voices: Action from the EU
As Poland and Hungary are both within the European Union (EU), the shared values of freedom, equality, and rule of law which the EU claims to uphold should also apply to these two nations. Yet, through their actions, Poland and Hungary have flagrantly and intentionally violated these principles. Brussels, home of the EU leadership, initially did not do much to stop the two countries from further infringing on basic human rights; before 2020, most actions that the EU attempted to take were often stopped by procedural semantics. Furthermore, Hungary and Poland are able to, and often do, veto EU action against the other, as many EU decisions need to be unanimous.
In the past couple of years, the EU’s actions against Hungary and Poland have been much more effective, as EU lawmakers have prioritised addressing unruly members within the bloc over admitting new nations. For example, after the EU threatened to cut funding, many Polish regions immediately repealed anti-LGBTQIA+ declarations. Brussels has also launched legal action against Hungary and Poland for their implementation of laws that violate LGBTQIA+ rights, which may mean significant fines for both countries if the legal action is successful. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has even said he believes that Hungary “has no place in the EU anymore” after its implementation of anti-LGBTQIA+ laws.
Why Crack Down on the LGBTQIA+ Community?
Both Hungary and Poland’s ruling parties have one thing in common: they are both right-wing parties that rely heavily on religious and socially conservative voters. Poland remains one of the most Catholic nations in Europe, with the religion deeply ingrained in Polish culture and society, while Orbán’s Fidesz party has its base of support in the religious rural areas of Hungary. Thus, part of the reason why Polish and Hungarian elites are so eager to crack down on LGBTQIA+ rights is because of the will of their supporters. This in turn emboldens national leaders to go further in suppressing LGBTQIA+ rights. Particularly in the rural regions of the two nations, the new anti-LGBTQIA+ laws have been a welcome change.
In order to strengthen their image to their voter base, Hungarian and Polish leaders have also tried to portray their two countries and themselves as being safe havens for Christianity, as well as highlight differences between their countries and the EU. The EU’s actions against Hungary and Poland have been largely met with verbal defiance from the national leaders in Warsaw and Budapest, even as their actions have been much more cooperative.
Not all Poles and Hungarians agree with the new anti-LGBTQIA+ laws and the increasingly dictatorial nature of their governments, and in fact, many of them have taken action to defy the central government. In 2019, for example, the ruling Polish party lost its majority in the Polish Senate (even as it kept control of the lower house, the Sejm), denying the party the ability to rewrite the Polish constitution however it sees fit.
Meanwhile, Hungarians have taken to the streets in protest against the government’s actions, from illegal surveillance to the crackdown on LGBTQIA+ rights. Together with the EU’s firmer stance on the two nations, the LGBTQIA+ rights situations in Poland and Hungary have seen improvements. However, more pressure needs to be exerted on the governments in Warsaw and Budapest in order to fully revert these violations of basic human rights.