Anti-gay and transgender legislation in Hungary have sparked condemnation of Viktor Orban's government and prompted LGBTQ individuals to leave the country. Some of them have made their way to Berlin.
Over the past years, the situation for LGBTQ individuals in many EU countries has improved, even if often only haltingly. But Hungary is another story. There, homophobia and transphobia have become not only staples of government policy but also national ideology.
Since the end of 2020, the country's constitution has contained indirectly homophobic passages in addition to the following sentence: "The mother is a woman, the father is a man." It is also all but illegal for gay couples to adopt children.
Moreover, since summer 2021, representing or promoting homosexuality and gender reassignment surgery to or in the presence of people 18 years of age or younger has been criminalized. Critics say the law also equates pedophilia with homosexuality and transgender identities.
DW interviewed queer Hungarians who felt suffocated by Victor Orban's government policies and emigrated to Berlin.
Stay or go?
"It was a kick in the face when the law limiting information about homosexuality and trans topics entered the books," says 47-year-old Gabor*. The gay film and theater professional moved with his 37-year-old partner, Endre, to Berlin this past June to start a new life.
"Many queer people spend years working to overcome their self-hate. Then they spend a bunch of time fighting to develop their own survival strategies. When they finally reach the point where they can try to live, they get stomped upon by those at the top. That is the moment when you have to decide: Either you let yourself by squashed or you get out of there," Gabor says.
It's easier said than done — and few know this better than Blanka Vay. The 43-year-old Hungarian trans woman left Budapest in back in 2014, when she was still a married man. Blanka had previously served as the Hungarian Green party's spokesperson and worked as a communications manager for Greenpeace. For her, the greatest challenge after emigrating was neither German bureaucracy nor the absence of social connections.
Not an easy start in Berlin
"The reason I had such an expectedly hard start to my new life was definitely my trans identity," she explains. "Berlin is a good place for sexual diversity of all kinds. But gender reassignment surgery is also not easy here. Six years ago, when I came out as a trans woman, I could already speak fluent German, and I had a promising CV. I still couldn't find a job for one and a half years. Then I worked as a bicycle delivery person for another one and half years and basically turned to mush," Vay recalls.
Today, Blanka works as the chief executive officer of a cooperative. Despite the difficulties she faced, she is thankful to be in a tolerant city like Berlin.
"Even though I was a member of the intellectual and moral elite in Budapest, my networks wouldn't have been strong enough to protect me. I was horrified to see how Hungarians willingly identified with the most appalling and atrocious policies and gave up the basic intellectual questioning that any reasonable person does before they internalize an idea."
Toying with human lives
In Gabor's opinion, President Viktor Orban's anti-LGBTQ policies do nothing less than toy with people's lives. Gabor is lucky: He is an experienced screenplay writer who is doing a postgraduate degree at the German Film and Television Academy, and he will probably find a job in Berlin quickly once he has graduated.
Another silver lining in the couples' emigration saga: Gabor's spouse, Endre, is a product designer, a profession which is in high demand in the international labor market. He quickly found a permanent position in Berlin, which made it much easier for them to rent an apartment.
A feeling of being abandoned
Things look very different for another Hungarian couple: Viktor and Janos, who moved to the Berlin neighborhood of Schoneberg three months ago. Viktor, 48, is among the many thousands of Hungarian intellectuals who have left their country in the past years for political reasons. He left behind not only his property and his family but also Budapest's art scene,which provided a refuge for him. He even gave up a secure job in a Budapest cultural institution.
"In Hungary, I felt like I'd been left totally alone. What scared me the most was the level that the political rhetoric sank to. For example, during this past spring's parliamentary election, one of the ruling party's most primitive campaign slogans about the opposition party went: 'They are dangerous. Let them try to stop us!' The communication is at the level of a kindergarten," Viktor, a theater professional, says of his decision.
The greatest threat to Hungary?
For Viktor, the straw that broke the camel's back was the "homophobic" law that equates sexual orientations that deviate from the heterosexual norms and trans identities with pedophilia.
He also finds it grotesque that public broadcasters, which are tightly censored, have repeatedly hammered home one message over the past year: Hungarian children must be protected from the so-called gender lobby. Prime Minister Orban even recently said in a speech that the greatest threat to Hungary was not the war in neighboring Ukraine but rather migrants and "gender."
Daily life without rights
"I don't understand how something like this can happen. Why don't millions of Hungarians refuse to tolerate being spoken to by the government in such a primitive way?" Viktor asks. "Why don't we laugh at them and vote them out?" But his disappointment over his homeland cannot overshadow the happiness of his life in Berlin.
For him and his partner Janos, a music teacher, walking together through the city continues to be the most wonderful experience.
"We've been together 19 years, and this is the first time that we can stroll around in public holding hands. We may not have been beaten up in Budapest for doing this, but it's about the mental state of gay people who live in Hungary," Viktor says. "You get used to the feeling of not having the right to take a walk while holding hands."
*Name has been changed. The real name of the subject is known to the author and editor. Four out of five people interviewed by DW (Gabor, Endre, Viktor and Janos) agreed to speak on the condition that their real names not be published.
This article has been translated from German.
Author: Gabriella Valaczkay
First published: September 10, 2022
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