Hungary’s classrooms have become the new battleground for the war on ‘LGBT ideology’

By Mark Gevisser* – The Guardian

Viktor Orban has used a new law to equate gay people with paedophiles. He’s not the first to use this tactic

Last week, the Hungarian parliament banned any portrayal of homosexuality or transgenderism to minors, in educational material or on television. Appending this to a law protecting children from child abuse, the country’s president, Viktor Orbán, drew an explicit connection between homosexuality and paedophilia. In so doing, he resorted to a canard that much of the world has long dispensed with, but that is enjoying a troubling new emergence in the global battles against “gender ideology”: the danger posed by homosexuals and trans people to children.

“The logic of the government is to find an enemy and pretend that they are saving the country from this enemy,” said the Hungarian LGBTQ+ leader Tamás Dombos in a presentation to the United States Congress last week. Dombos described the new law as “a conscious and diabolic political strategy” by the government to divert public attention from its messy response to the Covid crisis. The law is also a salvo in a tough upcoming election, and an effective way of staking what I term a “pink line”: a nativist boundary protecting, in this case, Hungarian “values” against the immoral imperialism of George Soros and Brussels.

In this way, the Hungarian law echoes what Vladimir Putin did in 2012 when he used Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” legislation to counter the growing urban opposition to his bid for a third presidential term. It also sets the scene for a Hungarian repeat of Andrzej Duda’s electoral campaign in Poland last year, which attacked “LGBT ideology”. Ironically, these “anti-west” politicians are using the playbook developed in the United States by Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign in Florida, which sought to expunge all references to homosexuality from curriculums, and resulted in several laws across the country. Long before Russia and Hungary, Margaret Thatcher’s British government passed section 28, banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. This was only repealed in 2003 in England and Wales; in the US “no promo homo” laws are still on the books in four southern states. Recently, two states – Arizona and Tennessee – have come close to restricting students’ access to information about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the president, Jair Bolsonaro, has committed himself to expunging the word “gender” and any talk of homosexuality or transgenderism from the curriculum. There are attempts to do so legally in more than 100 Brazilian jurisdictions, and even though the supreme court has ruled against 11 of these already, the process continues unabated.

In Africa, several countries have retreated from a commitment to the UN-approved comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) because of spirited opposition from the religious right. In the runup to Ghana’s 2020 election campaign, a religious lobby constituted itself against what it termed “Comprehensive Satanic Education” – primarily because it allegedly promoted LGBTQ+ rights. The fear and hatred generated in this debate fuelled a clampdown in the country: its first LGBTQ community centre was shut down earlier this year; and 21 young people attending a paralegal training event were arrested for “advocating LGBTQ activities” last month.

A similar anti-CSE campaign was successful in Zambia, and is gaining ground in populous Ethiopia, too. Like those in Latin American and eastern Europe, these campaigns used materials and tactics generated by “pro-family” movements in the US, primarily Family Watch International (FWI) and the World Congress of Families (WCF). FWI, which is based in Arizona, and led the anti-LGBTQ+ education campaign there, has provided the muscle to the Ghana and Ethiopia campaigns in particular.

In the Catholic world, these campaigns intersect with conservative organisations such as Opus Dei, and more recently with Ordo Iuris, an influential organisation of Polish Catholic lawyers that has just opened a university in Warsaw as an explicit counterweight to George Soros’s Central European University. Eastern European conservatives claim to be mounting a counterattack against the leftist orthodoxy about gender and homosexuality, which they equate – as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán often does – to communist ideology.

As early as 1995, American religious conservatives came to Moscow to hatch the WCF with Orthodox activists seeking political traction in post-communist Russia. The WCF’s Russian members played a key role in selling the anti-gay propaganda idea to politicians; its last congress, in 2017, was hosted by the Hungarian government and opened by Orbán himself. Hungarian activists have no doubt that the law passed this week comes out of these global connections. The reason why these campaigns are so similar worldwide, and so potentially effective, is that – as Dombos put it: “Humans all over the world have similar fears. They are afraid for their children. They want the best for their children, so if you’re telling them, ‘These monster trans freaks are gonna turn your child into a trans person you will never recognise,’ people resonate with this.”

Polls show that a majority of Hungarians support LGBTQ+ rights, and that those against same-sex marriage only slightly outweigh those who are in favour. It is for this reason that Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party is tagging homosexuality to paedophilia in the new law, six months after it banned the adoption of children by anyone other than heterosexual married couples. Having outlawed legal gender transition, it now seeks, explicitly, to stoke a moral panic about children.

All over the world, rightwing conservatives and their populist allies have sparked such panics in recent years. I have seen the destructive power of this myself with the Russian trans woman who lost all access to her son because a judge found she would be “promoting homosexuality” to him. There is clear evidence of the way the connection incubates violence, too, from the rising homophobic violence in Brazil, to ongoing murderous pogroms against homosexuals in Chechnya.

But even if the Hungarian law is part of this trend, it sets a shocking new precedent. In recent years, as gay people in particular have become more acceptable, there has been a move by rightwing activists to depersonalise hate through talk of “gender ideology” and “LGBT ideology”. But the Hungarian legislation brutally turns its blade directly towards actual people, by equating them to child abusers in the letter of the law itself.

Anita Bryant’s attempts to do this in Florida, in 1977, played a major role in mobilising the American gay rights movement of that era – and triggered widespread popular support for gay people. Something similar can, and must, happen now, in Hungary and globally.


*Mark Gevisser is a South African author and journalist. His books include Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir (2014) and The Pink Line: The World’s Queer Frontiers (2020)


Read also:

Euro 2020 soccer stadium’s LGBT rainbow plan rejected for being too ‘political’

Munich’s mayor Dieter Reiter, requested to light up stadium during Germany’s match against Hungary as a “symbol of cosmopolitanism and tolerance.” UEFA said Tuesday that it objected to the reasoning behind the request, which it said breached strict impartiality rules. Reiter on Tuesday called UEFA’s decision “shameful” and said that the city would drape city hall in the rainbow flags and light up the stadium’s wind turbine and the Munich Olympic tower.