BUDAPEST – Valerie Divine was making her way into the Reggaeton Bar & Bistro to get ready for a show when she was stopped by a little girl around five years old. Drawn to the sparking pink rhinestone dress and bouncy pink hair, the young fan wanted a picture. Her parents, who were expats, had been dragged from a nearby restaurant to help make the request and they happily gave their permission for the shot to be taken. This wasn’t the first time their daughter had seen a drag queen.
Divine knelt down next to the child and together they smiled into the camera. So enthralled was the family by the 30-year-old that they stayed for her performance.
Later a member of staff posted the picture to the bar’s Facebook page. That’s when the problems began.
Unbeknown to everyone, the Facebook page was being watched by pro-government journalists who dutifully went on a crusade against the bar and Divine – just two weeks previously the Hungarian parliament had passed a law which included a ban on showing content of homosexuality or gender reassignment to minors.
Since coming to power in 2010 Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his nationalist Fidesz party have hollowed out Hungary’s media ecosystem by pushing out dissenting titles and using supportive outlets as little more than a propaganda tool. One pro-government site said the picture was evidence of LGBTQ organisations “using children for their propaganda”. Another went further and said the image proved “the adoption of the Child Protection Act by the Hungarian government was not necessarily premature” – the new anti-LGTBQ measure was attached to a bill that introduced tougher penalties for paedophilia, reflecting the government’s deliberate attempts to associate gay and lesbian people with child abuse.
“My fellow performers told me not to read the comments because they were so nasty,” Divine told VICE World News outside Reggaeton Bar & Bistro earlier this month, “I always felt so secure here in Hungary but since this law came out and this happened, I have to tell you, I wake up and go to sleep with these thoughts of where else to go.”
Valerie Divine is also Szabolcs Farkas who grew up in the small northern town of Ózd close to the Slovakian border. It was a gentle childhood with acceptance in abundance. “I kept asking girls out for years, but they always turned me down. I think they knew something I didn’t,” Farkas says with a nervous laugh. It was his mother who eventually broached the question of his sexuality and following that conversation he came out as gay aged 19. Divine uses she/her pronouns when in her drag persona and Farkas uses he/him.
The secrets of drag revealed themselves slowly to Farkas who upon his arrival to Budapest five years ago had harboured dreams of becoming an actor. It started with a cousin’s hen party where he performed with a hastily made costume and wig to rapturous applause. Then there was the allure of Drag Queen Hungary 2020 which became a turning point in the young man’s life.
“I really started one year before the competition, so I had a lot to learn, especially the make-up,” says Farkas, “but it was nice to realise that I have a talent.” It was during this time that Valerie Divine was born, a pageant queen with a penchant for MC.
Divine blazed through the city’s drag scene and snatched the coveted national crown last August. Her mother and sister were in the crowd cheering her on. It felt like a homecoming after 29 years of keeping an elusive feeling inside.
Despite LGBTQ people being targeted by the government over the last ten years, Hungary’s drag scene is thriving. Every year more queens burst onto stages across Budapest determined to show their skills can compete with the likes of Joe Black, Bimini Bon-Boulash or Bianca Del Rio. It’s a tight knit community centred on the art and entertainment.
Drag Queen Hungary started in 2019 at the Kimberly Café & Bar with around 40 in attendance. In 2020 it moved to Crush Budapest where nearly 150 squeezed in to watch Divine steal the show. Earlier this month, over 300 people filed out The Bakelit Multi Art Centre on the outskirts of the city where a queen called Sa’soon took over Divine’s legacy. The competition used to only accommodate amateurs but now professionals take part.
Nonetheless the relentless fearmongering whipped up by Fidesz against the community has taken its toll. “Everyone right now is walking around with butterflies in their stomach because we don’t know what can happen next and what rights could be taken away from us,” Gyula Antal Horváth, the director of Drag Queen Hungary, told VICE World News.
Before the anti-LGTBQ measure in June, the Hungarian parliament passed a law effectively banning same-sex couples from adopting children, even if one partner applied individually. The same legislation also defined the family as an institution “based on marriage and the parent-child relation” where the mother is a woman, the father a man". In May 2020 parliament ended legal recognition of transgender people by preventing them from changing their gender on government records.
But what really worries Farkas is the impact all these moves are having on young lesbian and gay people outside the capital whose towns and villages exist on a diet of pro-government media that claim homosexuality is a threat to Hungarian family values. These are the Fidesz heartlands where dissent from the party line can be rare. “It’s harder to come out today than it was when I did,” he says, “in many of these places there is no support at all and that can be very scary”. Even in Budapest people are becoming much more cautious walking down the street and queens like Divine either choose to travel in groups or by cab. Public transport is not an option.
Every year Farkas makes a pilgrimage to the World Press Photo exhibition to dive into the most transcendent images of the year. The categories stretch from news to nature, each one opening up a new world to the viewer. But it’s Mads Nissen’s winning entry from 2015 that still haunts the art lover. It’s a picture of Jon and Alex, a young gay couple in a small apartment in St Petersburg, lying softly on each other in a darkened room. Heavy dark curtains are drawn. There is a haunted look on their faces. “I keep thinking, will that be us? Will we become like Russia? Will I have to lock myself away? Will I have to draw the heavy curtains on my life?”, he says. His eyes begin to fill with tears, which he elegantly wipes away. There is a silence. There is nothing more he can say.