Hungarian LGBTQ organisations say they fear they are becoming the latest targets of a government hate campaign, after nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán waded into a debate over a children’s book with gay characters, with a warning to “leave our children alone”.
Despite its tiny initial print run of 1,500, A Fairytale for Everyone has become a flashpoint in Hungary’s culture wars since it was published last month. Published by Labrisz, a lesbian organisation, it retells 17 traditional Hungarian folk tales featuring heroes from various minorities, including the Roma, disabled and Jewish communities. One of the stories features two gay characters.
The book was thrust into the national spotlight when Dóra Dúró, an MP for the far-right Our Homeland Movement, ripped up a copy and shredded its pages in a press conference late last month. “The Our Homeland Movement does not accept that children are being subjected to homosexual propaganda,” she said. “Homosexual princes are not part of Hungarian culture.”
For Hungary’s LGBTQ community, the attacks from the far-right weren’t surprising: Dúró has based her political career around railing against gay rights. But they were alarmed when Orbán, the conservative strongman who has steered Hungary in an increasingly illiberal direction since 2010, waded into the debate in his weekly public radio interview Sunday, describing the book as a provocation, and apparently siding with the far-right.
“Hungarians are so patient that we even accept provocations of this kind with patience – although not without comment,” he said. “But there is a red line that must not be crossed, and this is how I would sum up my opinion: ‘Leave our children alone.’”
The remarks, made as a mob of far-right activists were loudly protesting a Budapest reading event for the book, has fuelled fears that Orbán – leader of the Fidesz party – could be singling out the LGBTQ community as his government’s next public enemy, continuing a successful strategy of scapegoating minorities as threats to the Hungarian people.
“It’s quite concerning when your prime minister is spewing hatred against a social group,” Tamás Dombos, a board member of the Háttér Society, a major Hungarian LGBTQ organisation, told VICE News. “There’s clearly growing homophobia among leading politicians in Hungary.”
On Thursday, Fidesz politicians continued their attacks on the book. Gergely Gulyás, Orbán’s cabinet chief, told a briefing that the publication was “homosexual propaganda” and “a threat to minors.” He suggested that those who introduced it to a kindergarten could be committing a crime by endangering children.
Meanwhile, reports emerged that the Fidesz-affiliated mayor of Csepel, a district of Budapest, had banned the book from the municipality’s kindergartens, in order to “protect the children.”
LGBTQ organisations say the comments fit within a rising tide of statements and legislative moves attacking gay and trans rights in Hungary in recent years.
In May, Hungary’s parliament voted to end legal recognition for trans people, while leading Fidesz figures have spoken about changing laws to prevent same-sex couples from adopting. Last year, parliament speaker László Kövér, a prominent Fidesz member, outraged the LGBTQ community with comments equating same-sex adoptive parents to paedophiles.
But Dombos said that while Orbán personally had often spoken in support of the traditional family unit, his latest comments marked an escalation by framing LGBTQ people as a threat to children.
“What’s different from before is the prime minister never used such prejudiced, stereotypical views as presenting LGBT people as harmful to children,” he said, adding that it was concerning that Fidesz had later promoted the remarks on its social media channels.
LGBTQ groups and political analysts say they fear Orbán’s party could be gearing up to paint the LGBTQ community as a threat to the Hungarian public ahead of parliamentary elections due in 2022. That would be the latest evolution of a strategy that has seen Fidesz demonise migrants, liberal philanthropist George Soros and the European Union in recent years.
“This government is all about identifying an enemy then claiming the government will protect you from this enemy. In the beginning it was banks, then it was Soros and the EU and migrants,” said Dombos, adding that the focus on migrants was no longer working “because there are no migrants”.
“They try and try, but people just got bored of the topic. We’re afraid we’re the next to be scapegoated.”
Analysts said the comments appeared to be borrowing from the playbook of neighbouring Poland, a close ideological ally of the nationalist Fidesz government, which has also railed against progressive values, the EU and immigration to court a conservative vote, unleashing a wave of homophobic and racist sentiment in the process.
“Orbán is obviously following the Poland recipe of political success in making statements that are able to whip up homophobic sentiments,” Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based think tank the Political Capital Institute, told VICE News.
“His statements are really dangerous and irresponsible, as they are fuelling the hate groups that are destroying this book.”
Approached for a response to the concerns, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government said they did not wish to comment.
Despite the aggressively homophobic response to the book from some quarters, the LGBTQ community has also been getting public support. The book shot on to the bestseller lists of online bookstores as liberal Hungarians snapped up copies. “The book was sold [out] immediately and will be reprinted, which indicates that the scandal not only stirred up hatred, but a significant part of the society expressed tolerance,” said Krekó.
But Viktoria Radványi, a board member for Budapest Pride, told VICE News that the LGBTQ community was wary of what lay ahead as Orbán eyes the next elections.
“You know when Orbán is talking about your minority in a negative way, your life is going to be really hard,” she said.