When Labrisz Leszbikus Egyesulet (Labrisz Lesbian Association) published “A Fairy Tale for Everyone” in September of 2020, the backlash from Hungary’s ruling conservative politicians was immediate. One leader of the country’s far-right Mi Hazánk party shredded the book in a public display, calling it “homosexual propaganda.” A conservative action group started a petition to have the book removed from shelves. Even Prime Minister Viktor Orban saw fit to criticize the publication, saying in a radio interview that while Hungary “is a patient, tolerant country … there is a red line that cannot be crossed, and this is how I would sum up my opinion: Leave our children alone.”
What caused this fuss? “Fairy Tale,” an anthology of 17 fairy tale retellings, had dared to include stories featuring queer and transgender characters.
“Fairy Tale” also includes characters from other underrepresented groups, such as people with disabilities and marginalized ethnic groups, such as the Roma, and tackles weighty subjects like poverty and child abuse. But it was the inclusion of queer characters that was the tipping point for conservatives. In June of the following year, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party introduced a bill in the Hungarian Parliament banning the distribution of LGBTQ+-related content to minors. The bill passed in a partisan vote which opposition leaders boycotted.
“I think that [the book] was the last drop for the government to do something with the laws, also, against the LGBT community,” says Mariá “Kymi” Kristófy, a member of Labrisz, when she and fellow members Anna Borgos and Dorettya Rédai spoke to GO last December.
Redai, a member of Labrisz and the coordinator for the “Fairy Tale” book project, is quick to counter. “I wouldn’t say that our book really triggered the government to introduce these laws. That’s the excuse that they had to respond to. But it’s been a process.”
This process has been a gradual eroding of LGBTQ+ freedoms in the Eastern European country, with growing restrictions on organizations like Labrisz Leszbikus Egyesulet, which for decades has provided a safe space for queer women, and helped normalize LGBTQ+ issues and individuals through education and outreach within the broader Hungarian community.
The purpose of Labrisz “was to create space for LBTQ women,” says Borgos, who co-founded the organization in 1999. Organizers began by offering community events, such as monthly discussion groups and film and game clubs for lesbian and queer women, but quickly expanded the operations. In 2000, Labrisz began publishing its own lesbian and queer-centric work, of which “A Fairy Tale for Everyone” (“Meseország mindenkie” in Hungarian) is the most recent title. It launched an educational program, “Getting to know LGBT people” in 2004, aimed at raising awareness of LGBTQ+ people and issues with students, teachers, and educators – a program that is now under threat thanks to the anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda law.
Tolerance for Hungary’s LGBTQ+ community has ebbed and flowed over the past few decades as the country emerged from the Eastern Block and moved toward a more “Western” style of democracy. “It was not a linear process,” Borgos tells GO, recalling how the late 90s and early aughts “were kind of very progressive” toward new and emerging ideas, including around sexual orientation and identity.
For Kristofy, however, the early aughts were still a time of “big silence” around homosexuality, although after she joined Labrisz in 2005 she noticed how LGBTQ+ issues were gradually becoming more public. But whatever openness Hungary had for the LGBTQ+ community came to a close in 2010, when Orban’s conservative party, Fidesz, won a majority in the parliament. They’ve been in power since, enacting, gradually at first, increasing restrictions on LGBTQ+ individuals. In 2012, Parliament codified marriage as a union between a man and a woman into the country’s constitution, although same-sex registered and unregistered partnerships are officially recognized.
After retaining its majority in subsequent parliamentary elections on an anti-immigration platform, Fidesz again turned its attention on the LGBTQ+ community in 2020. In May, Parliament passed a law that prevented trans individuals from legally changing their gender identity. Later that same year, it passed another law, this one defining a family as consisting of a mother and a father, cutting off same-sex couples and many single individuals from adoption services.
Then, in January 2021, the government required that Labrisz place labels on “Fairy Tale” identifying that it contained content “inconsistent with traditional gender roles,” the Guardian reports. This stipulation would be followed in June with the anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda act that bans the distribution of LGBTQ+-related content to anyone under the age of 18. This includes content that would be distributed to students during sexual education classes, and even television film and advertisement featuring gay or trans individuals.
In a final, ugly twist before its passage, the anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda bill was tied to another piece of legislation, this one imposing strict penalties on acts of pedophilia – an equivalence often employed by anti-gay crusaders.
The law has come under fire from human rights groups and LGBTQ+ organizations. In July, the European Commission took legal action against Hungary for its failure to defend human rights by passing this and other pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Defenders of this legislation say that they are only trying to protect children, and traditional Hungarian values, as embodied in family units (“As if we [LGBTQ+ people] didn’t have children,” Redai says wryly). Opponents argue that the legislation is part of a broader move on the part of Fidesz to shore up support among its base before the next election cycle – a cynical move on the part of an increasingly authoritarian administration.
It’s a process, Redai says, that’s been happening in Hungary for some time, and is particularly intensive because it’s coming not from civic groups, but rather from the government, which has the power to enforce its proposed legislation. The anti-LGBTQ+ movement “seems to be part of this autocratization process. They build an enormous state, the state is everywhere, and you can’t get away from the state,” she says. “The bigger the state is, the more they impose all these anti-gender messages and [rhetoric] and propaganda.”
“People must hate somebody,” says Kristofy. “We [the LGBTQ+ community] are now the main enemy.”
That the anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda law is designed effectively to protect children makes it a potent weapon. In this regard, “the fairytale book was quite the good, projective surface, or an excuse, for [conservative legislators] because this kind of protecting kids, the innocent heterosexual kids and minors from the threat of LGBT people, it can resonate in many people or parents’ minds,” says Borgos. Its attachment to the anti-pedophilia law “was a very, very ugly way of mixing pedophilia and homosexuality in people’s minds.”
The connection between pedophilia and the fairytale book was also made explicitly in an article that was published in Hungarian Nation in October 2020, about a week after Orban attacked the book in his radio interview. The article referred to “A Fairy Tale for Everyone” as pedophilic in nature, and Labrisz as a pedophilic organization. Labrisz successfully sued the publisher in November 2021, but in a recent setback, the ruling was overruled in February by a Metropolitan Judgment Board, which claimed that the organization had not been damaged as a result of the article.
The book isn’t the only part of Labrisz that has felt the impact of the propaganda law. Under the new law, organizations must request the government’s permission to take part in school programs – permission that Labrisz’s own educational program, “Getting to know LGBT people,” already stalled under Covid restrictions, isn’t likely to obtain.
The result, the women of Labrisz all fear, is that LGBTQ+ youth will be more isolated than ever, with few outlets to turn to for discussing their own sexual orientation or identity. “They keep the LGBT youth totally invisible,” Redai says. “They communicate as if such young people didn’t exist at all, which is really harmful for such young people.”
Although the future of the educational program might be uncertain, “Fairy Tale” is a success, no doubt thanks in part to all the free press it’s received. The original run of 1,500 copies sold out almost immediately, and sales for additional prints jumped after Dóra Dúró, a member of the ultra-conservative Mi Hazànk party, publicly destroyed the book. “People have been asking jokingly whether we hired her as a marketing advisor,” Redai says. “She did it for free. We didn’t have to pay her.” To date, she tells me the book has sold over 32,000 copies, and has been translated into ten languages, including Slovak, Polish, and Dutch. An English version is slated for October 2022.
Thanks to the anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda law, however, in Hungary the book must come with a warning label, and must be enclosed in packaging not unlike a pornographic magazine. “We had to package our books,” Redai says, holding a copy up to the screen, the bottom half encased in a thick banner. As a little added cheek, however, they labeled each encased book with a sticker, advertising the title. “On the sticker it says, ‘Fairy land still belongs to everyone, even if it’s packaged.’”
Kristofy is “very proud” of the book. Not only has it “reached so many people,” its popularity in spite of the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric “gives us power to fight against the government, [the] negative assaults and laws.”
For its part, Labrisz will continue in its mission to provide community space for gay women, and as a place where LGBTQ+ issues can be discussed freely and openly. The organization has plans to move into a larger office space so that community members can organize their own events once it’s safe to do so – and not, thankfully, on Zoom. Now that Labrisz has passed the 20-year mark, Borgos is also at work compiling an archive about the history of the organization, and “the traces of Hungarian lesbian herstory, the very scare traces, but those we can find.”
For as much as Fidesz claims to defend Hungarian values, gays, lesbians, transgender individuals, and other queer folk have always been part of Hungary’s culture, whether openly or closeted. As for the future of LGBTQ+ rights in the country, much depends on the national elections, which will be held on April 3. Fidesz will face a unified opposition, and perhaps its strongest competition since it took power in 2010, due in part to how it has handled the Covid pandemic.
But the party is hoping to again shore up conservative voters by taking a page from its old playbook: it has called for a referendum on the anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda bill to be held on the same day as the general election. Voters will be asked a series of questions, including whether or not “they support the holding of sexual orientation workshops in schools without parental consent, and whether they believe gender reassignment procedures should be ‘promoted’ among children,” Reuters reports.
Whatever happens, the ongoing fight over LGBTQ+ rights has made the community in Hungary visible. As the popularity of “Fairy Land” suggests, they aren’t without support. One thing seems for certain: groups like Labrisz aren’t going away, despite what the government might want.