Portrayal and promotion – Hungary’s LGBTQI+ law explained

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses media representatives as he arrives on the first day of a European Union (EU) summit at the European Council Building in Brussels, Belgium, 24 June 2021. EU leaders meet in Brussels for two days to discuss COVID-19, economic recovery, migration and external relations. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS / POOL]

Controversy over a new Hungarian law banning LGBTQI+ references for minors is set to be raised by several EU leaders during their 24-25 June summit, originally intended to focus on foreign policy issues. But what is this law, and how does it fit into the Hungarian government’s anti-LGBTQI+ agenda? EURACTIV’s media partner Telex takes a closer look.

News about the Hungarian law quickly made headlines all over Europe, sparking criticism and prompting 17 EU member states to urge the European Commission in a joint statement on Tuesday (22 June) to act against the discrimination of sexual minorities in Hungary.

The Hungarian parliament passed a law introducing heavier sanctions on sexual crimes against minors. However, due to last-minute changes submitted by MPs of the ruling Fidesz party, the act now outlaws “promoting or portraying” homosexuality or sex reassignment to minors and limits sexual education in schools.

It started out innocently enough

The original version of the bill did not target sexual minorities in any way; it was merely intended to increase the criminal repercussions of paedophilia.

The criminal reform of sexual crimes against minors became a hot political topic in Hungary in mid-2020, following a scandal involving Hungary’s former ambassador to Peru, Gábor Kaleta, who was busted by a US-led international law enforcement team that found nearly 20,000 pornographic pictures of minors on his computer.

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Back in April last year, the Hungarian ambassador to Peru, Gábor Kaleta, was removed from service, brought home, and would soon face trial, as more than 19,000 child pornography photos had been found on his devices.

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Eventually, Kaleta had to pay a negligible €1,500 fine but otherwise walked free with a suspended sentence.

In the ensuing scandal, Fidesz vowed to reform the penal code and introduce heavier sanctions for sexual crimes against minors. In late May 2021, Fidesz lawmakers finally submitted the legislation’s first draft to the Parliament.

Although there were some disputes about technicalities, such as avoiding teenagers over 18 ending up in the sex offender database for sexting with their barely underage partners, there was a rare consensus in the Hungarian Parliament between the governing party and the opposition.

Bait and switch

However, all that ended on 8 June, when Fidesz MPs submitted changes to the draft, days before the final vote on the Anti-Paedophilia Act was scheduled to take place. Many regarded the new text as an attempt to conflate paedophilia and sexual minorities, as it added the following provisions:

  • No content featuring portrayals of homosexuality or sex reassignment can be made available to minors – according to the text, “in order to reach the objectives set forth by the present law and to protect the rights of children, it is forbidden to make available for minors content that features any portrayal of sexuality as an end in itself, any deviation from the identity corresponding to one’s sex assigned at birth, sex reassignment, or promotion of homosexuality.”
  • School sex educators can no longer “promote” homosexuality or sex reassignment – “When educating students on sexual culture, sex life, sexual preferences, and sexual development, special emphasis shall be placed on following the provisions set forth by Article XVI paragraph (1) of the Fundamental Law. These activities cannot aim to promote deviation from the identity corresponding to one’s sex assigned at birth, sex reassignment, or homosexuality.”
  • Sexual education classes can only be held by registered organisations, limiting more liberal NGOs – Only organisations registered with a “state agency defined by law” may have (also registered) lectures in schools on sexual education, drug prevention, internet usage, or any other topics relating to mental and physical development. The law is pretty openly intended to exclude certain NGOs from education, the explanatory memorandum is clear: “Organisations of questionable professional credibility, created in many cases to represent certain sexual orientations,” are trying to “influence children’s sexual development with their so-called sensitivity trainings, causing severe damage to their physical, mental, and moral development.”
  • Restrictions on ads with LGBT content – As the explanatory memorandum states, the law “amends Act XLVIII. of 2008 on Business Advertising in such a way that makes it unlawful to broadcast an advertisement to minors if the advertisement portrays sexuality as an end in itself, or portrays or promotes deviation from the identity corresponding to one’s sex at birth, sex reassignment, or homosexuality. The amendment made to the Media Act makes sure that [any such programmes] must be rated Category V (not recommended for minors). Under the proposal, advertisements must also be rated.”

Eventually, the proposal passed with 157 votes in favour, with most of the opposition leaving the chamber for the vote.

Fidesz also managed to drive a wedge into the so-far historic opposition alliance, as lawmakers of formerly far-right opposition party Jobbik joined Fidesz in supporting the bill, unlike the rest of the opposition parties, some of whom harshly criticised Jobbik.

Although Jobbik’s President, Péter Jakab, already made it clear in a recent interview with Telex that LGBT rights are not exactly the hill he wants to die on, he explained that he disagrees with parts of the law that limit sexual education but cannot condone the promotion of homosexuality.

Jobbik’s press office told Telex that if the opposition alliance wins in 2022, they will repeal “the sections that have nothing to do with the topic.”

What does this mean in practice?

The meaning of these new regulations is just as difficult to decipher in Hungarian as it is in English, as there is no existing legal definition for “portrayal” or “promotion” in the law or in judicial practice.

A statement released by commercial TV network M-RTL noted that the new law places movies and shows such as Billy Eliot, Philadelphia, Modern Family, and some instalments of the Harry Potter franchise into the same category as the goriest horror movies: they can only be broadcast after 11 pm, with a red circle indicating they are not suitable for audiences under 18.

Other media companies such as A+E Networks UK, AMC, HBO, WarnerMedia, and ViacomCBS have also joined RTL’s statement.

Several organisations in the music industry also voiced their concerns. Music Hungary Federation said the law is “worrisome and incomprehensible,” noting that the new provisions have nothing to do with the proclaimed goal of sanctioning paedophilia, and these restrictions will affect festival and concert line-ups and radio playlists as well.

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Last week, Hungarian state undersecretary Balázs Orbán told RTL Klub that the law would be enforced by the “relevant authorities.” He hopes that “everyone is prepared, understands the purpose of the act, and will be capable of making administrative decisions in line with the legislators’ intent.”

Online outlet Media1 attempted to test this by asking the professional opinion of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) on whether or not episodes of the TV series Friends mentioning homosexuality would have to be aired after 11:00 PM.

Even though Balázs Orbán said this specific example would not fall under the scope of the regulation, he did not specify why, and neither did NMHH, writing that they would examine specific cases individually; otherwise, the bureau is not in a position to give legal interpretations.

Protecting children?

In essence, we will only see how the law gets enforced once an alleged violation gets reported.

Human rights advocates warned that the ban on LGBT portrayals in media and schools could harm the mental health of LGBT youth.

Háttér Társaság, one of the oldest LGBT NGOs in Hungary, pointed out that their 2017 study found that more than half of LGBT students have felt unsafe at school, and more than two-thirds suffered some type of verbal abuse regarding their sexual orientation.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union urged civil disobedience against sections of the law targeting sexual minorities.

Despite the international uproar, the government insists that the law does not discriminate against anyone, as it does not affect decisions taken by adults in any way; it is all about protecting Hungarian children.

Not an isolated case

However, the latest developments will hardly surprise anyone who has been following Hungarian politics in recent times. The idea of limiting LGBT portrayals in advertising first popped up in government circles and the pro-government media shortly after Coca-Cola began their “Love is love” campaign in Hungary.

Hungarian media watchdog targets LGBTQI TV campaign

Hungary’s media authority has initiated proceedings against RTL Hungary media group for broadcasting an advert aimed at boosting acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender queer and intersexual (LGBTQI) families.

Several members of the governing party are known to have spoken out against sexual minorities, most famously parliament speaker László Kövér, who compared same-sex couples’ adoption rights to paedophilia, concluding:

“A normal homosexual is aware of the order of things in the world … and tries to fit in while not necessarily thinking he is equal.”

Viktor Orbán’s government had been carefully crafting the narrative against sexual minorities for years, and going beyond identity politicking and inflammatory rhetorics, this resulted in legislation curbing LGBT rights on several occasions:

In 2013, the fourth amendment to the Hungarian Fundamental Law ruled out any constitutional possibility for same-sex marriage by defining marriage as the conjugal union between a man and a woman. The same paragraph also declares that families are based on marriages, excluding alternative family models from the constitutional definition.

In 2018, the government banned gender studies at universities, as they told CNN, “the government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable to talk about socially-constructed genders.”

In May 2020, a law abolished gender recognition, replacing the term “gender” with “sex at birth” in the civil registry, making it impossible to legally transition, forcing trans people to live with official documents bearing the wrong gender and name.

The ninth amendment to the Fundamental Law laid down the groundwork for the current legislation declaring that “the mother is a woman, the father is a man” and that children have a right to an “identity corresponding their sex at birth” and an upbringing that reflects “values based on Hungary’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.”

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It also now states that “Hungary protects the right of children to self-identity according to …

Adopted simultaneously with the constitutional amendment above, another law prohibited unmarried singles from adopting children unless they have a special permit from the Minister for Families, the criteria for which are unclear. This effectively closed the only available option for same-sex couples to have children.

The creation of this article was made possible by Telex’s cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

*Kata Janecskó contributed reporting.

[Edited by Vlagyiszlav Makszimov/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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