‘Do you support the unrestricted presentation of sexual media content that influences the development of underage children?’
In a national referendum likely to be held in the spring, Hungarians will be asked this question and others about the ‘promotion of gender reassignment’ to children, the holding of sexual orientation classes without parental consent, and whether or not they ‘support the display of gender-sensitive media content’ to kids.
Parliament approved the referendum on Tuesday; opposition MPs chose not to vote on what they see as an egregious waste of public money. But this has cleared the way for an attempt by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party to cloak its controversial crackdown on LGBT freedoms with the legitimacy of public support.
Back in June, Orbán’s party introduced a ‘child protection law’ banning the presentation of LGBT-related content in spaces accessible to children. In the face of predictable global outcry, Fidesz stood their ground, claiming their sole intention is to shield young people from an ‘LGBT ideology’ on matters of sexual identity – a force linked, in Fidesz’s view, to an EU whose ideological imperialism threatens to undermine traditional Hungarian values.
The ban on so-called ‘LGBT propaganda’ – placed alongside provisions in the bill relating to paedophilia – was an incendiary move. But Hungary is far from the only LGBT sceptic in central and eastern Europe.
The reasons for this are complex, and unique to each country’s specific history and culture. Traditional Christian values continue to play a strong role in the lives of many Poles and Hungarians – but even in the region’s more atheist countries, such as the Czech Republic, there’s a sense that ‘LGBT ideology’ is the product of a decades-long western cultural process which hasn’t been followed by ex-Communist states.
Alongside the influence of the past runs fear of the future. Fidesz’s LGBT policy is intrinsically linked to its concern for the survival of the traditional family model – a matter of particular economic and social significance for Hungary.
Stagnating populations and declining fertility rates threaten serious economic and societal problems in the decades to come. Between 2019 and 2020, Hungary’s population shrank by 0.25 per cent, or by around 24,000 people, and a recent study predicted a 12.3 per cent population decline from 2020 to 2050. With low fertility rates compounded by an absence of the high levels of immigration driving western European population growth, Orbán – like other leaders throughout Central Europe – is deeply preoccupied with halting this decline.
Bar a hugely unpopular relaxation of migration policies, there are few options open to him other than encouraging more people to form larger families. Fidesz have introduced various schemes to incentivise childbearing, including mortgage loan repayments for couples with two or more children and lifetime personal income tax exemptions for women with four or more children. Fertility treatment centres have meanwhile been nationalised with services delivered free of charge.
A wish to steer children down the path of heteronormativity is yet another strand of the party’s family building strategy. By keeping what they regard as confusing material out of sight of young eyes, the country’s leaders believe they are preserving and strengthening the traditional family model for generations to come.
But the war over ‘LGBT ideology’ is also tied up with questions of national sovereignty which have come to pervade Hungarian politics under Orbán’s rule. The LGBT referendum is being framed as a chance for the Hungarian people to take back control of their own culture, with policy based on the wishes of the majority rather than the demands of specific interest groups.
Putting delicate cultural questions to the people would, indeed, be an interesting exercise if it were undertaken as a genuine attempt to reveal and examine popular attitudes. Sadly though, Orbán’s planned vote is not.
After all, who in their right mind would answer ‘yes’ to the question posed at the start of this article? Rather than trying to get a handle on the nuances of the debate surrounding LGBT culture in central Europe, Orbán is simply reinforcing the notion that Fidesz is all that stands between Hungary’s traditional identity and untrammelled western liberalism.
It has long suited Orbán to feed this narrative – but his latest move might be a step too far. In the new leader of the United Opposition Péter Márki-Zay, Orbán has a Catholic conservative challenger who is hard to dismiss as a cipher for western progressivism. The divisive content and context of the referendum, meanwhile, make it vanishingly unlikely that opponents will treat it with anything other than contempt.
This lack of engagement will likely produce a landslide result not worth the paper it is written on – and while many Fidesz supporters will be happy to play along with the charade, others will be troubled by an attempt to weaponise democracy as an instrument of government policy. Orbán may present his LGBT referendum as a way of putting cultural developments in the hands of the people; but in reality, it is little more than his own form of ideological imposition.