It was heartening to watch videos of the Pride celebrations in Budapest on Saturday, with throngs of marchers carrying a huge rainbow flag through the streets of the Hungarian capital. “Let us walk the streets of Budapest today with our head up high,” an announcer said, “and celebrate our lives, celebrate who we are, and celebrate who we love.”
But this year’s march was more than a celebration; it was a protest against the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which recently enacted a law that forbids LGBTQ characters and themes in educational materials and on daytime television. The law bans sharing materials with children that, the government says, could “have a detrimental effect on their development” or “confuse their developing moral values or their image of themselves.”
If only it were as simple as that. Protecting children from harm is both a noble cause and an essential duty of any government, and precisely because of that it is easily exploited for political purposes.
Orbán’s party, Fidesz, has held a tight grip on power since 2010, but it is facing uncertainty in next year’s parliamentary election. A year ago, the outcome would not have been in doubt, but in December five smaller parties banded together to form the United Opposition. Together, the opposition is mounting a credible assault on Fidesz, with polling wobbling back and forth between a 2% lead and a 2% deficit.
Fidesz has a history of nativism and xenophobia. In 2018, Orbán rallied supporters in a speech: “We do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed: We do not want our own color, traditions, and national culture to be mixed with those of others… We want to be how we became 1100 years ago here in the Carpathian Basin.”
“If you want to understand the Orbán regime, it’s very important to note that…there is always one enemy,” opposition MEP Katalin Cseh recently told The Irish Times. “Before this it was the migrants. Now it appears that the LGBTI community is part of the new enemy group.”
But Hungary is not the only country where demagogues, clerics, and influencers are using LGBTQ rights as political tools. China, Ghana, and even the United States have all seen an uptick in this kind of cynical, exploitive politicking in recent years.
In China, after WeChat shut down a number of LGBTQ accounts, The Economist writes, “many social-media users hailed [their] closure…as a victory for patriots.” Some have likened LGBTQ rights advocates to foreign infiltrators bent on China’s destruction, posting comments like, “External forces are trying to weaken China’s competitiveness by spreading propaganda about LGBT to reduce China’s fertility rate.”
Never mind that China’s looming demographic reversal, in which its population is forecast to begin shrinking ca. 2031, has nothing to do with LGBTQ people; it is due primarily to the country’s one-child policy, which was in force from 1979 until 2015.
In Ghana earlier this year, European and Australian diplomats helped a Ghanaian rights group raise funds for an LGBTQ community center, which opened to much protest—and then quickly closed—in February. In a statement released at the time, the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference connected gay rights to foreign influence, saying, “The EU should not impose their so-called values and beliefs on Ghanaians who are also against homosexuality.”
President Nana Akufo-Addo, who is a member of the New Patriotic Party, suggested in 2017 that the legalization of homosexuality was inevitable, but he has since reversed his position. A few weeks ago, MP Sam Nartey George of the competing National Democratic Congress introduced legislation that would stiffen penalties for LGBTQ people and make it a crime for anyone to provide support or medical care to LGBTQ people.
And the United States? Seventy years ago, in the midst of what was to become known as the “Lavender Scare,” The New York Times could run the headline “Perverts Called Government Peril” without scare quotes. The story opens, “Guy George Gabrielson, Republican National Chairman, asserted…that ‘sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years’ were ‘perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists.’”
But in the past seventy years, and particularly in the past twenty, public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of gay and lesbian rights. According to recent Gallup polls, 75% of Americans now have “friends or relatives or coworkers who have told you, personally, that they are gay or lesbian,” and 70% say that same-sex marriage should be legal up from 27% in 1996. Over the same period is has become less and less acceptable to the white public for politicians to vilify people of color, and even Donald Trump coded his appeals to racism in terms of immigration reform and building a “physical, tall, power[ful], beautiful southern border wall.”
In the U.S. the battle ground has shifted to transgender rights, with Republicans playing the “protect the children” card with warnings of “boys in the girls’ bathroom” at school and “boys competing in girls’ sports.” Only 31% of Americans say they personally know someone who has told them they are transgender, according to Gallup, making it easier to define trans people as the stranger in xenophobia. Fifty-one percent believe that trans people should use the restroom of the gender they were assigned at birth, and 62% believe they should compete on the sports teams of their “birth gender.”
This year, according to CNN, legislators in 33 states have introduced more than 117 bills targeting the transgender community. “These bills are not addressing any real problem, and they’re not being requested by constituents,” writes the Human Rights Campaign. “Rather, this effort is being driven by national far-right organizations attempting to score political points by sowing fear and hate.”
So we are back where we started in Hungary, with politicians manufacturing an enemy where there is none to further their own political ends, just as Adolf Hitler did when he warned in Mein Kampf of “bands of Polish murderers and arsonists slaughter[ing] German workers.” And while it is simplistic and unfair to compare today’s legislators to one of the evilest mass murderers in history, we should remember George Santayana’s words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Bellows, The Barricade, 1918 (Birmingham Museum of Art). In this painting and a lithograph made after it, Bellows depicted the horrors of war as German soldiers use naked civilians as a human shield.