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Hungary is using the pandemic to end recognition of its transgender community

The government of Hungary has long held an anti-LGBTQIA+ ideology, and the COVID-19  pandemic has provided them the perfect opportunity to get away with erasing the trans community.

Last Tuesday (May 19th), the Hungarian parliament approved a law that ends the legal recognition of trans people. It stipulates that gender is defined at birth, based on a child’s chromosomes, therefore banning trans people from changing their name and gender in any official documentation.

The Hungarian government is using its power to take away people’s rights when it should be protecting its people from the pandemic. That is highly irregular and unethical. Nonetheless, it’s legal. And it’s happening.

On the 31st of March (Day of Trans Visibility), the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán obtained the power to rule by decree and suspend elections, in light of the COVID-19 crisis. That same day the PM’s party introduced a controversial set of measures presumably aimed at fighting coronavirus. Among them was a draft law that stipulated that official documents only register “sex at birth”.

 The pandemic has provided the perfect distraction for the government.

Orbán’s new power of ruling by decree, and the announcement of jail time for anyone who intentionally spread disinformation about the government’s response to the crisis eclipsed the policy change regarding trans rights. It buried it, under other political debates and a sanitary crisis.

European politicians and institutions (including the EU), human rights organizations, and international LGBTQIA+ associations all opposed the draft bill, with no success.

The news of this bill has shocked the Hungarian trans community. Ivett Ördög, a Hungarian trans activist, said that the passing of the law is “a tragedy” and has been very honest about its impact on the LGBTQIA+ community: “I struggled not to moan myself while trying to chat online with my peers who were just considering suicide”.

The Fidesz party, which has been in power in Hungary for the last 10 years, has long held an anti-LGTBQIA+ agenda. The Prime Minister himself made “traditional family values” the basis of his 2018 re-election campaign and promised to “build a new era” with major cultural changes.

Last year, the party’s Parliament speaker equated gay adoption with pedophilia. Moreover, in 2018 the Hungarian government faced severe criticism from the European Union after closing all gender studies courses that were offered by Hungarian universities.

In fact, trans people have had trouble changing their legal sex since 2017, and there are several court cases underway in relation to this situation. All of these cases and applications for name changes will now be rejected. Moreover, since the new documentation will show ‘sex at birth’ people fear that it will also affect trans people who have already had their gender and names officially changed.

Despite the country’s rigid LGTBQIA+ policies, during the past decade, the country was talking slow steps towards meeting the community’s demands. It is devastating news that a community that has fought so hard and has succeeded in obtaining the legal recognition of their own rights now has to see their identity questioned and even denied.

Homosexuality (above the age of 20) was decriminalized in 1961. Moreover, the Budapest Pride, first held in 1997, was the first Pride that took place in a country from the former Eastern Bloc.  However, it was only in 2003, that the Act on Equal Treatment and the Promotion of Equal Opportunities banned discrimination based on gender identity. Same-sex couples were allowed to register for civil partnerships in 2009, although they are still unable to marry or adopt. Moreover, the right of trans people to change their legal gender was only accepted three years ago.

It has not been a steady fight, and there have been ups and downs. During the 2014 Pride, the political party Jobbik displayed a banner that read “The Parliament Does Not Want Any Deviants” and verbally abused attendees. This weeks’ law is one of the biggest pushbacks to date.

Legal recognition is fundamental because it demonstrates the state’s acceptance of an individual. If a state won´t even recognize the existence of trans people, it will be unable to guarantee their safety, or treat them as citizens of the country.

Ivett has been honest about the problems that she has faced because her gender did not match that assigned to her in the registry. She has issues trying to pick up packets in the mail or even medicines “because the pharmacist didn’t believe me that my name was on the prescription”. Her roughest case was however when someone “challenged me to the police because they thought I wanted to misuse someone’s documents.”

The Hungarian government is taking advantage of the fear of the population and their concern for their health in order to pass a piece of legislation that, in order circumstances, might have faced much stronger opposition. They are using the distraction that the pandemic provides, and the powers that they have obtained by declaring the state of emergency, to push their own anti-LGTBQ+ agenda. In doing so, they are also creating a dangerous precedent.

The passing of this law makes Hungary the first EU country to take away transgender rights. Will other countries decide to follow?

Hungary might become a dangerous precedent.

LGBTQIA+ people have their lives already threatened by COVID-19. A United Nations report establishes that the LGBTQIA+ community is more likely to be HIV+ or homeless, two factors that greatly increased a person’s vulnerability to the virus. Moreover, members of this community already experience stigma and discrimination when accessing health services and are more likely to be de-prioritized in the case of an overloaded health system.

Moreover, the UN has established that there are “reports of police using COVID-19 directives to attack and target LGBTI organizations”. Moreover, the report states that “in at least one country, the State of Emergency has been used to propose a decree that would prevent transgender people from legally changing their gender in identity documents”, probably referring to Hungary.

South Korea, for example, has reported a marked increase in online threats and discrimination against LGBT people who are being unfairly accused of spreading Covid-19, despite the pandemic there being much more under control.

If a country opposes the existence of a community, how can we expect it to protect it from a virus? The Hungarian government’s decision does not only attack trans people’s rights but also their lives.

We are living through critical times. However, we mustn´t let the medical emergency distract us from defending the rights that have been so hard to obtain. Human rights and the lives of people like Ivette are at risk.

By Beatriz Valero de Urquía

Beatriz Valero de Urquia is the Senior Pop Culture and Books Editor at The Tempest. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2020 and has written for publications such as Teen Vogue, El Huffington Post, Digital Bulletin and Tech for Good. Beatriz spends her time between Spain and the UK reading, writing and listening to Taylor Swift.