Marc Roscoe LoustauJuly 22, 2021
Activists erect a rainbow-colored heart in front of the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, on July 8. The activists are protesting against the recently passed law that they say discriminates against L.G.B.T.Q. people. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh)Activists erect a rainbow-colored heart in front of the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, on July 8. The activists are protesting against the recently passed law that they say discriminates against L.G.B.T.Q. people. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh)

In June, after Hungary’s right-wing government passed a law banning “the display and promotion of homosexuality,” international news outlets carried reports about Hungarians gathering on the streets to celebrate the country’s diversity as well as European politicians who called the legislation “grotesque.” For Americans considering how to prevent rollbacks of L.G.B.T.Q. civil rights around the country, there are lessons to learn from efforts to challenge Hungary’s discriminatory law. Left-wing Hungarian politicians responded by attacking the Catholic Church over its handling of the global sexual abuse crisis, but this is a questionable tactic that can alienate allies for L.G.B.T.Q. equality and push victims of sexual abuse from the center of movements for justice.

The “culture wars” have gone global, and a backlash against the growing visibility of transgender individuals is spreading across national boundaries. Indeed, Hungary’s new law is an example of Europe’s right-wing nationalists copying each other. In an analysis published on the Insight Hungary news site, the political scientist András Rácz, from Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest, noted the fundamental similarities between this law and one enacted in Russia in 2013.

The Hungarian law extends a ban on teaching critical gender theory in schools. The United States is in the middle of a similar culture-war debate about critical race theory.

The Hungarian law goes even further, though. It forbids both “deviating” from one’s gender identity at birth and changing one’s gender. It even attempts to ban the positive depiction of homosexuality in any media geared toward children, leading some broadcasters to wonder if they will have to cancel “Modern Family” or air Harry Potter movies only late at night. Given the timing, it is possible that the first two provisions are inspired by Arkansas’ state ban on providing gender-affirming health care for minors (which was temporarily blocked by a federal judge on July 21) as well as similar bills under consideration in the United States, showing again how the right wing in multiple nations borrow from each other’s playbooks.

The Hungarian law’s third provision extends a ban on teaching critical gender theory in schools, a law that allowed the government to close gender studies departments in universities throughout the country in 2018. The United States is in the middle of a similar culture-war debate about critical race theory, spurred by state legislators who have introduced bills to ban teaching on this topic. Hungary provides another reason to be on high alert against efforts to limit educational freedom.

The call for an investigation into sexual abuse threatens to turn the crisis into a political football, useful for scoring points whenever the Catholic Church gets involved in public policy.

After some priests called L.G.B.T.Q. Hungarians “terrorists” on government-funded, right-wing news sites, leaders from the Democratic Coalition protested on the steps of Budapest’s Cathedral of St. Stephen. Leaders of this left-wing Hungarian party demanded that the government rescind the law, unlikely to happen since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party commands a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and also appoint an external investigator into the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church.

An independent inquiry is certainly overdue, since there has been no such inquiry in Hungary even as investigations in the United States reveal that Hungarian émigré priests abused children in Ohio, California and Alaska. Unfortunately, the call for such an investigation threatens to exploit victims by decentering them from movements for justice in the wake of the church’s global sexual abuse crisis. It turns the crisis into a political football, useful for scoring points whenever the Catholic Church gets involved in public policy. Even worse, raising the sexual abuse of minors as a response to the Hungarian law could reinforce false and harmful stereotypes about the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

Like those in Hungary’s left wing, Catholics in the United States and elsewhere may be tempted to use the clergy sex abuse crisis to cast doubt on the moral authority of the church to comment on legislation affecting L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Earlier this year, when the Vatican declared that the church “does not have, and cannot have” the power to bless same-sex unions, a spokesperson for Chile’s Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation called the decision “homophobic and anti-Christian” and, according to NBC News, “contrasted the Vatican’s stern rhetoric against same-sex marriage with the many documented cases of Catholic leaders covering up child sex abuse committed by clergy.”

In Hungary, the Democratic Coalition’s protest has not produced significant change so far. The Hungarian Conference of Catholic Bishops reissued an earlier press statement, which charges critics of the church’s response to sexual abuse crisis with ignoring the good intentions of those who led its internal investigations, along with a single sentence calling the recent protest a “political provocation.” Mr. Orbán’s government has not taken any concrete steps to approve an independent investigation, which should lead those considering such strategies to reconsider.

A better example comes from the leading the Hungarian Catholic theologian János Wildmann. Like the Democratic Coalition’s protestors, Mr. Wildmann called on Hungary’s Catholic bishops to denounce the law. But he avoided using others’ suffering to combat the Hungarian government’s cynical culture war ploy. Instead, he turned to Catholic social teaching: “The least the Catholic Church could have done was to object that, in this case, certain groups of human beings were being criminalized. This is impermissible. On this matter, the Vatican is clear and unambiguous.”

Recent polls show that the Hungarian government is facing the increasing visibility of L.G.B.T.Q. Hungarians and changing attitudes among the public; 23 percent of Hungarians in a recent poll by Závecz Research stated that they have an L.G.B.T.Q acquaintance, and 56 percent stated that they “accept” homosexuality. But courageous and strategic activism continues to play a vital role in promoting equality. Rather than take the path of denouncing the Hungarian church’s moral standing, Mr. Wildmann called on church leaders to renew their understanding of Catholic social teaching against discrimination. As pro-L.G.B.T.Q. progressives, including many Catholics, consider how best to advocate for equality at home and abroad, and in their religious communities and in society as a whole, they would do well to heed this example.

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