It started with a book of kid’s fairytales, and is culminating in a defining test of a nation’s democracy and even its future in the European Union.

Hungary’s weaponization of gay rights has led to a showdown rarely seen between the bloc and a member state. Brussels is threatening action over an LGBTQ law that could involve cutting funds to Budapest. Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed to put what he calls the protection of children against homosexual content to a referendum.

“When the pressure on our homeland is so great, then only the will of the people is able to defend Hungary,” Orban said in a Facebook post on July 21.

On Saturday, Budapest hosted what organizer Viktoria Radvanyi estimated was its biggest-ever Pride March, and perhaps its bravest. Some 10,000 people assembled in early afternoon under hot, sunny skies for the event, which comes as Orban makes his anti-gay agenda a central theme of next year’s election campaign, the most closely fought in Hungary in more than a decade.

“I’ve lived with my partner but we never thought it was important to ‘advertise’ our relationship, as others would say,” said Akos Gozar, 44, a first-time marcher. Hungary’s new child protection law, which critics say links homosexuality with pedophilia, stirred him into action. “It hurt us so much that we thought we needed to stand up for our own protection.”

The reality is that the EU has finally come to the realization that it has an antagonist it needs to take on. Over the past seven years alone, Orban has teased out the loop holes to get Hungary a net €25 billion ($29.4 billion) of European money. All the while, he has been openly defying EU values, even more brazenly under the cover of a pandemic.

He cemented his control over the media, the judiciary and education, triggering condemnation in European capitals but little action. Last week, Hungary was identified as the only European country that used Pegasus spyware to keep an eye on critics of the government.

Demonstrators march during the annual Pride parade in Budapest on Saturday,. Brussels is threatening action over an LGBTQ law that could involve cutting funds to Budapest. | BLOOMBERG
Demonstrators march during the annual Pride parade in Budapest on Saturday,. Brussels is threatening action over an LGBTQ law that could involve cutting funds to Budapest. | BLOOMBERG

The targeting of LGBTQ rights became more overt in October with attacks on an anthology called “Fairyland Is For Everyone.” Stories include a prince who ends up growing his blond hair long and trying on dresses, a gender nonconforming deer and a gay Roma boy.

The book snowballed into its own unwitting David-and-Goliath story pitting the LGBTQ community against an increasingly authoritarian leader. Rather than collateral damage in eastern Europe’s populist shift of recent years, it turned into a lightning rod for resistance after becoming a word-of-mouth hit and selling 30,000 copies in Hungary.

Yet it took on new meaning when parliament voted in June to ban minors being exposed to any kind of portrayal of homosexuality or sex reassignment, a tipping point for the EU.

“It’s turned into a symbol for people who are fed up with the government,” said one of the publishers, Dorottya Redai, 48. “We expected some public reaction, but at the volume it came, we were surprised. We were accused of corrupting children.”

The ban on depictions of homosexuality to minors was packed in an anti-child abuse law, a move that critics say would prey on a parent’s worst fears. Stores that don’t prominently label books as having “nontraditional content” face a fine. Teachers cannot introduce them at their schools.

The issue is that kids can be “so easily influenced,” said Lenard Borbely, mayor of Csepel, a working-class district of Budapest. He is one of several municipal leaders from Orban’s Fidesz party who banned the book in kindergartens.

“When a beautiful princess is brought in front of a prince for marriage and instead he likes her brother or when a boy is urged to wear girl’s clothes and not to be ashamed of it, then that’s when I say this has no place,” said Borbely, a father of three girls.

Publisher Dorottya Redai | BLOOMBERG
Publisher Dorottya Redai | BLOOMBERG

Redai says that message has become pervasive in a country that used to be a relatively sanguine place for the gay community compared with other parts of the former eastern bloc.

Interviews with several mothers in Hungary suggest she’s right. Nora Kiraly, founder of the Association for Young Families, said she has no problem with gay people, she just doesn’t want their way of life to get an airing in public. A mother of five, she supports the government’s line.

“If happy same-sex couples are visible everywhere all the time, then that’s going to be what kids wish for,” said Kiraly. “We shouldn’t pretend that something is natural, what isn’t natural.”

Other parents are more conflicted. Julia Majzik-Pota agonizes about what to tell her 1-year-old son: “A few years back I would not have thought that I would have to whisper in secret that homosexuality exists.”

“I naively thought we had progressed over time, that society would become more and more accepting, but now it seems they have let the genie out of the bottle,” she said. “It’s hard for me to understand how we got here in the 21st century.”

Indeed, it perhaps wasn’t meant to be this way in Hungary, certainly compared with staunchly Catholic Poland, whose leadership is also targeting LGBTQ people as enemies of the state. When he won a first stint in power in 1998, the youthful Orban was a poster child of Eastern Europe’s push to integrate with its western neighbors. It joined the EU six years later, along with seven other former communist states.

The erosion of LGBTQ rights mirrors Orban’s transformation into the ringleader for Europe’s populists, harnessing the resentment toward “liberal elites” and immigration that also worked so well for former U.S. President Donald Trump and Britain’s Brexit campaigners.

“Orban is playing on this feeling, playing with the deepest fears,” Redai said. “A country with an autocratic leader works by creating enemies. They incite hatred against different vulnerable groups of people: the Jews, the Roma, refugees and now LGBTQ people.”

Over time, the 58-year-old Hungarian leader simultaneously limited the hard-earned freedoms that came with the lifting of the Iron Curtain. The coronavirus crisis allowed Orban to act with even greater impunity, as he declared a state of emergency to rule by decree. A law banning legal gender recognition for transgender people was passed during the first lockdown.

“Government officials have a huge responsibility when it comes to restraining or whipping up emotions, especially with all the pent-up angst and frustration from the pandemic,” said Vera Messing, a researcher at the Center for Social Sciences in Budapest. “That’s why it’s really dangerous to mix pedophilia and homosexuality, because then you get the frightening scenes where homophobes suddenly feel empowered to act on their impulse.”

“Fairyland Is For Everyone” is heading for several European translations: Polish, English, Slovak, Dutch, Finnish, Swedish and Czech. | BLOOMBERG
“Fairyland Is For Everyone” is heading for several European translations: Polish, English, Slovak, Dutch, Finnish, Swedish and Czech. | BLOOMBERG

Budapest’s Gay Pride event on Saturday took place in what its director, Adam Csikos, described as a “revolutionary atmosphere” in comments before the event. It marked an important bellwether of solidarity. Back in 2007, marchers were violently assaulted by extremists, but since then the festival — the oldest and biggest of its kind in central Europe — has only grown.

The march came less than a year before Orban will seek a fourth straight term in 2022 elections. Despite more than a decade of pushing an anti-EU narrative, the bloc is more popular than ever, and losing membership and freedom to travel and work within its borders would be unthinkable for many Hungarians.

So far, Orban has succeeded in pushing the EU’s buttons but also knowing when to dial back. Brussels, for its part, is trying to break the cycle of being a dog with lots of bark but no bite. At the EU summit in June, leader upon leader rounded on Orban.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte straight up said Hungary “has no business being in the European Union any more.” Others were more personal. Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel, who is gay, put it directly to Orban: “I didn’t get up one morning after having seen an advert on the TV of some brand.

“That’s not how life works. It’s in me, I didn’t choose it.”

Orban, for now, is digging in. His referendum plan makes it less likely that billions of euros of EU pandemic funding will be released quickly. European leaders will have also been watching how this weekend’s Pride March played out.

For Redai, the question is how to turn back.

“The reality is that the government slogan ‘we are protecting children’ is working,” she said. “Child protection gets the attention of a lot of parents.”

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