Trans rights and ‘gender ideology’ in Hungary

The Hungarian parliament has passed new legislation that will eradicate any recognition of transgender people. Hanna Gál situates the new developments in the context of the far-right ruling parties’ hostility to ‘gender ideology’ and argues for a trans-inclusive feminist fightback.

Viktor Orban at the European Parliament.
Photo by European People’s Party on Flickr

On 19 May 2020, the Hungarian parliament passed a legislation package entitled ‘Changes to certain administrative legislations.’ The package, submitted by Zsolt Semjén, leader of the smaller Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt (Christian Democrats Party) of the Hungarian government coalition Fidesz-KDNP, is what is colloquially known as a ‘salad legislation’ – a collection of unconnected articles submitted together to fast-track them through parliament as well as to decrease potential scrutiny of individual items. This time it consisted of a proposal to declare the details of the planned Budapest-Belgrade railway construction (85% funded by the Chinese state) confidential for 10 years, changes to construction regulations in protected historical areas, ending the public servant status of culture workers, and a change to birth certificates and identification documents to record only ‘birth sex’ instead of sex.

In effect, the ‘birth sex’ law means that transgender and intersex Hungarian citizens have lost all avenues for pursuing legal recognition. The law defines ‘birth sex’ as ‘biological sex determined by primary sex characteristics and chromosomes.’ ‘Birth sex’ as per the legislation may only be medically determined and is unchangeable, and one is only permitted to have a legal name that is listed on the corresponding recognised male or female names register. Previously it had been possible to have one’s legal sex changed and have this recognised on identity documents. Since late 2016, the processing of applications for sex and name changes on legal documents had been suspended while the government drew up a definitive legal framework. Now that the ‘birth sex’ bill has arrived, the backlog of applications will all be denied. 

Trans people have now lost the only means to be recognised officially as their gender, and they will be more exposed to violence than ever. Unlike in the UK, it is mandatory in Hungary to carry a valid national ID card on one’s person at all times and to provide it for inspection if asked by the police at the risk of a fine or arrest. ID cards are also necessary in various other bureaucratic and everyday situations, so the new legislation will force people to out themselves in all kinds of unsafe situations.

The bill has been passed in the context of an ongoing battle between feminist organisations and the Hungarian government over the Istanbul Convention, or the ‘Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.’ The Hungarian government signed the Convention in 2014, but has yet to ratify it. Once ratified, the Convention would take precedence over national law. The government has so far refused to ratify the Convention primarily on ideological grounds, arguing that the Convention represents ‘gender ideology’, pointing to the definition of gender as ‘the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.’

It is unsurprising, given the Orbán government’s well-documented links to the likes of Steve Bannon, that the opposition to the Convention is couched in the terms of a culture war about ‘gender ideology’, with politicians even claiming that it would lead to children questioning their gender identity among other things. Not long ago, gender studies courses were discontinued on similar grounds. The 2011 Constitution exalts the family as ‘the basis for the survival of the nation’ and limits marriage to heterosexual couples. The far-right ruling coalition entwines patriarchy and nationalism, and recently argued that the Convention would force ‘gender migrants’ on the country as it would mandate granting asylum to women escaping gendered violence.

Some prominent feminist activists have responded to the government’s rejection of the Convention by arguing that ‘gender identity’ does not come into it. Eszter Kováts argued in 2018 that the definition of gender as socially constructed roles embedded in the Convention can be neatly distinguished from any concept of ‘gender identity’, and that the government’s position that the Convention promotes ‘gender ideology’ is therefore incorrect. What this approach fails to do is address the fact that the Hungarian government’s attacks on transgender people and their insistence on an immutable and biological ‘sex’ are clearly a cornerstone of their patriarchal politics. Feminist organisations are now being strangely quiet on the ‘birth sex’ bill.

It even seems likely that the new legislation on ‘birth sex’ will be used as another way to block the progress of the Istanbul Convention. If ‘biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes’ is the sole legal definition of sex or gender available, then the government can reject the concept of ‘gendered violence’ as it does not conform to Hungarian law.

The ‘birth sex’ law is a grave and potentially life-threatening injustice. Hungary has high rates of suicide and discrimination against trans people, and it is likely that these numbers will now sharply increase. When the law was submitted to parliament in early April, 22 LGBTQI and human rights organisations published a statement calling for the section to be removed from the legislation package, and are now demanding that the Head of State Janos Ader refuse to sign it into law. Yet we still have not seen the major feminist organisations or activists vocally oppose this development, even as it should be clear that trans rights are inseparable from tackling gendered violence.

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