LGBTQI intolerance: the curtailment of academic freedom in Hungary

LGBTQI intolerance: the curtailment of academic freedom in Hungary

Daniel Gyollai and Umut Korkut

Demography is becoming a major question in migrant-averse EU countries and the new EU Commission hosts an EU commissioner responsible for demography issues. The new Croatian Presidency has also placed the demography question among its list of priorities. There has long been a belief among European conservative nationalist right circles that feminism, gender rights and the equality demands of sexual minorities lead to population stagnation and eventual decline. The EU has already been criticised for failing to adequately address this issue and for failing to defend and reinforce its commitment to gender equality (Vida, 2019).

In Hungary, although registered partnerships for same-sex couples are now possible, to date, neither same-sex marriage, nor any form of joint adoption by gay couples has been recognised by law; foster parenthood is explicitly prohibited for same-sex couples (Béres-Deák, 2019). While gay adoption would be instrumental in efforts to remedy the current demographic decline in Hungary, the government’s birth-rate focused demographic policy targets and supports only “white, cisgender, straight(-acting), affluent middle-class” Hungarian couples (Takács,2018). This institutionalised discrimination is coupled with the second highest rate of public intolerance against gay people in the EU (after Lithuania), which is further exacerbated by the homophobic “anti-gender” discourse of the Hungarian government (Vida, 2019; Takács, 2018).

LGBTQI+ persons in Hungary experienced adverse reactions (from the public at least) even before Fidesz was elected to power in 2010. The Pride festivals of 2006 and 2007 saw blatant attacks on participants with glass, faeces, and food being thrown at the dancing crowds on the streets. Moreover, since Fidesz took office the social rights of LGBTQI+ people have been downgraded in terms of social policy. The definition of the institution of marriage is now embedded in the Hungarian constitution (the Fundamental Law of Hungary unilaterally adopted by Fidesz-KDNP supermajority in 2011) as “the union of a man and a woman”. Thus, the Hungarian constitution effectively bans marriage for same-sex couples. Also, the Fundamental Law provides for no explicit protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The social welfare system stopped prioritising heterosexual couples with regard to family benefit in July 2016, after Hattér Society intervened. However, recently, there have been further attempts to wipe out homosexuality from the public sphere and to make LGBTQI+ invisible by demoting their life styles. Hungary has withdrawn from participation in the forthcoming Eurovision Song Contest (as Turkey did earlier). According to media speculation, the decision was made as the competition had been deemed “too gay” by Hungary’s far-right government and pro-government media moguls. Zoltán Kovács, State Secretary for International Communication, described the allegations as “fake news” in his response. However, the speculation is understandable in the context of certain developments and events relating to LGBTQI+ communities in Hungary.

In June 2018, the State Opera House cancelled the performance of Billy Elliot following an op-ed in Magyar Idők, an openly pro-government newspaper, according to which the all-time classic British musical has the potential to turn children into gay. This view of sexual fluidity is not unique in conservative media circles: the national broadcasting channel M5 featured an entire programme on the topic of conversion therapies in January 2019. Coca-Cola’s pro-LGBTQI+ advertising campaign in August 2019 prompted a senior Fidesz party member to call for boycotting Coca-Cola products. Prior to this, László Kövér, Speaker of the House (in the Hungarian parliament), expressed his corresponding view at a campaign event in January 2019: “A sound homosexual person knows what the world order is; they are aware of that they were born or have become one (gay) and try to adapt to the world by not necessarily considering themselves to be equal.” As Kövér notes, “in the moral sense there is no difference” between paedophilia and gay adoption.

Academics under attack
Mr Kövér, founding member of Fidesz and close friend of PM Viktor Orbán, is well-known for his enthusiasm about sharing his thoughts on various matters of public interest. In October 2019, the Speaker of the House urged the audience at a lecture he delivered at the National University of Public Service to ignore the principle of checks and balances. As Mr Kövér phrased his advice to police officer candidates, the principle is “nonsense, forget it, and has nothing to do with the rule of law or democracy”. One might wonder why none of those present, including a former ombudsman and a Constitutional Court judge, expressed any disapproval of the point made.

One month before this lecture was given the University was to host the closing conference of the EU-funded consortium project “Call It Hate: Raising Awareness of Anti-LGBT Hate Crime – CIH with the participation of 50 partner organisations from 10 countries. The University, however, refrained from hosting the conference and, only consulted the organiser, Professor Andrea Kozáry, about this decision three weeks prior to the scheduled date. When Professor Kozáry called the management to account for the decision, the University unilaterally terminated her contract with immediate effect. Professor Kozáry is a leading figure in the field of Policing Studies in Hungary (focusing on hate crime in particular) with over 25 years teaching history at the University and its predecessor. The University might try to gloss over the case as purely an employment matter, but we should make no mistake about the message: not only has the government launched a crackdown on LGBTQI+ communities, but also on their supporters. This lesson has already been learned by NGOs involved in migration support in Hungary.

Prior to this latter incident, Gender Studies courses were banned from the curriculum in two higher education institutions in October 2018. The government issued a decree which technically revoked the accreditation and all funding for Gender Studies programmes at the Central European University and Eötvös Loránd University. It is also perhaps telling that it was only CEU and ELTE that offered the programme among all the universities in Hungary; and at master’s and PhD level only. According to a spokesperson for the government: “people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially constructed genders rather than biological sexes.” Bence Rétváry, then State Secretary for the Ministry of Human Resources, justified the decision that, inter alia, the funding of the programme is not economically feasible, because it provides knowledge and skills that do not meet the needs of the job market. The State Secretary argues that the scientific status of Gender Studies is questionable: it shows greater resemblance to “ideologies” rather than to a scientific discipline, and as such the programme does not meet the minimum requirement for accreditation (cf. Tímár, 2019). Lastly, Rétváry notes that the content of Gender Studies is at total variance with the values and beliefs the government holds about human beings.

Since the ban, CEU has been successfully banished from the country, and the funding- and organisational system of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has been unilaterally restructured by the government with its declared aim being to significantly cut funding for the social sciences. Shortly thereafter, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Academy cancelled two gender-related lectures from the programme of the ‘Hungarian Science Festival’. This “self-censorship” by the Academy of Science (Tímár, 2019), as well as by the University of Public Service, in cancelling the conference on LGBT hate crime and firing one of its most respected professors, can hardly be interpreted other than as the “servility” of the education system, as described by Andor (2014). Andor suggests that servility, defined as a compulsion to conform to the demands of the ruling elite, has become an inherent feature of the Hungarian education system, if not the entire public sector.

The Hungarian example is concerning. We can only hope that the European Commission’s new strategy on demographic change will reflect a more progressive approach that provides equal opportunities for LGBTQI+ communities. The Commission would be cutting the branch it is sitting on if it failed to step up and, act against discrimination in relation to both LGBTQI+ communities and Gender Studies in the Member States. By silencing academics, and without adequate education and public discourse on LGBTQI+ matters, there is a real risk of Hungarian society becoming even more exclusive and intolerant than it currently is.

Andor, M. (2014). A cselédmentalitás visszaépítése, avagy az orbáni oktatáspolitika. Mozgó világ. 40(4): 3-24.
Béres-Deák, R. (2019). Activism for Rainbow Families in Hungary: Discourses and Omissions. In: R. Buyantueva and M. Shevtsova. LGBTQ+ Activism in Central and Eastern Europe: Resistance, Representation and Identity. Cham: Palgrave. pp. 313-340.
Tímár, J. (2019). Hungarian feminist geography in a curved space? Gender, Place & Culture. 26 (7-9): 1094-1102.
Vida, B. (2019). New waves of anti-sexual and reproductive health and rights strategies in the European Union: the anti-gender discourse in Hungary. Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters. 27(2): 13-16.


Daniel Gyollai  is a PhD Candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University. His research focuses on the role of agency in the securitisation of migration, taking policing in Hungary as a case study. Daniel is a former police officer and holds an MSc (Distinction) in Criminology with Forensic Psychology from Middlesex University London. His latest article is Gyollai, D. (2019). Getting into it in the wrong way: Interpretative phenomenological analysis and the hermeneutic circle. Nursing Philosophy. Umut Korkut  is a Professor of International Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University. He holds a DPhil from the Central European University in Political Science. He is the coordinator for the European Commission AMIF funded project VOLPOWER on youth volunteering and social inclusion in Europe. He also serves as the Principal Investigator of the Glasgow Caledonian University team for Horizon 2020 funded RESPOND and DEMOS projects.