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LGBT rights and the battle for Europe’s soul

A seemingly unbridgeable chasm is splitting the continent between countries that see LGBT rights as the core of European identity of freedom and tolerance, and those that see them as a threat to that same identity

Protestors gather near the Budapest parliament building on June 14, 2021, to demonstrate against the Hungarian government's bill seeking to ban the "promotion" of homosexuality - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

On 11 May, a young boy called Istvan Jonas jumped off a bridge into a canal in the village of Gavavencsello in eastern Hungary. His body was found days later, after a desperate manhunt.

“He couldn’t cope with the fact he was different to other children,” his distraught father told Hungarian media. “He liked other boys. We knew about it, but we didn’t talk with him enough about it.”

Istvan was a talented, sensitive soul. His family were Roma, so he belonged to two minorities, one sexual, the other ethnic. A photo, provided by the family, shows him playing the violin. Apart from a suicide note left on his mobile phone, he even left a painting of his own funeral, the people filing through the village, their faces smudged, the church in the background. His funeral was organised according to his instructions – with a loudspeaker arranged in the open boot of a car, moving slowly through the streets, playing his own rendition of Beethoven’s Für Elise on the piano. Among the mountain of flowers on his grave was a wreath shaped to form his age – 13.

LGBT rights is the most visible manifestation of a culture war that is raging across Europe, pitting the former communist East against the more liberal West (although there are exceptions on each side). This is not a sideshow or diversion: it goes to the soul of Europe and a divide between countries that see LGBT rights as representing the core of European identity of freedom and tolerance, and those that see them as a threat to that same identity. And it is a divide that is deepening, as, in much of central and eastern Europe intolerance of “non-traditional” lifestyles, grows. Governments are fuelling it and pandering to it.

Hungary is among the worst. A law passed this month by its parliament has been condemned by EU leaders as “grotesque”. The country’s populist right-wing prime  minister Vitkor Orban has launched a crusade to defend the traditional family, the nation and Christianity from what he and millions across the region have come to denounce as the rootless liberalism of the West.

He has now been in power 15 years. During his second stint, which has lasted more than a decade, he has changed the constitution to weaken critics in parliament, the court and the media. And all this from a man who came to prominence as an anti-communist dissident.

That journey is not unique. A number of former Soviet satellites may have shed the political symbolism of communism and its economic model, but they have held on to, indeed in some cases strengthened, the pressure socially to conform. At the same time, the enduring power of religion – Orthodox and Catholic – retains a strong influence over social attitudes in many states, which populist governments are becoming adept at harnessing and exploiting.

In the meantime, Orban and his closest allies, the Law and Justice government in Poland, have done everything they can to weaken the liberal tenets that underpin the EU, while strengthening ties with Russia and China.

They have found common cause with populists within Western Europe on some issues, but not on parts of the social agenda. Leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and the AfD in Germany often reach out to gay voters, partly as ammunition in their campaign against the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe.

The passing into law on June 15 of the Hungarian law, formally prohibiting the showing of “any content portraying or promoting sex reassignment or homosexuality” to minors, has brought matters to a head. Seventeen EU member states condemned it, but crucially by no means all. The dissenters, or hedgers, included Poland, the Czech Republic – whose president Milos Zeman described transgender people as “disgusting” while speaking in support of the legislation – Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, and surprisingly Lithuania. The other two Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, however, joined their Western partners in criticising the legislation.

The law deals largely with drastically increasing sanctions against paedophiles. There is no mention of children as victims, and LGBT groups which offer educational programmes to schools are explicitly banned from entering school premises. Films, advertisements, and other literature which ‘portray or promote’ gender change or homosexuality, are banned for those under 18.

As MPs met, a large demonstration took place outside the parliament building in Budapest. The fate of Istvan Jonas was one of those brought up by speakers. According to a 2011 report into homophobia in Hungary, 42% of gay people had considered suicide, and 30% attempted it. Speakers at the demonstration warned the crowd of over 5,000 – a strong turnout in the summer heat for a protest on this subject – that the new anti-gay Hungarian law could result in many more victims. In the end, parliament passed the law by 157 votes, with only one against.

Orban insists that it “does not conflict with any lofty ideals or European laws. The new Hungarian law simply states clearly that only parents can decide on the sexual education of their children”.

Yet there is little sex education in Hungarian schools; the national curriculum offers few guidelines and makes no mention of homosexuality. According to a recent survey, 54% of parents told researchers they do not speak about sexuality to their children at all, 25% said they did so if necessary but as little as possible, and only 21% said they discussed sexuality in an open and supportive way.

When Jozsef Szajer, an MEP from the ruling Fidesz party, was caught by Belgian police in his underwear, fleeing a ‘gay orgy’ in Brussels late last year, with an ecstasy tablet in his shoulder bag, many Fidesz voters had no idea there were any gay men in the party at all.

The law was prompted in part by revelations last year that the country’s ambassador to Peru, Gabor Kaleta, had been recalled after the FBI informed the Hungarian authorities that he had downloaded 19,000 sexual images of child pornography to his laptop. Kaleta lost his job, but escaped with a 1,500 euros fine and a short, suspended jail sentence, after his lawyer argued successfully that he had never physically harmed children. Under the new law, for the same offence, he might be sent to prison for up to 10 years.

Other incidents in recent years which ‘provoked’ the law, include the publication of a book by the Lesbian group Labirisz, in which some popular fairy tales are rewritten with gay characters, and an advertising campaign by Coca Cola two summers ago, featuring smiling same-sex couples.

The original draft of the law focusing only on paedophile crimes had won cross-party support. But just days before the vote, they added an amendment to their own legislation. It states: “In order to ensure… the protection of children’s rights, pornography and content that depicts sexuality for its own purposes or that promotes deviation from gender identity, gender reassignment and homosexuality shall not be made available to persons under the age of 18.”

The law echoes Russian legislation passed in 2013, but according to some commentators, the Hungarian version is even tougher. The Russian law spoke only of sexual practices which ‘deviate from traditional ones’; it did not explicitly mention homosexuality.

One glaring omission from the new Hungarian law is any mention of a paedophile problem in the Catholic Church. Opposition leaders in Hungary are demanding an independent investigation into Catholic priests, and 17 alleged cases of sexual violence against children they believe were hushed up. They hope the current furore over the law will help former victims to come forward.

Orban is convinced that the law is a vote-winner and will be used as a rallying cry during Fidesz’s campaigning ahead of the April 2022 election. It will also be used to divide the opposition, which encompasses parties from across the political spectrum.

Other governments in the region are making similar calculations. Serbia has a gay prime minister, Ana Brnabic, but recently recalled its ambassador to Poland because he signed a joint statement with other ambassadors in support of LGBT rights in Poland.

Last month, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Romania for failing to protect a cinema audience from a far-right attack in 2013, during a screening of the US film, The Kids Are All Right. Yet Romania and the Balkan countries, unlike most East European EU member countries, has ratified the 2011 Istanbul Convention against domestic violence. Poland, Hungary and others object to the open way ‘the family’ is defined in the convention.

Some countries are moving, if hesitantly, in the opposite direction. In April this year in the Czech Republic, the lower house of parliament passed a bill that redefines marriage as a union of “two persons,” instead of “a man and a woman,” as in its current law.

The divisions across Europe will be hard to heal and it seems both sides of the divide are eager to accentuate their differences.

The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said Hungary “has no business being in the European Union anymore”. As other leaders weighed in, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said action would be taken against Hungary. Exactly what action is not clear. For Orban has been mocking EU values – and has got away with it.

Last week, while most Hungarians were watching their national football team battle heroically to a 2-2 draw against Germany, in a match dominated by attempts by the mayor of Munich to illuminate the stadium with rainbow colours, president Janos Ader quietly signed the Hungarian law into force. Europe is unlikely to have heard the last of it, though.

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