“We are not a faceless crowd”
Three for thirty, thirty for thirty thousand
Passed by 133 votes to 57 on 19 May, Hungary’s parliament has approved Article 33, a law that bans transgender people from changing their name and the gender they were assigned at birth on official documents. Since the bill was passed, there has been a huge battle for it to be dropped, and an unprecedented cohesion has developed within the Hungarian LGBTQ community. We talked to three key players in the counter-campaign about the past few weeks, the passing of the bill, and the future.
The first days
“I feel like I’m going through a kind of mourning process”, says Atanáz, a transgender man, Ivett’s partner. They were both prepared for the government to eventually pass Bill 33, but it was a completely different feeling to experience it actually happening. “Throughout history, we have seen numerus clausus (a law that formally placed limits on the number of minority students, particularly Jews, at university in 1920s Hungary – Ed.) and many other deprivations of rights that ended in brutality. I had a hitherto unconscious, naive expectation towards people: I expected others to waver when a group of people is practically being erased from Hungarian society.”
According to Atanáz Tálos, the overall reaction of society shows the true colors of Hungarian citizens on many levels. A lot of people’s lives are filled with tension, and the resulting aggression encourages them to view the world through their prejudices — because if they can hate a group of people and stay away from them, they feel their lives are so much safer: “It’s a systemic problem. The system affects the general mentality of the people by maintaining and deepening everyday tensions, and the general mentality anchors the system itself. It would take a huge amount of cognitive dissonance to be dissolved within a lot of people to change the situation.”
Ivett Ördög is a transgender woman, Atanáz’s partner. On the day of the parliament’s decision, she was busy with a series of interviews, which she was happy about – there was something to distract her and she also felt useful. The next day, at a work meeting, where she talked to her supervisor about how well she fit into the team, she couldn’t contain her tears anymore. Her joy could no longer be honest: “It’s very hard for me to comprehend that I no longer feel safe in my home country because I don’t know what the government’s next step will be. I have lived almost all my life in Budapest, I love the city, and the worst part is that I was a Fidesz (the ruling party that proposed the law – Ed.) voter not so long ago. I regret this more than any other decision in my life.”
Alex Fajt is a transgender man and a vlogger. His girlfriend stood beside him all the way in the tumultuous days around Article 33. Although Fanni is not part of the LGBTQ community, she has always considered it important to show solidarity and stand up for the community. “When she found out what the government was up to, she wanted to be immediately involved in preventing this decision. On the one hand, it was because of me, with my interests in mind, and on the other hand, it was important to her because this law not only pushed us transgender people to the periphery, but the government also sent a message to society. And it wasn’t a very positive message: if you’re in my way, or you’re out of line in any way, I can erase you at any time.” Alex was devastated in the first few hours after the news came. It took him half a day to grasp what had happened. He cried together with her girlfriend in the car, and that day, they spontaneously decorated a denim jacket. This processing mechanism has worked – as far as a method like this can work in a situation like this. “Since then, I’ve been trying to create, create and create. I distract myself while expressing myself, my true self in something else, since in real life, in the real world, I can’t express who I am and I can’t be myself.”
As one of Hungary’s best-known transgender activists, Alex mostly used the power of social media to speak out. “I took part in an online roundtable discussion, distributed the hashtag #töröljéka33ast (#Drop33), and at the same time called for a petition to be signed. I created a challenge for TikTok that was shared and recreated by many who were not involved but wanted to express their solidarity. Later, I talked about the law on the TV channel RTL in their news program Fókusz, I gave interviews, and informed my followers through Instagram live about what the Hungarian state is up to, and I updated them about the process”, he recounts.
Ivett became perhaps the most important face of the counter-campaign. She is no longer counting the interviews she has given to Hungarian and international media outlets. In addition to press appearances, she has also become the face of Amnesty International in transgender issues. Such a huge role and the reputation that comes with it was never her goal, and she is not particularly happy about it either. But, as she says, someone had to do this: “I would much rather be Ivett, the software developer and manager who is recognized for what she achieved professionally. At the same time, I think it is very important for this community to have an identifiable face. That’s what I’m trying to be.” Ivett was often not alone, but with her partner, Atanáz. “Ati and I, as a trans heterosexual couple, are interesting to the media. That’s not a problem either, as we are one of the few trans people who were willing to sacrifice their anonymity for the sake of the community.”
It was a particularly valuable experience for Atanáz to be able to talk publicly about how deeply his transsexuality affected his life and how serious a mental burden it was. “I, too, had to work hard (with the help of a psychologist) to prevent suicide from being the automatic resolution strategy to these difficult situations. It took me a lot of self-knowledge to break away from these bad strategies, and it was an even bigger task to say yes, I was the same as many who share my fate. Now I am no longer ashamed, I say that my reaction was proportionate because it was really difficult, and I hope that saying all this will give strength to someone who does not see any other way out at the moment, but is reading these words.”
Atanáz feels that the goal of the counter-campaign was not to “formally educate people about the concept of transsexuality and make them learn a dry definition.” Rather, it is to show that they are present and open to communication. Public engagement has been – and will be – an opportunity for transgender people to show that they are human, too. And that requires visibility. According to Atanáz, the fact that their movement finally had faces representing it was really vital during their fight: “We are not a faceless crowd. We are people with individual life stories. If you hit us, it hurts. I don’t think it’s possible to get those messages across without some people taking on a public role.”
Visible faces really had a tremendously strong effect. On Humen Online’s website, 21 transgender people have given interviews in the Transzvélemény (Transview) section, not to mention others who had appeared in public in other media of the Hungarian or the foreign press. According to Atanáz, since it is basically a minority, within which only an even smaller minority can afford to express their gender identity in public, the role of these few people is a huge achievement: “According to some estimates, up to 30,000 transgender people live in Hungary, from which around 30 people gave interviews recently. I think that these thirty people count a lot. Especially when it comes to a minority in such a difficult situation.”
Public speaking is a more complex and complicated burden than we might think, Ivett notes. “Visible involvement in the campaign makes it meaningless in some ways in achieving the goal. When I come out to a country as transgender, it is relatively difficult to switch back to living as an average woman. Of course, the majority will forget that they have seen me in an article or in a video, nevertheless, giving up anonymity for a transgender person is a huge sacrifice. That’s why I can’t expect others to do that.” Of course, it wasn’t just them who took part in the fight. It is important to mention everyone who, even if they could not appear publicly in the campaign, helped the community and the common cause in the background with their professional knowledge and enthusiasm.
For Alex, the absolute power of the government and the abuse of it was the motive to raise his voice: “I’ve had enough of the Orbán government wanting to play God and making decisions about people’s lives whose names they don’t even know. Moreover, they do not have a clue about why it is so important for us to have the sex and the name that we can identify with on our IDs. No, we are not only ‘a few people’. In fact, there are plenty of transgender individuals. But their fears are understandable, as there is nothing and no one left to protect them from exclusion or possible physical abuse.” If the country and the world weren’t so sex- and gender-centric, we would get rid of an enormous amount of serious issues and live a lot more freely: “I’ll never understand why everyone classifies the other according to what’s in their pants, or why anyone even cares about this thing. In fact, I’ll go further: I’ll never understand why anyone is bothered when someone wants to change their sex or gender. What does a stranger have to do with that?”
According to Alex, there is still only a small amount of people in Hungary who are familiar with the concept of transsexuality, and without knowledge, the fear of the unknown will prevail, resulting in indifference at best and hatred at worst. Because of this, the counter-campaign, however hard they fought, could not be successful. “It’s hard to sensitize people in a country where the majority still thinks that transgender is when a man dresses up as a woman and a woman draws herself a beard with eyeliner. No, that is called a carnival! In Hungary the Pride parade is still identified with »fags writhing in leather thongs«.”
Others see the situation a little more positively. Ivett said the counter-campaign ultimately had a good impact on society as a whole, and she felt for the first time that the letter “T” actually played a role in LGBTQ society. So far, transphobia has popped up sometimes even in the LGBTQ community, but now something radically changed. And this is important not only because it’s a nice gesture, but also because you need to be prepared for further attacks. To everyone, to anyone: “We have a common enemy and we can only win together. However, no one should have any illusions: if the government is done with trans people, other groups will follow. That is why perhaps it is not just the LGBTQ that needs to form a unified front, but we also need to cooperate with feminists, Roma people, Jews, single mothers and everyone else that this government is trying to use as a scapegoat.”
Athanáz and Ivett decided to leave the country. Although the proliferation of nationalist politics in Hungary definitely wants to plant in our heads that LGBTQ people are not ordinary Hungarian citizens who do not even experience Hungarian identity, this is not the case. Atanáz is a perfect example of this: “I graduated with a degree in Hungarian language studies, among other things. An integral part of my identity is my attachment to Hungarian language. Hungarian is not just one of the countless languages in the world – for me, it is the language in which I express my deepest, most intimate feelings. I feel that my greatest homesickness will be related to the language.”
Saying goodbye is also hard for Ivett: “I never thought that one day I would simply flee the country and leave with the possibility of never returning home. It hurts a lot because even though I’m semi-German and Swabian culture had a defining influence on me through my grandmother, I still lived here for the first 40 years of my life. I belong here. Now I am being chased away, despite everything I have given to this country. I am sad because I have to join the ranks of Hungarians who have not left the country voluntarily. Sure, there are those who will say good riddance, but many thought the same about John Neumann.”
Alex doesn’t want to accept the possibility of moving abroad. “I can’t accept the fact that the country I was born in, where I grew up and lived for 25 years is so brutally pushing me out. It’s impossible.” Despite this, he accepts and understands if someone else decides to do so, because, as he says, the transgender community has become homeless in Hungary. But he would rather continue the struggle in his home country. “What about the generation we leave behind? Are we really letting this country decide who you can and can’t be? I won’t let that happen.”
“No oppression has lasted forever before”, says Ivett, who says the law will be revoked one day. The question, then, is not whether there will be a chance to legally change sex and name again, but how many Hungarian citizens’ lives will be ruined or even ended while this is happening.
Alex sees the situation more grimly. According to him, we have come to a point by the parliament voting for and signing the law, after which it is no longer enough for the same people to appear publicly, whom the majority already knows anyway. Transgender people were abandoned in Hungary in May. “Not only the right but also the hope was taken away from us. My relatives said that I should stop my public appearances, that I should not bring more shame to my family, and that I should keep a low profile from now on because then I can go on living here. When your own family does not stand by you and fights for your rights, from whom do you expect redemption? From the ‘caring’ state who doesn’t even know you exist and doesn’t care that this law can ruin your life?”
But Alex doesn’t give up – and doesn’t even think about listening to his family. He will continue his public appearances, he will not keep a low profile, and ready to “bring shame on his family”. “Because that’s me”, he says. “Even if I don’t have an official document about it, I’m Alex Fajt – a person who lives his life as a man and no one but me can decide that.”
Atanáz has trust in a brighter future, but he gave up the fight. As he says, he simply has no more energy for it. He wants to leave the country with Ivett as soon as possible. In Hungary, it was never possible to apply for a sex correction. He was previously married, filed for divorce in 2019, and the divorce was finalized in February 2020. Although he obtained the necessary psychological, psychiatric and gynaecological expert opinions, he could not apply for legal sex correction as a married person under Hungarian law, as same-sex marriage is not permitted. The law does not serve us – we should be accustomed to it by now. He could still have applied in February, but before that he wanted to get his premarital name back, for which he would have had to make more appointments – and appear in person. This, in turn, has been prevented by offices closed due to the coronavirus. He won’t try again in his home country. But he doesn’t give up on officially becoming who he really is.
Ivett feels the same. “I won’t rest until Ivett is stated as my name on all of my official documents.” In Germany, some documents can be acquired without citizenship, but for a complete change of sex and name, you must also be a German citizen, which can take up to ten years to obtain. Ivett and Atanáz will remain Hungarian citizens until then – and Ivett will continue to try to enforce his rights as a Hungarian citizen.
Ádám András Kanicsár