The Hungarian parliament has voted to strip transgender people of their current rights to legally change their gender. The new law defines gender on the basis of chromosomes at birth, ending the legal recognition of transgender people. Prime minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party backed the proposed legislation, which is yet to be signed into law by President János Áder. The decision would push back the progress that has been made when it comes to transgender equality, leaving transgender people open to further discrimination. But the move is hardly surprising, given the anti-LGBT political tone that is sweeping across Eastern Europe.
The new legislation redefines the Hungarian word “nem,” which can mean either “sex” or “gender.” Whilst there is often some confusion about the definition of these terms, sex is generally defined as biological characteristics, whereas gender is based upon self-perception, expression and other socially-constructed features. Transgender is defined as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression is different from what is typically associated with their sex at birth. The proposed law would see an end to the differentiation between sex and gender in Hungarian law, meaning that anyone who does not identify with their sex at birth would be denied the legal right to change their gender on legal documents. Effectively, this denies transgender people of legal recognition.
Despite there being laws in Hungary that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination, this recent proposal would undermine such laws and leave transgender people open to prejudice. The political view in Hungary towards LGBT people remains rather hostile, with a recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) showing that 95% of those surveyed thought that the government did not effectively combat anti-LGBT bias. I would argue that this political stance towards LGBT equality could further influence public opinion, leaving LGBT people open to discrimination, abuse, and even violence. Moreover, there would also be additional social barriers that transgender people would be faced with, should the bill be passed into law. Hungarians are required to show their identity documents frequently during their daily lives, meaning that transgender people would be open to intrusive questioning from police and other public authorities. This could see transgender people feeling unable to access basic public services, through fear of being denied access or facing public humiliation.
The rates of poor mental health are generally higher amongst LGBT people compared with wider society. Although the research remains limited, there is some European consensus that this trend is linked to a fear of rejection, discrimination and societal stigma. When the World Health Organization (WHO) removed “gender identity disorder” from its diagnostic manual, the Human Rights Watch argued that being transgender did not cause poor mental health, but it was in fact the stigma and discrimination that transgender people faced. This vote is simply another insult to the mental health of transgender people, who are already struggling to find their place in a country governed by a particularly unsympathetic government. If transgender people are unable to be legally recognised, then we will doubtless see a rise in the incidence of poor mental health.
Moving backwards when it comes to LGBT rights is nothing new in this part of Europe. While Hungary’s right wing government is turning back the clock on transgender rights, its neighbours, too, are amplifying “traditional values” political rhetoric. Poland has arguably become the epicentre for extreme right wing politics in Eastern Europe, with the LGBT community coming under relentless attack. The country’s “LGBT-free zones” made headlines across the world, undoubtedly fuelled by populist politicians and certain religious leaders, making LGBT people a new target to mobilise their conservative bases.
The notion that it is now socially acceptable to not only deny LGBT people of their rights, but to take away rights that took decades to secure, is deeply troubling. In an age when politics has become synonymous with trading insults on social media, and political debate has morphed into a monologue rather than a conversation, it is unsurprising that a certain brand of politics is gathering popularity. Nevertheless, the societal anger towards minority groups - in this instance, transgender people - is not inherent. It is being fuelled by politicians with little regard for the well-being of those they govern, other than their own political wins.
The vote to end the legal recognition of transgender people in Hungary not only speaks to the anti-LGBT climate brewing in the country, but mirrors a wider anti-equality movement that has become fashionable in European politics. Should it be passed into law, this new legislation will have damaging consequences for transgender people living in the country, posing a strain on their mental health, and limiting them as they go about their daily lives.
It will also undermine existing anti-discrimination legislation, leaving transgender people open to further discrimination, stigmatisation and abuse. Yet, when it comes to erasing LGBT rights, I fear that decade’s worth of progress could be lost if this current trajectory continues. Perhaps the most important question is just how far will it go?
- Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist
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