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Hungary Bans LGBTQ Content From Schools, But Some Teachers Say They Will Defy It

Jul 9, 2021

Updated July 9, 2021 at 6:40 PM ET

BERLIN — Viktoria Radvanyi says her job has never been so stressful. She's on the board of Budapest Pride, Hungary's annual LGBTQ event, whose monthlong festival is currently underway.

"The clear effect of [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban's very, very homophobic and autocratic politics is that, year by year, we find it harder and harder to find venues," Radvanyi laments. "A lot of venues are afraid to host LGBTQ events because they fear that they are going to be attacked in the propaganda media."

In the two-year hiatus since the Hungarian capital's last Pride march, the government has outlawed gender transition and gay adoption. Now, the Orban administration is banning LGBTQ people from appearing in school materials or on TV shows for people under 18.

Supporters of Orban's Fidesz party have hailed the reforms as the government pushes the country further to the right and antagonizes the European Union, of which Hungary is a member. But the moves have drawn strong criticism in Hungary and across the EU.

The classrooms and TV ban, which took effect Thursday, has led to protests from rights advocates in Hungary who say the law discriminates against LGBTQ people and will cause harm to young people.

"Important to mobilize as many people as possible"

"We think it's really, really important to mobilize as many people as possible because right now our concrete safety and the well-being of LGBTQ youth is at danger," Radvanyi says. The ban is part of a wider law to prevent child abuse, but Radvanyi says the government is intentionally conflating homosexuality with pedophilia to stigmatize LGBTQ communities.

At a recent rally, thousands of people gathered outside parliament in Hungary's capital Budapest and chanted "We are brave." And a small but growing number of teachers are daring to defy the new law.

One of them is 60-year-old Mariann Schiller, who has taught literature to high school students since communist times.

"You cannot say that you will just not talk about it," Schiller says of discussing LGBTQ issues in the classroom. "Especially if you think of teenagers — they are obviously deeply interested in sexuality and bodies and emotions. What else should they be interested in?"

Schiller jokes that she would have to stop teaching half the classics to follow the law. On a more serious note, she says that some of her colleagues feel they can't trust their students.

"In almost each class, there are some kids who would report what they heard to their father who would go to the government reporting the teacher," Schiller says.

Accusations of scapegoating

The Orban administration argues that teachers have no role to play in sex education, as made clear by Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto at an EU summit in Brussels in late June, where leaders came to blows over the legislation."As long as the kids are under the age of 18, the education of theirs regarding sexual orientation is the exclusive right of the parents," Szijjarto said.

Orban's spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs told NPR in a statement that this law bans both homosexual and heterosexual propaganda targeted at children.

Luca Dudits, a board member of the LGBTQ rights advocacy group, the Hatter Society, refutes this and says it is the government's prohibitive policies that are targeting children.

Dudits says the moves are part of the Orban administration's scapegoating minorities in a bid to cling to power. "It began in 2010, when they made Roma people a public enemy, then it was refugees and migrants, then the homeless, civil society organizations, and now the LGBTQ community," Dudits says.

Monika Sipos is another teacher refusing to adhere to the law. Sipos, who teaches English in Budapest, says the law excludes young people at a developmentally very fragile time of their lives.

"This law questions the core of the individual's personality," Sipos says, adding this is the last thing teenagers need. "You should support them, you should show them that they are acceptable, they are lovable the way they are and this is what is being taken away."

Sari Szanto, an art teacher in Budapest, agrees and says she's seen the damage homophobic legislation can do to teenagers. Szanto spent the last decade teaching in Russia, which passed what's been called a "gay propaganda" law in 2013. She's dismayed the same is happening in her own country. "The fact that homosexuality or trans issues are a taboo makes these kids much more vulnerable and violence against them will be very hard to address for what it is," Szanto says.

Earlier this month, members of European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to strongly condemn Hungary's new legislation, calling it a "clear breach of EU values, principles and law." The lawmakers urged the EU Commission to withhold funds from its budget and from a coronavirus recovery package.

"This legislation uses the protection of children as an excuse to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, calling it "a disgrace."

Szanto welcomes the EU pressure but says she is unconvinced European leaders won't let rights advocates down. She says she can't let down her students.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Hungary, a new law came into effect this week banning the portrayal or so-called promotion of homosexuality to those under 18. While the EU Commission is threatening legal action, Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, says it should be up to parents, not schools or the media, to oversee their children's sex education. Esme Nicholson has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DNCE: (Singing) Why those feet cold? We just getting started.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: These are the sounds of Budapest's last pride parade more than two years ago. Since then, the government has outlawed gender transition and gay adoption. Now Prime Minister Viktor Orban's administration is also banning the very discussion of LGBTQ from the classroom and media which reach those under 18. It's a move that many believe will do damage to those it claims to protect.

VIKTORIA RADVANYI: We think it's really, really important to mobilize as many people as possible because right now our, like, concrete safety and the wellbeing of LGBTQ youths is in danger.

NICHOLSON: Viktoria Radvanyi is on the board of Budapest Pride. She says the new legislation is part of a wider law that aims to protect against child abuse and says the government is intentionally conflating homosexuality with pedophilia to further stigmatize the LGBTQ community. As a result, she says, organizing this year's month-long Pride Festival has been an uphill struggle.

RADVANYI: A lot of venues are afraid to host LGBTQ events because they fear that they're going to be tagged in propaganda media.

NICHOLSON: But difficulties getting Pride off the ground have not stopped Hungarians from marching for rights, granted elsewhere in the European Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

NICHOLSON: At a recent rally, thousands of people gathered outside Parliament, shouting, we are brave. And a small but growing number of teachers are daring to defy the new law. One of them is 60-year-old Mariann Schiller, who has taught literature to high school students since communist times.

MARIANN SCHILLER: You're going to say that you will just not talk about it. And especially if you think of teenagers, they are obviously deeply interested in sexuality and bodies and emotions. What else should they be interested in?

NICHOLSON: Schiller jokes that she'd have to stop teaching half the classics to follow the law. More seriously, she says some of her colleagues feel they can't trust their students.

SCHILLER: In almost each class, there are some kids who would report what they heard to their father who would go to the government, reporting the teacher.

NICHOLSON: The Orban administration argues that teachers have no role to play in sex education, as recently made clear by the Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER SZIJJARTO: As long as the kids are under the age of 18, the education of theirs regarding sexual orientation is the exclusive rights of the parents.

NICHOLSON: Orban's spokesperson who would only answer questions in writing told NPR that this law bans both homosexual and heterosexual, quote, "propaganda targeted at children." Sari Szanto, an art teacher in Budapest, disputes this.

SHARI SANTO: I will do what I believe is best. So, no, I will not obey this law.

NICHOLSON: Szanto says she's seen homophobic legislation before. She spent the last decade teaching in Russia, which passed a similar law in 2013. She's dismayed this is happening in her own country.

SANTO: The fact that homosexuality or trans issues are taboo makes these kids much more vulnerable. And violence against them will be very hard to address for what it is.

NICHOLSON: Santo says she welcomes the EU Commission's recent threat to withhold coronavirus recovery funds from Hungary over this law, but says she's not convinced the EU won't let them down - something she says she won't do to her students. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBYN SONG, "SEND TO ROBIN IMMEDIATELY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.