What does gay “propaganda” encompass?
A parade with homosexuals on floats? Or would reruns of “Will & Grace” and old Rock Hudson movies potentially qualify?
What about safe-sex pamphlets intended to save lives by specifying modes of transmission?
Those questions have a context. In various countries, including Hungary, which I discuss in today’s column, the favored means of retaliation against the increased openness of gay men and lesbians—and against a move in parts of Western Europe and the United States to enact marriage equality—are calls for laws that forbid the supposed promotion of homosexuality.
Russia’s second most populous city, St. Petersburg, enacted one in March, and there have since been arrests and even a recurring cameo by Madonna.Actually, more than a cameo: she’s scheduled to perform a concert in the city in August, and has said she’ll use the occasion to speak out against the new law.
Its author, Vitaly Milonov, has reportedly said that Madonna should be charged under that law if she does so. “I’m ready to personally suffer a couple of hours of her concert” in order to monitor her, he said, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.
I couldn’t resist that detail, but the matter at hand is serious. The city of Balti, Moldova, has also enacted a law against gay propaganda. The country of Lithuania was recently roiled by a parliamentary debate over one.
In Hungary, a bill of this nature was introduced about two weeks ago by the ultra-right Jobbik party. It isn’t likely to get much traction, but is in some small measure indicative of many Hungarians’ shrugging acceptance of homophobic insults and bitter feelings about gay visibility. Seemingly every year officials try to cancel Budapest’s gay pride parade and the matter winds up in court.
“About this particular bill, I’m not worried,” Tamas Dombos, a Hungarian gay rights advocate, told me last week in Budapest, referring to the Jobbik proposal. “About the effect, I am.” He meant that the bill’s introduction, even by a far-right group, is another signal—in a country with plenty of others—that being gay is to be looked down upon and even to be punished.
But in Hungary, as in so many countries, things aren’t so very simple: there have long been certain legal protections for gay people in place, and there have long been gay people who live openly and without much worry.
I met several of them well before sunset on Friday at a grand, centrally located theater in Budapest where an Icelandic movie about a young gay man was being shown. The screening was well-attended, by local residents who mingled on the sidewalk beforehand and in the lobby after.
Milan Rozsa, 24, told me the differences between Hungary and some other European countries are sometimes subtle ones. He has appeared on television to talk about gay rights, and hasn’t ever felt unsafe, he said.
But he said that even at the university where he studies, a professor was utterly unselfconscious about making derogatory remarks about gay people.
Judit Takacs, a sociologist and senior research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who sat with Rozsa and me after the movie, said that many Hungarian politicians feel similarly unselfconscious—and that rants about decadent gay people are an easy way to score points.
“If you’re a politician and you can’t do anything else, be homophobic,” she said. “It won’t cost you anything, and it might get you votes.”
Is that perhaps too cynical and harsh? I visited the Hungarian Parliament on Monday to interview a representative of the ruling Fidesz party, and when I asked him about Jobbik’s gay propaganda bill, he said instantly and unequivocally that Fidesz didn’t support it.
“We consider it a provocation,” he said.
It’s also a muddle. A riddle. A sloppily worded proposal that, like ones in other countries, is dangerously ripe for interpretation and abuse. If only for that reason, it should concern anyone invested in free speech.
Daniel B. Baer, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told me that while he didn’t want to single out or talk about any individual countries, he was concerned about laws that “are banning forms of expression.”
“If you look around the world, most of the laws that could be seen as anti-gay actually threaten the human rights of citizens gay and straight,” he said.