6 mins

CW: Transphobia, homophobia

Some background 

In early 2020, as countries worldwide grappled with the most effective way to deal with the threat of COVID-19. In Hungary, the parliament decided to allow prime minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree. 

Rule by decree is a form of governance that allows the ruler to bypass public debate and make quick, unchallenged changes to the law.  

Potentially valuable in times of emergency, it is also a form of government associated with the violation of civil rights.
And in Hungary, the day after establishing the rule by decree, a law unrelated to COVID-19 was introduced.

The law’s intent was to directly target trans people by banning what is known as “Legal Gender Recognition.” 

Overnight, with no debate or public scrutiny, trans people in Hungary lost the right to have identity documents that accurately stated their name and gender.

The law reversed almost two decades of civil rights advances with the stroke of a pen as the Hungarian word nem meaning “sex” was replaced by the phrase “sex at birth.”

At the time, the commissioner for human rights in the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, said, “the law contravenes human rights standards and the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.”

Since then, the situation has continued to deteriorate, and this summer, the Hungarian Parliament adopted yet another controversial law. 

Intended initially to fight pedophilia, the final version of the “Child Protection Act” prohibits representing homosexuality and gender reassignment to minors.
This law, passed in June 2021, also prohibits discussing these subjects in sex education classes.

The passage of the “Child Protection Act” created public outrage in Hungary and throughout Europe.
Its passage has put a flashing spotlight on the clashes taking place daily between the Hungarian government and the LGBT community.


Transvanilla – advocating for recognition

Transvanilla is the one and only registered trans-led NGO in Hungary. It was established in 2011.

Having limited resources, they concentrated their efforts on behind-the-scenes advocacy in defense of the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people.

Their mission was to push for legislation that made legal gender recognition, healthcare, and information more accessible to this community.

With the passage of the “Child Protection Act”, the era of silent advocacy is now behind them. 

They have been forced to take their fight onto the public stage to protect the lives and livelihoods of trans people in Hungary. 

The interview

We recently reached out to Transvanilla Transgender Association. We wanted to understand how they are waging this fight for their community’s rights, livelihoods, and safety in this increasingly hostile political climate.
We spoke with Tina Kolos Orbán, Vice President of Transvanilla about the situation on the ground, the power dynamics, what the NGO is trying to achieve, and the high personal stakes of this fight.

This article is the second part of a 2-part series reporting on trans rights in Hungary.
It is also part of Everyday Grit’s ongoing series to balance the media portrayal of trans people and lives. 

You’ve reported that the EU has remained silent on the law banning Legal Gender Recognition in Hungary. Yet this summer, we saw great outrage against the latest anti-LGBT law banning LGBT representation in material for minors.
The EU Commission has also filed an infringement process against this law. Should Europe be doing more? How do you see the European reaction to the Child Protection Act?

Tina Kolos Orbán: Well, first of all, it’s essential to know that we at Transvanilla have never been reactionary. That’s not us. We never like having to react – we stopped reacting long ago.
We want to be out front – we want to lead and educate. 

But we are such a small organization – we have only three people working here, part-time.
Imagine that.
The three of us are working against the machinery of the ruling political party that is explicitly targeting us.

It’s tough.

Back in February this year, I was diagnosed with cancer. I needed very urgent surgery.
While I was in the hospital, I became infected with Covid. It was dire, and my life was saved twice that month at the hospital.

And during all that, we were in a situation where legislative proposals were popping up here and there, every time the government had a new, crazy idea. 

So we are here, and we try to survive and do what we can. 

It’s really what all of us have to do as trans individuals and as a community – do what we can to survive all of this.


Europe – outrage and apathy

So yes, the European ministers got outraged.
And yes, an infringement procedure was started only four days after the law passed.
But one of the first things that trans people wondered  “Where was the EU last year when legal gender recognition was outlawed?”

Of course, we agree, the so-called Child Protection Act is terrible and has created outrage.
But this law doesn’t actually affect people’s daily lives. At least not in the way that the ban on legal gender recognition impacts every aspect of trans people’s lives.

So here we have the EU proclaiming that it will protect all LGBTQIA+ people. 

Yet when Helena Dalli (The EU Commissioner for Equality) speaks about the Legal Gender Recognition law, she refuses to mention Hungary. She talks about why Legal Gender Recognition is important and how trans people need to be protected. But when it comes to action, the EU stands behind the argument that Legal Gender Recognition is not actually within the competence of the EU Commission. 

So the disgraceful question remains: “Why aren’t trans people being protected in the EU?”
(Editor’s Note: Amnesty International estimates that as many as 1.5 million trans people are living in Europe)

At the same time, we have seen that once the gays are targeted, the subject gets EU attention. That’s when we start to see actions like Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s first openly gay prime minister, stepping up and speaking out.
But when trans people get thrown under the bus, the EU remains silent.

Don’t get me wrong,
I’m happy that the Commission is acting, and they have brought the infringement procedure against Hungary.

It’s just that simultaneously there is silence and an overall lack of support for trans people.

European Unions flags

Guillaume Perigois / Unsplash

We talked about advocacy and how your activity has adapted to everything that is happening in Hungary. What is Transvanilla doing today to help the community on the ground? 

TO: First of all, we run a support group. This is really quite important in terms of mental health support for the community. 

The situation is quite alarming. We are seeing and hearing people say that they are living in a state of panic and feeling desperate about what is going on. 

We also plan on launching a support group for the parents of trans kids and trans people.
This is because we are receiving more and more requests and questions from parents. While this is not a new thing, there is an ongoing and strong demand.

Additionally, we want to produce more materials for the community. 

Like I said before, we don’t simply want to be reactionary. We want people in the community to have access to positive things too. 

For example, we just recently published a resource for trans-specific healthcare. 

“Name from the past”

We have also launched Transvanilla’s first public awareness campaign this year called “Name from the past.”
This is an example of the shift we have been forced to make, moving from silent advocacy to public campaigns.

The campaign’s central message is to show people what it’s like when it is actually illegal to change your name.

And importantly, “Name from the past” is a campaign that the opposition can do nothing about.
It’s about public awareness; it has nothing to do with identity papers, with minors, nor propaganda.
They can’t pass a law against us giving people information – we are still allowed to tell our stories, even if we are trans.

The government says that they don’t want to hurt transgender people.
But their actions create a very fine line that we are being forced to navigate around.

And unfortunately, trans people are being discussed every day. The government is attacking us all the time, and it’s unhelpful – we don’t want to be that visible.
And we have to be careful not to launch a campaign that further inflames them.

Lastly, the whole LGBT community is under attack right now.
So now, more than ever, we have increased our networking activity with other LGBT and Human Rights organizations. 

So we are doing all this. 

However, I also have my limitations.
I need to have a less stressful life. A massive part of my illness is because of this type of work and my activism. 
I genuinely need to withdraw from the stress if I want to live.
It’s that simple, and I choose to live.
Everyone should.

What you are doing is very remarkable, particularly in the face of such hostility and with such limited resources. Can you tell us a bit about what the future might look like for Transvanilla? 

TO: Honestly, we have no idea what is yet to come. 

If we could achieve Legal Gender Recognition and obtain guidelines for healthcare for trans people, Transvanilla would maybe vanish. Hopefully we would be followed by other trans initiatives, because there are still lots of issues to tackle.

Because that is what we are working for. If we can achieve this, we will have done what we intended to do. 

But to get there, we need funding. 

Neither our government nor the EU supports us, and we receive no funding from them. 

So obviously, we struggle. Since the law proposal in 2020 , we did receive some emergency grants. So when the situation becomes terrible, we do receive some emergency money.

But the future is so uncertain because if these emergency funders disappear, or the situation returns to “normal,” whatever that is, we might not get any funding again. So concerning your question, for us, the future is a big question mark.


Want to support or follow Transvanilla in their work, you can access their website here follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Feature image: Nito / Shutterstock