Hungary Outlaws Changing Gender on Documents After Birth

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BUDAPEST — Hungary’s far-right government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has for a decade demonized his long list of perceived enemies, including Muslim migrants, George Soros, Brussels, civil society, homeless people, foreign universities, Roma families and an independent press.

Yet with migration fading as a potent issue, and with the world struggling to manage the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Orban’s government has shifted its focus to another perceived threat: transgender people.

In a law that legal observers believe is the first of its kind in Europe, Hungary will now tie an individual’s gender to the person’s sex and chromosomes at birth, restricting later modifications on official documents. The bill was signed into law this week by President Janos Ader.

“This law is unparalleled in Europe,” said Bea Bodrogi, a Hungarian lawyer representing 23 transgender applicants to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of the Transvanilla Transgender Association, an advocacy group. “This goes against all international and national human rights standards: right to privacy, right to self-determination, right to human dignity.”

Since Mr. Orban returned to power in 2010, his government has overseen a sweeping overhaul of the country’s democratic framework. His party unilaterally rewrote Hungary’s Constitution, changed election rules to favor the party, stacked the Constitutional Court, and has taken over public media outlets and most of the country’s private news media.

Mr. Orban’s comprehensive reshaping of Hungary has included a culture war — one being fought in theaters, the public school curriculum, higher education, religion and the interpretation of history. And, increasingly, matters related to gender and sexual orientation.

Before the new law restricting transgender rights was passed, there was a process in Hungary by which individuals could achieve legal gender recognition following forensic medical evaluations.

Moving forward under the new law, experts say, that will no longer be the case.

“This trans law is clearly a backlash, cutting back on the rights that the trans community had in Hungary since the early 2000s,” said Tamas Dombos, a board member of the Hatter Society, an L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group.

Legal gender recognition had existed in legal limbo in Hungary since the early 2000s, he said. In 2016, Hungary’s Ombudsman for Fundamental Rights called for legal clarity, an initiative that was generally seen as a positive step by transgender advocacy groups but had not been addressed by Hungarian lawmakers.

Gender recognition procedures have been suspended since 2017, and recent court judgments would have forced the authorities to resume processing such requests, Mr. Dombos says.

That legal uncertainty ended with President Ader’s signature.

ImageSince Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to power in 2010, his government has made sweeping changes in Hungarian society.
Credit…Tamas Kovacs/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images

Miklos Szantho, the director of the Center for Fundamental Rights, a government-aligned think tank in Budapest, said the purpose of the law was “to fill a legal gap and to get rid of some of the uncertainty of legal interpretation.”

He called the debate over the measure “a clash of worldviews.”

“The legislation clearly runs against the legal practice of European courts, as their relevant decisions are based on human rights fundamentalism, which tries to create basic rights from every and each human desire,” Mr. Szantho said, adding that definitions of sex, marriage and family remained in the hands of E.U. member states.

When the government introduced the bill in late March, dozens of domestic L.G.B.T.Q. groups called on the government to withdraw its plans. Ms. Bodrogi, the human rights lawyer, said she had two clients who would challenge the law’s constitutionality once the measure comes into effect.

It was put forward a day after Mr. Orban was granted the authority to rule by decree to defend against the coronavirus, a move that was approved by Parliament. Since then, he has used his powers to seize control of a publicly traded company and declare territory belonging to an opposition-led city a “special economic zone,” stripping the city of a significant portion of its tax base.

Mr. Orban’s government has indicated the prime minister might give back his powers to Parliament by mid-June. But his grip on power and his party’s control over all three branches of government, practically speaking, will remain solid.

And the new law is already affecting Hungary’s transgender people, Mr. Dombos said. “Now they feel there is no future for them,” he said. “Many people are planning to leave the country. There are unfortunately also people who say they can’t live like this anymore.”

Adel Onodi, a 24-year-old actress and activist, left Hungary in 2017. She had received her legal gender recognition a year earlier and decided to leave her homeland because of threats to her life and concerns about professional opportunities.

Now living in Berlin, she worries about how the legislation will affect her ability to apply for German citizenship, whether it will apply retroactively to future renewals of Hungarian official documents and how it will shape attitudes toward transgender people in Hungary.

She is also concerned that the European Union continues to provide substantial funding to Hungary even as it targets at-risk groups.

In 2018, citing the Hungarian government’s attacks on democracy and the rule of law, the European Parliament voted to initiate a procedure against Hungary that could strip Mr. Orban’s government of its vote in the European Council, which is made up of European governments. But the machinery in Brussels has made no further substantial moves on the procedure.

A European Commission spokesman said in a statement this week that while member states must ensure that their laws comply with obligations like the European Convention on Human Rights, the conditions and procedures for legal gender recognition fall outside the scope of European Union law.

That is little consolation for people like Ms. Onodi in Berlin.

“I can’t say that I feel safe in the E.U.,” she said. “It is all empty words.”

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