The streets were entirely empty, save for the 20,000 people marching through them. Members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community and their allies braved a hot July sun on Saturday to demonstrate through Budapest’s downtown in celebration of the city’s 21st Budapest Pride Festival. Waving rainbow flags and shimmying to upbeat dance music booming from the flatbed of a white Mercedes 10-wheeler, demonstrators maintained a jovial mood while an escort of police watched over the perimeter.
The only way into the parade was through two security checkpoints managed by organisers at Hősök tere, the march’s commencement point.
As in years past, the entire parade route was cordoned off, as were all side-streets stretching a city block in each direction. It created a surreal scene: the only people who witnessed the demonstrations were those who lived, worked or were concurrently patronising businesses along the route.
In 2007 and in 2008, hundreds of anti-gay counter-protesters disturbed the marches by throwing rocks, eggs and other refuse at participants. Police have provided the one-block buffer zone to the parade route each year since.
This year’s march started just after 4pm. The demonstrators headed southwest down Andrássy út before turning right onto Nagymező utca, and then swinging briefly north up to Alkotmány út.
They then flooded into Kossuth Lajos tér in front of the Parliament building, where activists gave speeches demanding greater legal recognition from their government and greater respect and tolerance from Hungarian citizenry writ large.
Csaba Császár, one of the event organisers, spoke passionately in the square. He urged attendees to build coalitions with Hungary’s other vulnerable populations.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re talking about, we have to defend each other,” Császár said. “If you don’t like it when people belittle you for being gay, don’t allow them to belittle gypsies.”
A spokesperson for the Hungarian Police Department reported that there were no arrests.
Along the parade route, demonstrators expressed joy and relief at being in a space where they felt accepted.
“I have a place here,” said Andrea Müller, an 18-year-old transgendered woman originally from the town of Mosonmagyaróvár in northwest Hungary. Müller said this was her first Pride parade.
Müller said she has identified herself as female since she “was little”, but she only came out to her parents as transgendered at the age of 14. She said they were slow to accept her at first but have become fully supportive in the years since.
Still, within the Hungarian populace at large, Müller finds resistance, even in the comparatively cosmopolitan capital.
“I wouldn’t say people are nasty but they’re not always tolerant either. Some people don’t know that I’m trans. Once I tell them that I am, some people just stop talking to me.”
According to Hadley Z. Renkin, a professor of Gender Studies at Central European University whose work is focused on gay identity in post-socialist Hungary, the ascendance of the right-wing Fidesz government in 2010 has led to a conflation of anti-gay rhetoric with anti-western Europe rhetoric, which has in turn inflamed homophobia in Hungary.
He pointed to an amendment to the 2012 Hungarian Constitution, which restricted the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples, as an example of anti-LGBT policy on the part of the government.
“I think this kind of move, which is visible in public on the part of the government, can set a tone in the way people see a certain social group.”
But many at the march painted a brighter picture, suggesting that homophobia in Budapest has never created problems for them, and they’re able to behave in public however they wish.
Adri Huszák, a 21-year-old physical therapy student, said no one in Budapest ever said anything to her, despite “it being pretty obvious that I’m a lesbian”.
“I’m openly gay. It’s accepted,” said Huszák, who is originally from Kecskemét but now lives in Budapest. “I can walk through the streets and no one says anything.”
Still, others from out of town said Hungary has work to do to become a fully inclusive place for its LGBT community.
Decked out in black leather pants, knee-high black boots, a tank top and a black sash embroidered with the words, “Mr. Leather Europe 2015”, 37-year-old Austrian Thorsten Buhl said Budapest lagged behind cities in the Western world when it comes to the open celebration of queer identity.
Buhl has marched in Gothenburg, Vienna, Amsterdam and other Pride parades.
“I represent the leather community of Europe,” he said of the inscription on his sash, which he described as a “BDSM [bondage, etc.] and fetish community” that is “unfortunately not” existent in Budapest.
Noting that Budapest is about the same size as Vienna, which he said does have a leather community, Buhl said the lack of one in Budapest is evidence of homophobia in the city.
“If there wasn’t, the fetish people would dare be out and proud,” he said.
Hungary has allowed registered partnership to LGBT couples since 2009. Under the current system, LGBT couples are granted some of the rights that married couples are entitled to – such as hospital visitation and some tax incentives – but are denied other rights, notably the joint adoption of children.
At a press conference in Debrecen in May, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said the current system of allowing registered partnerships to LGBT couples while only granting full marriage rights to heterosexual couples is a compromise that ensures a lasting accord between the LGBT community and the more socially conservative elements of the Hungarian populace.
“Hungary is a serious country built on tradtional values… Hungary is a tolerant country,” he said. “Tolerance doesn’t mean that we need to grant equal legal rights to different lifestyles from our own… I feel compelled to let the homosexuals in the Hungarian public know that they shouldn’t comport themselves in a provocative way.”
Orbán said such behaviour cuts against LGBT groups’ own interests by inflaming backlash from the other side of the debate. “Hungary’s Constitution makes clear differences between marriage and other forms of cohabitation… foreigners don’t feel that Budapest is in any way a dangerous city. Which I think is good. This is how we can live together. If we move the system in either direction… then I think the peace will collapse.”
According to Renkin, a major political divide in Hungary right now is the belief among anti-LGBT Hungarians that the LGBT community is less “Hungarian”.
“One of the reasons that the Fidesz government and many Hungarian nationalists have such a problem with LGBT people is that they see them as representatives of the West,” he said. “They see them as foreigners.”
If that’s the case, then for one day at least they were foreigners who conquered territory: pouring through the streets, appropriating Hungarian football anthems and holding up signs mocking leadership in government as they danced to live music next to the Danube River in the long shadows of the late afternoon.
“Why should I have less rights to be visible than heterosexual families with children?” asked Buhl.
Added Huszák: “People should be able to love whomever they love.”