A Tale of Two Eastern European Cities

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RECENT gay rights activism in much of Eastern Europe has been driven by the desire to become eligible for membership in the European Union (EU), which imposes a list of fairly stringent requirements on member countries in the sphere of #human rights guarantees, including adoption of laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Hungary and the Czech Republic provide a study in contrasts in how former Warsaw Pact countries are faring in this transition. I’ve had the opportunity to visit both countries for extended periods over the past two years; and, while I want to focus mostly on the Czech Republic, which is moving ahead nicely on gay rights issues, Hungary provides a corrective to excessive optimism.

Hungary has been struggling in recent years with a law (Section 199) that established separate ages of consent for hetero- and homosexual activity—verboten under EU mandates. This law was in conflict with the nondiscrimination provisions of the country’s constitution (which does not mention sexual orientation specifically) but was widely applied by courts. It was this issue that spurred the first sustained political organizing on the part of Hungary’s gay and lesbian minority, which came together in a group called the Szivarvany (“Rainbow”) Coalition. Revealingly enough of Hungarian attitudes, the group was initially refused legal status on two grounds: first, because it didn’t establish a minimum age requirement for membership; and second, because it employed the term “gay,” which in Magyar has the connotation of “warm,” and that was held to be dangerously misleading for young people! But through the efforts of the Hatter Society of Hungary, the leading gay and lesbian political organization, this double standard was abolished in 2002 and the consent law equalized. It now remains to be seen how effective the courts and law enforcement will implement the new standard and with what effect.

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Alan Brady Conrath is a poet and writer who lives and works in Boston.

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