Transphobia is a word thrown around far too easily. But Hungary’s move to end legal recognition of trans people really is something to worry about. While Britain has been embroiled in a heated debate over proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which allows people to change their legal gender on the production of medical reports and a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, in Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government has swept such rights away.
On 19 May, the Hungarian National Assembly voted 133 to 37 to ban transgender people from changing the gender on their identity documents. The word ‘nem’ – meaning sex or gender – was replaced by the unambiguous term, ‘születési nem’, meaning sex at birth. Hungary’s government’s communication office explained that this did not stop people living according to their identities. This might be true. Yet it did mean that their identity documents would expose these people as transgender and put them at risk of discrimination, harassment and abuse.
While English speakers may routinely conflate sex and gender, the fact we have two words allows us to give them different meanings. Sex is biology, while gender is a vaguer term that links to expression or identity. That has allowed English speakers to talk about our gender, while avoiding the harsh realities of biology. Sex is not ‘assigned at birth’ by something akin to a Hogwarts Sorting Hat. It is observed, often well before birth, and is immutable. Male or female we were created, and male or female we will stay.
It is rather harder to separate them in Hungarian, where there is no second word but exactly the same biology. So Orbán’s government may have a point. But while some campaigners welcome the return to reality, Hungarian transsexuals who have gone through gender reassignment surgery and pass reasonably well as the opposite sex will be forced to carry ID that fails to describe them and exposes them every time they use it. As a small minority they are very vulnerable.
So why is Orbán targeting trans rights? When Orbán returned to power in 2010, Hungary was suffering under painful austerity measures. Since then he has provided political stability and among current EU leaders, only Germany’s Angela Merkel has been in post longer. During this time, Orbán has imposed the ideology of national identity based on Christian cultural values, patriotism and family. Theatres and universities have been put under pressure and gender studies courses have been cancelled. Even the pre-school curriculum has been amended to promote national identity. Meanwhile foreign NGOs are treated with increasing suspicion.
In the midst of this carnival of national pride came a perceived ‘foreign’ ideology of gender identity, promoted heavily within the Anglosphere and supported by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In Budapest, these two authoritarian ideologies collided. Both national identity and gender identity demand total compliance. They go beyond restricting actions; they control our words, and even our thoughts (as Harry Miller found out when Humberside police sent an officer to check his thinking). But they cannot coexist. Trans people in Hungary are rightly concerned about what might happen next.
Could something similar happen in the UK? That is the fear of many of my fellow transgender campaigners, especially now that the government has started to respond more critically to the seemingly endless demands of some transgender campaigners. Liz Truss, the minister for Women and Equalities recently announced that the government was planning to strengthen women’s rights to single-sex spaces. Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal struck down Christie Elan-Canes’ appeal to have their non-binary identity recognised by an X marker on their passport.
But for now an uneasy compromise is maintained in the UK. Under the GRA, transgender people change the sex marker on our birth certificates, but only on production of medical evidence. Meanwhile the marker in British passports can be changed with a letter from their GP. Records held elsewhere – by banks, libraries and the like – can be changed on demand, though it does raise the question why such organisations need to record anyone’s sex in the first place, other than for equal opportunities monitoring.
Unlike the authoritarian politics of Hungary, UK legislatures are largely socially liberal. Social conservatives in our country have no credible equivalent of Orban’s Fidesz party. But social liberals must not be complacent. While we have no comparable form of national identity – the attempt to develop ‘British values’ appears to have come and gone – our institutions have readily adopted gender identity. It has advanced perniciously through our universities and the arts. Dissidents are abused and no-platformed; they lose friends, jobs and livelihoods and even face criminal prosecution. The experiences of professor Selina Todd – deplatformed at her own university – and Julie Bindel – attacked after a meeting in Edinburgh – are sadly unexceptional.
We would be wise as a society to take note of this sooner rather than later. Maybe the government will be able to oppose the excesses of gender identity ideology, restore confidence and all will be well. But they cannot stand by and do nothing. If social liberals don’t take action, social conservatives will.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 5 June 2020: Hungary offers a lesson in crying wolf on ‘transphobia’