A Brief Insight: LGBT in Hungary

Pride marchers hold a rainbow flag taut as others run underneath

Pride marchers hold a rainbow flag taut as others run underneath

I shook the man’s hand firmly but congenially, thanked him for his time, gave a final nod to his black-clad comrades, and sidled past the line of police milling about in riot gear and looking titanesque in tightly fitting navy uniforms. The acrid smell from the now smoldering rainbow flag on the pavement stuck to the insides of my nostrils, which were more flared than usual – not out of indignity but excitement. I felt the surge of adrenaline in my body, the thrill of being in the lion’s den and coming out unscathed. Yet, as we got farther from the now dwindling crowd of counter-protestors, my friend asked me if I had thought it unusual that no one stopped the flag burning; while it was only a meager crowd of onlookers, the only spectator who didn’t join in on the chanting — “Down with the faggots” — was a middle-aged, tire-worn Hungarian woman who merely shook her head, mumbled something incoherently, and walked away without looking back. In this small pedestrian walkway under the gritty underpass facing Nyugati railway station, no opposition rose to challenge the hatred and incomprehension, deeply ingrained beliefs and feelings even an annual gay pride parade could not suppress.

Marchers wait along Andrássy Avenue for the parade to begin

Marchers wait along Andrássy Avenue for the parade to begin

This year saw Budapest’s 18th Pride March last Sunday go off without a hitch, a celebration in itself, as last year’s parade hit a bump in the road when the Budapest Police Headquarters unsuccessfully attempted to disband the 2012 Pride Parade, citing traffic obstruction particularly along the heavily trafficked Andrássy Avenue — a minor setback in the history of the city’s Pride parades.

According to Tamás Dombos, a volunteer at Háttér, Hungary’s foremost and most active LGBT organization, marches were fairly peaceful up until the 2007 and 2008 parades; in what Tamás cited as a civilian backlash against the current corruption during the 2008 election, outraged counter protesters caught police off guard as they descended on the parade, lobbing rocks and rotten vegetables at marchers.

Orsi, 27, Ildi, 28, Anita, 29, from Hungary, proudly display their work

Orsi, 27, Ildi, 28, Anita, 29, from Hungary, proudly display their work

In 2011 and 2012, the plight for the LGBT community turned even grimmer when the government, at the behest of the police force, decided to ban the march. In reaction to the ruling, Háttér sought damages against the Budapest Police Authority, claiming that the ban was discriminatory. The case only just had its first hearing in April of this year.

In light of previous years’ events having not gone so smoothly for the LGBT community in Hungary, 2013’s boisterous occasion seemed to be marked with an air of slight trepidation; as a precaution against counteracts as seen in the 2008 parade, police erected high fences one block off from the parade’s route, allowing spectators to squintingly observe the march from afar. The careful measures proved reassuring to some, including Mirko, a 26-year-old Erasmus student, who said the overall

A protester of the parade burns a rainbow flag as others chant "Halál a buzik"

A protester of the parade burns a rainbow flag as others chant “Halál a buzik”

reception of the LGBT community in his home country of Italy was much worse. “In Italy…it is really hard to meet other guys, only in gay venues. And I would not dare go hand in hand with my boyfriend.”

Others, like Chen, 26, visiting from Israel, echoed the sentiment. Flashing a colorful band on his wrist, he recounted that he was strongly dissuaded by a friend from wearing any gay pride insignia particularly when traveling through the country.

Budapest, on the other hand, may have a thriving LGBT culture, but the open displaying of sexuality or support for the LGBT community is not so prominent. Some LGBT venues, Tamás contends, tend not to display the ubiquitous multicolored flag as not to attract unwanted negative attention. Overall, Tamás points out, Hungary has yet to see the progress its neighbors Poland and Romania have had in the past 10 years, given that polls show that barely one-

Just across St. Stephen's, a few supporters wave on as the parade turns on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca toward Parlament

Just across St. Stephen’s, a few supporters wave on as the parade turns on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca toward Parlament

third of its population support same-sex marriage and 40% responded that they would not tolerate a gay neighbor.

Brandishing a sign reading ‘Say “No” to the Dark Side’ and a picture of Star Wars’ Yoda underneath, Orsi, a 27-year-old Hungarian native attending Sunday’s parade, said that her message was directed at those against the apparent display of sexual preference. “This is not about injuring the people or making them upset. It’s about acceptance. Don’t hate others.” While she said Hungary had much progress to make in bringing up the next generation in a more sympathetic environment, she said she was happy to see several businesses, such as Origo and Index, supporting the event for the first time.

Back over in the less-colorful triangle catty-corner from the monolithic railway station, it was exactly the sentiment feared by Les, one of the few onlookers who had heard of the flag burning and sped there on his bike to support his fellow anti-LGBT demonstrators. “The ultimate goal of the protests is to ban the parade, like in Russia,” he said as his eyes affixed on the globs of distinguished remains of the flag. “And not to become sick like the West.”

Marchers release balloons at Oktogon Square

Marchers release balloons at Oktogon Square

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A Not-So-Brief Insight: Immigration Impossible

It’s amazing how little accomplished I feel having received my official Hungarian immigration visa today. In my mind, this trite but well-earned achievement deserved at least the uncorking of a shitty bottle of Balatoni, not particularly in my honor but in the acknowledgment of my roommates and I ringing in the new year together and toughing out the shared experience of teaching English in an otherwise inhospitable country (as far as employment, payment, and taxes go) for a year’s time. Instead, my one flatmate and closest friend just managed to raise her tone an octave above suspicion, while the other – and expectantly so as well as much appreciated – offered his genuine bro-ski boons when I told him the news. It was the former’s sad excuse for a flaccid high-five that crushed me and more so because only a day before she announced that she would be going home for the holidays, leaving me to have a holly, jolly Hungarian Christmas on my own. Cue an ironic, bittersweet “I’ll be home for Christmas” and pop open the holiday sherry for the pity speech I’m about to make…actually, don’t drop that needle just yet, but do down that sherry.

For the sake of posterity and my obituary photo.

For the sake of posterity and my obituary photo.

I began the immigration process to attain my one-year residency permit over a month or two ago. Albeit a tedious process of filling out one repetitive document after the other, I had little difficulty actually going through the proper bureaucratic steps. Well, in fact, I enjoyed the tedium, the organization, and the challenge of travelling from one person or business to the next, much like a highly-ordered scavenger hunt. Immigration having sent me to places where English was scant yet the office environments slightly more relaxed, I covered districts unknown and met many friendly people along the way. Recounting my experiences – from the humorous and helpful Iranians at Földhivatali Portál (Official Portal of the Hungarian Land Administration) who aided me with vexing Hungarian accommodation forms to the sympathetic immigration worker who despite a policy against photocopying documents for clients did so anyhow – I’m perhaps not so ready to throw in the towel despite how dirty the window to my world has been in recent weeks. As my recent interviewee who more aptly cleverly quipped, “Never mud wrestle with a pig; you get messy, and the pig likes it.”

What’s more is that I have the opportunity to help others going through a similar process, which I outline below. My path to successful residency, of course, is specific to my case in that not everyone will be going through the process individually, but rather with a school or company; in those cases, I can only offer a general idea. So, without further ado…

So you want to stay in Budapest, Hungary…

The lovely exterior of the Office of Immigration and Nationality

The lovely exterior of the Office of Immigration and Nationality

Why the hell do you want to do that? This will be your first submitted form to the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN), a simple piece of paper detailing your reason for wanting a residency permit. For me, three sappy paragraphs of tripe about wanting to continue studying the language and music, teaching English to my beloved students, and bandying about as a freelance journalist were enough; while I myself went the professional route and had my informal plea typed, I’m not so sure a scrap of toilet paper with the words “dinosaur” and “cinnamon bun” written on it would get a second look, as we’ll see later on.

Also before making the bus ride to the Budafoki headquarters, a stop to the post office is in order. For me, Nyugati palyaudvar (Western Railway Station) Posta was closest, and the procedure was fairly straightforward. At the small window, I politely asked the woman (in Hungarian, though English might work, too) for 18,000 HUF in bélyegilleték (duty stamps), which amounts to about 83 USD. Tuck these colorful little postage stickers in a safe place; if you lose them, OIN will not be able to place them in the designated boxes on your application form, and, therefore, the ancient Magyar magic required to move on to the next document will not be unlocked.

Immigration RequestAnd that’s it! Aside from the other forms, of course. Next, is the Application for Residence Permit for Other Purpose (this varies depending on the exact reason you are requesting a longer-term stay, so choose the appropriate form), which can be downloaded from the Bevándorlási és állampolgársági hivatal (BÁH) website, found under Administration –> Standard Forms. Aside from your passport number and other necessities covered later on, the Hungarian government is very keen on knowing your mother’s maiden name multiple times, so do know this before going. Also on the form, you’ll notice a box to be checked with the stipulation that you have full health care coverage during your stay in Hungary. While it’ll cost you around 33,000 HUF (roughly 150 USD), it’s a relatively straightforward process: simply send an e-mail or call one of the offices of Generali Testőr (the one I used was conveniently located not far from my place on Teréz körút 42) requesting an English-speaking (or Hungarian, if you’re able and willing) representative in regard to receiving basic health care. The shittiest aspect, while frustratingly understandable, is that this coverage won’t actually kick in six months into the annual coverage. Make sure to keep a copy of your signed contract as well as your receipt in case OIN needs another paper to pad your appeal.

Then, we have the notorious accommodation form, the bane of my existence for a trying three weeks in which I requested the appropriate signatures from my landlord. This fun little sheet of cardstock must have all the details filled out according to your current residence in Budapest as well as every – and sweet krumpli, I mean every – signature of those involved in the ownership and leasing of your digs. This is available on the BÁH website listed under Administration –> Standard Forms –> Accomodation reporting form for third country nationals (Yes, it’s spelled wrong). But how do you find out who is registered as owners and leasers, you ask? For that, you need another document, the Title Deed, this time supplied by Földhivatali Portál, or Official Portal Of The Hungarian Land Administration, of which there are three locations. The website lists the appropriate office depending on the applicant’s district of residence (as I am in the VI district, I had to report to the Főváros headquarters at Bosnyák tér 5). Lease contract in hand, I took my call number (given to you by the security guard/gate keeper) to the window and asked in my shittiest Hungarian for the appropriate deed documentation, coughing up a little over 6,000 HUF (around 30 USD) for the three-page proof of tax-paid housing. Listed on this are the names of the owners, all of who are required to be signed on your accommodation form. If one signature is missing: no deal.

Courtesy Accommodation Letter

Courtesy Accommodation Letter

Accompanying this reporting form is a very simple Courtesy Accommodation Letter (picture on the left), for which is required a copy of your lease, the J. Hancocks of your accommodation providers, and two witness signatures, for which I’m almost positive Captain Crunchballs Shitcans and Margarine Butter Fiend would work – but don’t push your luck.

The next documents required are bank statements, of which I supplied three months’ worth for both my checking and savings accounts. Typically, the prepubescent processor behind the plastic window at OIN informed me, only one month’s statement is needed, but the more, the better (and that goes for the amount on the ledger as well, of course). Speaking of money, some form of income, while not absolutely required but appreciated particularly if your bank statements aren’t an impressive read, should be proven on paper. For me, this required little more than a contract with SELTI, a now nonexistent company, as it was recently shut down by the government. However, if you’re a freelance English teacher, for instance, have either your school/employer or your students/company print a letter of contractual agreement on a letterhead, another document to sweeten the punch. As before, litter with signatures.

Lastly, two recent passport-sized photographs must be provided. At OIN, there is a handy photo booth in which you can model your most expressionless face for the price of 1,000 HUF (approximately 5 USD) for four photos. Though I’m sure there’s a certain amount of upkeep every now and then, it might be best to have these photos taken beforehand just in case of any unforeseen operating problems on your special day. During the process, which mostly just involves a lot of patience (the waiting area is nice and warm, has a free restroom, and offers vending machine coffee for about fifty cents), you will have your photo taken (again) and be required to subject to some fingerprinting.

A few notes:

–There are plenty of immigration agencies through which you can go through the process. While they charge a hefty fee, it might be a good way to go if you’re unsure of your chances. For these resources, check out Hire A Hungarian, request assistance on Expats Facebook, or visit the forums at Expat-blog and Internations.

–Buy a monthly metro card. You’ll need to take a bus and possibly other transportation to reach the OIN and will most likely be using the city’s transit system often during your stay, so the 50-odd bucks spent are worth it.

–Short of going through this rigmarole, there are always border runs. I have no advice on this, and I’m far too much of a law-abiding pansy to even remotely entertain the idea.

So, let’s review. To win the game of life here in Hungary, you need the following:

  • Statement detailing the reason for wanting a residency permit
  • Bélyegilleték/Duty stamps (Available at post offices)
  • Application for Residence Permit for Other Purpose/Application for National Residence Permit/Permanent Residence/For Official Purpose, etc. (All downloadable on the BÁH website)
  • Proof of full health care coverage
  • Accommodation reporting form for third country nationals (Downloadable on the BÁH website)
  • Title Deed (Provided by the Official Portal Of The Hungarian Land Administration)
  • Courtesy Accommodation Letter (Pictured above)
  • Copy of your lease
  • Bank statements
  • Proof of employment or form of income
  • Two recent passport-sized photographs

Again, I’m not supplying a tried-and-true method for attaining a visa extension or residency. Circumstances dependent on a certain day or the capricious mood of a particular white collar might have been fortuitously in my favor alone. If anything, I naively believe the generosity of others and my own determination have paid off in the end, and I’m happy to use my experiences in helping others facing similar obstacles. So, instead of the whinefest I would’ve waxed on about here, I offer a toast to the new year and the mountains I have yet to climb here and elsewhere. Indeed, Fuji is in sight.Cliffside Szepvolgyi