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.
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.
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
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-
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.”