But the UK government is not seeking to snuff out the legal existence of transgender people. Malovics talks about Britain enthusiastically, gratefully even, and delivers the following line as if to say “only”.
“I can count, maybe not on one hand but on two hands, how many times I’ve been hurt or discriminated [against here]. And that’s a massive difference.” She describes what it is like on her annual trips back home to see her family. “I lose my self-confidence immediately. Even at the airport I feel nervous. Like, ‘Oh my god, who’s going to hurt me? Who’s going to punch me in the face? Who’s going to say something bad?’ It’s always there.”
The reason for Malovics’ fear when returning to Hungary is the same reason she fears for her future now: despite living and presenting as a woman, her passport and ID only show her former name and gender. By the time she applied in 2018 the suspension was in place. There is now, she feels, no hope of ever having documents that reflect who she is. So every time she returns home, and every moment she is in public when any official could ask to see her papers, she — and others in her situation — is at risk.
“That’s the main concern,” she says, of friends back home. “All of them are afraid of these documents being changed; that the government will allow all officials to read their sensitive information. It’s a violation of law.”
The burgeoning awareness of transgender people in Hungary since 2016 has so far mostly increased hostility, she says. It is a typical trajectory for minorities; a little knowledge of whom by the majority can often mean danger. The aggression, she says, is particularly directed at those who do not pass as cisgender. “They’re targeted and humiliated, verbally and physically attacked.”
“I’m really scared; I live in the UK right now but it still affects me,” she says. “I’m angry and I am sad; I could cry. These people [the Hungarian government] think I’m a freak, a danger, that I’m someone who has to be eliminated. And it’s not just me, it’s everyone else who is like me. I’m really concerned about what’s going to happen with all those people who live in Hungary because many of them are already saying they’re going to end their lives.”
Some have written of their intentions on social media. Malovics invokes a typical comment: “I just can’t deal with this and it’s better if I just end my life.” Others are saying they will delay transitioning; that it is too dangerous to begin now. Those who have already begun, says Malovics, “will have to live in fear of being hurt and will have to be grateful if that hurt is verbal.” The choices being considered are either not transitioning, suicide, or emigration — if they have the money. But even the first of these is not living, she says; it’s “wearing a mask all your life”.
The anguish being expressed is met with anger because of the pandemic, she says. “Many people are like, ‘This is your biggest concern during this time — what is happening with transgender issues?’ Nobody cares. Everyone’s getting mad at trans individuals trying to defend themselves.” This, she believes, was part of the reason for the timing of the bill; a brilliantly deployed tactic to quash resistance and sympathy.
International institutions such as the European Union — of which Hungary is a member — remain similarly muted amid the wider crisis. But the Hungarian government, says Dombos from the LGBTQ rights group the Hatter Society, is pursuing this law partly blindly.
“I don’t think they recognise how big an issue this is both in terms of its relevance for trans people or how clear the international human rights norms are on this issue,” he says.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) made clear the legal position of transgender people 18 years ago. The Goodwin v United Kingdom case — in which a trans woman’s right to privacy, marriage, and family life was deemed to have been violated by the lack of legal gender recognition — formed a foundational precedent upon which supplementary protections grew: trans people must be allowed to change the gender on their birth certificate (and therefore passport).
“This is not debated anymore in [European] international human rights,” says Dombos.
With Hungary’s anti-trans law expected to pass in early May, the only hope of overturning it is in the ECHR, Dombos said. But there are already 23 legal challenges to Hungary’s suspension of legal recognition, which have not yet been heard. The entire process is likely to take many years. “Some of these 23 applications [date] back to 2017 and there’s still no binding decision,” says Dombos. Ultimately, he thinks, there can be only one outcome. “We have no question that the ECHR would find a violation.” By then, he says, innumerable lives could have been ruined.
In the meantime there is work being done behind the scenes, by human rights groups such as the Hatter Society, as well as through diplomatic channels. All of which pose a quandary that has increasingly beset EU states and other organisations since Orban took office in 2010: how best to respond to the creeping authoritarian moves of a member state’s prime minister?