In 2020, the Hungarian legislature took a firm position on transgender rights: under the new rules, everyone is required to indicate their sex of birth in their personal documents. In my article, I introduce the Hungarian transgender situation, as much without touching on politics as possible, and compare it with foreign examples.
What does transgenderism mean?
Transgenderism is a collective term, often abbreviated as trans, meaning people who assume a gender identity different from their birth sex. In Hungary, with a population less than 10 million, there are only a few hundred fellow human beings who want or dare to undertake a transition of identity, which is no wonder given how much persecution and discrimination this group has suffered in the last few decades.
Many transgender people seek medical help for permanent changes, which is a long but not at all risk- or pain-free process. During it, numerous hormonal medicaments transform the body, intensifying the desired sexual characteristics. Hormones can affect a person’s voice, body hair density, and even soften or harden features. During the process of gender reassignment, the primary sexual characteristics (breasts, facial hair, penis, or vagina) are also medically modified. There are established procedures for “building” or even “growing” a penis that can not only be an ornament but even produces an erection using a built-in pump. For transgender women, an organ similar in appearance and with partially similar functions, a vagina can be formed using the techniques and methods of vaginoplasty.
In the case of trans people who do not want to be defined in a binary way (i.e., solely as either a man or a woman) are known to numerous names with genderfluid being the most commonly accepted. The above should not be confused with transvestites who occasionally dress oppositely from their gender of birth.
Transgender rights in Hungary before 2020
Transsexuality has been present in human society since the beginning of time, one of its most ancient manifestations being the androgynous (i.e., both male and female) child of Greek gods Aphrodite and Hermes, Hermaphroditus.
In the modern age, however, similar to homosexuality, transsexuality was pathologized and treated as a disease. In many developed and open-minded countries, transgenderism now has a disease classification code only because it simplifies the administration associated with sex reassignment surgeries and hormone replacement therapies.
Gender reassignment in Hungary is subject to a special permit, which is jointly issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and the Office of Immigration and Citizenship. This is not a prerequisite to surgeries, but to permanently change the registered gender and name in the identification documents.
The application can be successfully submitted to the Ministry of Human Resources by any adult Hungarian citizen (automatically rejected below the age of 18), who has procured professional opinions provided by a urologist/gynaecologist and a clinical psychologist to substantiate the possibility and the validity of the request. Thereafter, if the applicant is not married, the permit will be issued. (In the case of a marriage or registered partnership, it must be dissolved first, as Hungarian law does not provide legal means to process the gender transition of spouses.) Sexual reassignment surgeries are not prerequisites of the permit, they can be carried out afterwards. Experience has shown that in the last decade authorities have rejected gender and name change only if the applicant was a minor or the professional opinions were considered incomplete.
Following the official change in gender and name, the local government issues an official certificate with which the document exchanges (required due to the change of name) could be carried out from financial institutes to the place of work.
The infamous paragraph 33
Although the process and the legal regulatory environment were far from ideal or even supportive, there was a clearly visible path for transgender people to follow.
What has changed with the new paragraph added? Although the essential elements of the regulatory environment have been retained and the process is still available to all Hungarian citizens, a seemingly small change has boiled feelings in many. 31st March 2020, on World Transgender Visibility Day, a so-called omnibus act (simultaneous amendment and supplementation of the text of several laws) was passed, eliminating the possibility of legal modification of gender and introducing sex at birth instead.
As of yet, little is to know about the underlying intent – many suspect a series of bargains and compromises between the two governing parties behind the decision that aimed primarily at serving the strongly conservative voters. However, according to the official justification, change of gender and name is still a fundamental civil right enshrined in the Constitution.
A rightful question might arise though: what and how has been modified? The above change and the ensuing international scandal have been brought about by the fact that the law introduces the concept of sex at birth and makes it mandatory to appear in personal documents. Although the law may still be amended if the Constitutional Court examines it and finds it to be against fundamental rights, in the present circumstances it projects minimum unpleasant, but in many cases rather highly degrading situations for all transgender women and men.
If ‘sex at birth’ of the people who have changed their gender identity is included in their ID card or passport, it may force them to explain themselves each time the documents are checked. It’s not hard to imagine embarrassing situations where someone is held up at an airport border checkpoint or passport control to explain this situation further.
Although even with the less tolerant society of Hungary in mind, it is an exaggeration to say that after the law will come into force, transgender people will have to use toilets reserved for the opposite sex, but it is a fact that we have not moved closer towards being a more open-minded society with this regulation.
Hungary is somewhere in the middle of the imaginary ladder of transgender treatment, on which we have taken a significant step back with the adoption of paragraph 33. Below are some positive and negative examples to put the domestic situation in context.
- Germany: In 2017, the legal concept of a third gender was introduced, after it was enforced through litigation. Since 2017 German trans can populate the “sex” question of the birth certificate, while before they had to leave it blank.
- Canada: Transgender rights, previously regulated separately in each province, were replaced in 2017 by national laws. Since then, hate speech against transgender people has been taken much more seriously by the authorities.
- India: Although transgenderism was previously recognized as a “third sex” at the constitutional level since 2014, it is still unaccepted by a significant portion of the society. Many members of the third sex are not allowed to obtain a driving license and have even fallen victim to group riots and been beaten and stoned.
- US: The situation is also unclear and grey in the United States, where although the rights of transgender people are protected by law, as for example, they may even officially serve in the military now (previously it was forbidden). However, in 2017 President Trump tweeted that there will be no transgender soldiers in any form joining the US military in the future. Nothing of this has been accomplished so far, but it’s not hard to imagine a possible second Trump government touching on the existing legal situation.
Editor’s note: Amnesty International is campaigning for legal equality and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. More than 13,000 people from Hungary and a total of more than 105,000 people from around the world have already signed their petition to protect the rights of the trans people.