Last week in Hungary, I experienced two very different sides to lesbian activism in the age of Orbán. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
First, I attended the “EuroCentralAsian Lesbian* Conference (EL*C)”. It was international in its participant list, lavishly funded, and linguistically and aesthetically indistinguishable from any other modern LGBT event. There were pronoun declarations and safe space policies. There were wild dye-jobs and big specs. There were workshops on how to undermine women’s sport. There was the robotically impersonal ejection of a heretical wrongthinker on the eve of the conference. In other words, it was business as usual for Queer Inc. — albeit with some more local stuff about Roma and Ukrainian lesbians thrown in.
A second group of mostly young activists, who I met in a Budapest bar, were homegrown Hungarian, cash-strapped, defiantly female-only, and fairly punk in their aesthetic. And they were very cool. We smoked hookahs, got drunk, took selfies in the toilet, and talked about how stupid everything had got. They gave me homemade badges in Hungarian saying “Lesbian not queer” and “Nobody is born in the wrong body.” They solicited drunken soundbites from me for a podcast about how great being a lesbian is. They exhibited a frankly staggering general knowledge of happenings on “Terf Island”, otherwise known as the UK.
Some of this second group worked for organisations dealing with the aftermath of violence against women. They told me how wealthy Western funders, attempting to prop up embattled women’s services against the incursions of Orbán’s anti-feminist manoeuvres, would make their donations conditional on the insistence that organisations be “inclusive”, and so include males. The recipients simply could not afford to say no.
This brand of cultural colonialism — you know, the one that dare not speak its name and everyone’s fine with — was also in evidence at the EL*C conference, where it was quietly whispered that at least €1 million had been awarded to organisers by the European Commission and other private Western funders, partly on the condition that males who identified as women be included too. Despite the name of the organisation, the official focus of the conference was now “LBTI” people — lesbian, bi, trans, and intersex.
Predictably, with this widening of scope came a narrowing of what you could permissibly say at the conference. The result was a change in subject matter, away from boring old women who love and have sex with women towards something more soothingly generic, and the usual blanket denial that there had been any change in subject matter at all. Oceania had never been at war with Eurasia, and lesbians had never needed to politically organise away from males, just for themselves. The fact that only a few years prior, the EL*C had aimed to do exactly that seemed to have been memory-holed.
Officially, the story from the stage was that the rainbow coalition needed to stick together like glue against the anti-gender backlash currently being waged by Orbán, Putin, Erdogan and others: no queer left behind! For these self-styled strongmen, “gender”, vaguely defined, is a strategically useful symbol for everything terrible about the decadent West.
The original political target of Orbán Fidesz’s party was liberal feminism and gay rights. But with the official addition of the T to the LGB internationally in the last decade, and the sudden Western shift towards extreme policies such as self-ID and the medicalisation of trans-identified youth, not to mention the Western presentation of transactivism as a logical extension of feminism, a golden opportunity emerged to give added plausibility to Fidesz’s tale of crazy identity politics and moral corruption. Now they could juice up their disparagement of “gender” with tales of young girls being made to believe they were boys, and predatory males in women’s changing rooms. These days, I was told, the biggest focus of Orbán’s anti-gender campaign is extreme transactivist demands imported from the West and their consequences.
Inevitably a polarised situation has emerged, with both sides insisting the T be lumped together with the LG and B, for good or ill. On one side, Fidesz use the extremes of Western transactivism to justify incursions on the rights of women, gays, and the sex-non-conforming generally. And on the other, in the name of solidarity, Hungarian and Western progressives insist there is no difference between these extreme demands and more staid requests like being able to teach schoolchildren about homosexuality or demanding the right to gay marriage.
Reading between the lines, testimonies at the EL*C suggested that a similar dynamic is taking place elsewhere in the former Eastern bloc. A charismatic Albanian lesbian activist, Xheni Karaj, told the conference that she had visited the UK and worked in some capacity with Stonewall towards a campaign for greater acceptance of LGBT+ parenting. Going back to Albania, the idea had got out that she wished to replace the words “mother” and “father” with “Parent 1” and “Parent 2”. In a highly conservative country such as Albania, this notion caused a huge scandal, and Karaj became the subject of severe abuse and harassment because of it.
Karaj was clear on stage that she had never intended to suggest replacing the word “mother” with anything else. I believed her. But what she didn’t also say was that, only last year, Stonewall suggested doing precisely this in the UK. The idea was incendiary enough to many when made over here — let alone in a context like Albania, where religious leaders have a large influence, the family is venerated, and homophobia and misogyny is entrenched.
And Albania is not the only place where the creative projects of bored rainbow bureaucrats from North London are being used to make mischief. In his annexation speech last week, Putin said “no more Parent 1 and Parent 2, only mother and father”. A few days earlier, a 2019 speech by the new Italian leader Georgia Meloni went viral on Twitter — and was retweeted not just by conservatives but also by some gender-critical feminists who seemed to assume they had found a fellow traveller. “I can’t define myself as Italian, Christian, woman, mother,” she complained. “No. I must be Citizen X, Gender X, Parent 1, Parent 2. I must be a number.” Sound familiar?
Left-wing gender-critical lesbians like those I met in that Budapest bar are stuck in the middle of all this, a means to everyone else’s ends. The state paints them as deviant and anti-family to bash the liberals, while progressives in Hungary and their Western supporters demand that they pretend that their interests perfectly align with the rest of the rainbow. If lesbians nonetheless insist, perfectly sensibly, that female biology makes a difference to their political interests as lesbians, they are treated as somehow in league with the far-Right. And, in terms of optics, matters are not helped by the fact that Fidesz-supporting publishing houses are now buying up gender-critical titles to translate into Hungarian. Indeed, I discovered on my trip that the would-be Hungarian publisher for my own book was an Orbán think tank. (Since I got home, I have pulled out of the deal.)
In the febrile climate of UK gender politics, there is a tendency for those fed up with biology-denial to fall gratefully upon anything which looks like it asserts the primacy of material reality in a more sensible way. But feminists should beware strongmen and women bearing gifts. The international rejection of extreme trans ideology will be a pyrrhic victory if it is accompanied by a raft of measures against women, gays, and sex-non-conforming people. And the futures of young lesbians like those I met in the Budapest bar will be all the poorer for it.