Budapest is one of my favorite cities and inarguably one of the most beautiful. It’s also a city with a very problematic political environment. The country is currently being run by a far-right government led by Prime Minister Victor Orban. You may have heard some of his controversial opinions and actions toward refugees in the last several months. He’s kind of a sweetheart. Unsurprisingly, he’s not much friendlier toward gay people.
Hungary under Orban has cozied up to Russia a bit and has the reputation of being the EU country most hostile toward ‘European values.’ As is common in much of Eastern Europe, the right in Hungary uses the fear of gayification of society as an argument against ‘Westernizing’ and joining Western-led organizations: ‘If you open up our country to liberal democracy, your sons will be swishing down the street in a dress by next week.’ That’s really not much of an exaggeration.
Pride parades have been rough here, with violence as recently as 2013. Large numbers of counter-protesters are par for the course but have decreased in recent years. (For more about the significance of Budapest Pride Marches, you can read this Slate article and this scholarly article.)
On a side note, it seems strange to me that Hungary is so extreme now. It was considered to have one of the milder forms of communism during its Warsaw Pact days. It was different enough from the others that their system was nicknamed ‘goulash communism,’ which I think you will have to agree sounds delicious. Mmm… communism.
All that being said, Budapest is not an impossible place for gay people to live. There are gay bars, organizations, and the EuroGames (sort of a European gay Olympics) were even hosted here in 2012. The EuroGames ended up having a very hard time, though, as it had been approved during a previous left-leaning government but didn’t occur until after Orban’s party took over. It worked out, but it wasn’t easy.
Believe it or not, Budapest has a pretty significant role in gay history if we go far back enough. Karoly Maria Kertbeny, an Austrian-Hungarian man living in Budapest in the mid-19th Century, coined the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual.’ Though not gay himself, he was one of the first gay advocates in modern history, arguing against sodomy laws. His grave in Budapest is a bit of a gay pilgrimage point.
As for the scene, Gay Budapest can be pretty intense. Budapest was the first Eastern European gay scene I experienced, a couple years ago. It was eye-opening. Keep in mind, this is a guy who has been to Folsom Street Fair twice – it’s not like I’m naïve to the extremes of gay culture. In San Francisco, there are a few bars that have a small backroom. In Budapest, there are a few large backrooms that have a small bar in the front.
Upon my return, I was a little more prepared for what I would find, and I did manage to find a couple more “normal” bars. I was also able to find the gay community outside of those bars. As I travel around, I try to remain open to the fact that the gay community can look very different in different places. Just because gay life revolves around bars in much of the world doesn’t mean it will everywhere. I think Budapest is one place in which gay people generally just seem more likely to socialize with their gay friends outside of the bars. Consequently, most of the bars that do exist are meant for, um… purposes other than making friends or meeting the love of your life.
Though Hungarians are sometimes resentful of outsiders who don’t speak their notoriously difficult language, I found the gay Hungarians I met to be very friendly and open to foreigners.
To wrap up, I just want to gush a little more about how beautiful Budapest is. Honestly, I could just stand on one of the bridges and stare at the Danube for hours. Buda Castle on one side, the stunning Parliament building on the other, and Margaret Island in between (imagine Central Park in the middle of a river). If you haven’t been there, go!