Viktor Orbán's anti-Enlightenment discourse and nationalism stir homophobia in Hungary

9 minutes to read
Mariska van Schijndel

In recent years, homophobic attacks have increased in Hungary, for example during the Budapest Pride Marches (Renkin, 2009, p. 20). Additionally, in 2017, the US-based anti-LGBTQ group International Organisation of the Family (IOF) was invited by Hungary’s conservative right-wing president Viktor Orbán to hold its big annual gathering in Budapest. This year, the theme was Building Family-Friendly Nations: Making Families Strong Again. This article argues that Orbán’s position on the LGBTQ community is part of his anti-Enlightenment nationalism, which creates the right circumstances for anti-LGBTQ groups to flourish and stir homophobic violence in Hungary.

Anti-Enlightenment and tolerance

In many speeches, Orbán has attacked the European Union (EU) for its liberal values and for its immigration policies especially, accusing the EU of being dominated by a ‘’relativizing liberal ideology that’s an insult to families.'' By mentioning ‘liberal ideology’, Orbán not only refers to the Enlightenment and its fundamental values, such as freedom and equality, he also positions himself in a very different political tradition: the anti-Enlightenment tradition. In this tradition, the rights of the individual are deemed less important than the rights of the people, or, of the nation. A strong nation is what really matters to Orbán.

In his speech for the Building Family-Friendly Nation summit in Budapest, he attacked Europe again: ‘’Europe is old, rich and weak. The part of the world that released more and more crowds of people in the recent years is young, poor, and strong’’, Orbán said. This speech is a good illustration of Orbán’s anti-Enlightenment ideology, which argues that liberalism and Enlightenment ideals produce a weak territory without a firm identity and/or faith. The inflow of (Muslim) immigrants is perceived as an inflow of people with a strong identity and/or faith, which would consequently lead to further weakening of Europe’s identity. Thus, in Orbán’s eyes, Europe is weak because it allows diversity. Therefore, Orbán argues that: ‘’it’s a national interest to restore natural reproduction. Not one interest among others – but the only one. It’s a European interest too. It is the European interest.’’

Orbán tolerates homosexuals, but does not see them as equals

In an interview with Index – a Hungarian news site – Orbán talked about homosexuality and tolerance in Hungary: ‘’Hungary is a tolerant nation. Tolerance, however, does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose life style is different from our own. We differentiate between them and us. Tolerance means patience, tolerance means an ability to coexist, this is the basis of the Hungarian Constitution which clearly differentiates between a material relationship between a man and a woman and other, different forms of cohabitation. We are going to keep this.’’ This again illustrates his anti-Enlightenment position very clearly. In his discourse, Orbán tolerates homosexuals, but does not see them as equals. Moreover, Orbán argues that the lifestyle of homosexuals is different from ‘our own’ lifestyle. By mentioning this, he argues that homosexuals are different from Hungarians, who are solely heterosexual, according to Orbán. What we can conclude from this is that the norm is heterosexuality, which makes the national subject, the Hungarian, heterosexual as well. This shows that heteronormativity is part of Orbán’s conservative nationalist ideology.

Banal nationalism and message politics

Contrary to liberal ideology, Orbán uses the conservative nationalist ideology, which puts Christianity forward as the nation’s defining principle. In this way, banal nationalism is reached.. This term refers to ‘’the ideological habits which enable the established nations of the West to be reproduced […] Daily, the nation is indicated, or ‘’flagged’’, in the lives of its citizenry’’ (Billig, 1995, p. 6). Thus, the term ‘banal’ refers to the hegemonic quality of this kind of nationalism (Maly, 2016, p. 168). Orbán is constantly flagging this nationalistic identity in his message.  In many Facebook posts, he is referring to the importance of the nation state. In one of them, for example, he argued ‘’The future is written in the Hungarian language.’’ In another one, he said ‘’Hungary will never become an immigrant country.’’

Romantic relationships between two men or two women do not conform to Orbán’s ‘norm’ – the traditional Christian values and (inevitably) heterosexuality – which makes homosexuals ‘different’

In order to help construct banal nationalism, the political strategy of the nationalist party ‘’has to be in line with the image of the party and its politicians, and politicians have to actively sell themselves and their message’’ (Maly, 2016, p. 169). ‘Message’ is not only about the literal content of the political communication (what is literally being said), but also about how and when it is said: ‘’Message does not refer to a politician’s communication about Issues so much as what the politician seems to communicate about his or her identity and personal values through selectively taking up some Issues and avoiding others’’ (Silverstein, 2012, p. 2). By focusing on certain issues, the politician acquires a ‘political persona’. Silverstein (2012, p. 2) states that ‘’Message strategists […] are fashioning […] an electorally viable political persona through all manner of signs that creatively gesture toward this persona without explicitly describing it, though the political press, the media, can generally be relied to do so.’’ In the case of Orbán and his political party Fidesz, Orbán is the one who embodies the message.

By mainly focussing on traditional Christian values – what he does in most speeches – such as family and ‘natural reproduction’, he creates the image of a true Christian man, who defends Europe and Hungary and their Christian identity. His personal life fits in perfectly with this image: he is married and has five children.

Orbán also uses his Facebook page – which has over 560,000 likes – as a tool to portray this image by posting messages on Christianity on there as well; he has posted several videos of speeches in which he emphasizes the importance of the Christian identity. Besides, one of his Facebook posts shows a photo of Orbán speaking to a group of people in a church and is captioned with ‘’With Christian intellectuals.’’ In another post, he said: ‘’We Hungarians made a decision to help our Christian brethren suffering from presecution, according to our strength.’’

Facebook post 'With Christian intellectuals'

Orbán has never actually said he is the defender of the Christian identity in Hungary and Europe, but several media did that work for him instead: they have picked up the signs and described the image he portrays. Implicit to this image is the rejection of homosexuality. By using the term ‘natural reproduction’ in his speeches, Orbán refers to reproduction involving sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Romantic relationships between two men or two women do not conform to Orbán’s ‘norm’ – the traditional Christian values and (inevitably) heterosexuality – which makes homosexuals ‘different’. In anti-Enlightenment discourse, this can be described as the ‘natural order’: the idea that heterosexuality is ‘normal’ and there are and should be two genders alone. In this sense, LGBTQ people are perceived as ‘unnatural’ and ‘unequal’, whereas heterosexuals are seen as normal.

Billig (1995, p. 1) stated that much of human beings 'slaughtering' one another this century has been done ‘’in the name of the nation […] to protect the very principle of the nationhood’’. A nationalistic discourse that is built on an explicit ‘us versus them’ discourse always leads to exclusion of certain groups. When ‘the other’ becomes more and more constructed as ‘the other’ and ‘less worthy', there will be a greater chance that exclusion will eventually lead to violence. In this particular case then, ‘slaughter’ can be defined as the exclusion of or violence against the LGBTQ community, justified by religious beliefs.

Global identity versus national identity

Orbán’s nationalism does not merely focus on the nation itself. Instead, in his anti-Enlightenment nationalist discourse, he seeks to improve Hungary by transforming the EU with its liberal values. Moreover, he argues that it's important to be open to non-Hungarians, but when looked at more closely, this openness is very minimal. Orbán excludes (Muslim) refugees, for instance, but says he welcomes Western European ‘refugees’ – the ones that are oppressed by liberalism – to ‘seek asylum’ in Hungary. ‘’The panicked German, Dutch, French and Italian politicians and journalists, forced to leave their countries will find here the Europe they lost at home,’’ says Orbán. This shows that the western Christian culture fuels Orbán’s nationalism: not migration itself stirs nationalist protest, but migration from another culture does. 

The connection between national and global identity stirs the most anger at Hungarian Pride Marches among Hungarian right-wing nationalists

The message can also be seen as an invitation for groups like the anti-LGBTQ organisation IOF. Moreover, the message is appealing to radical right-wing media that share the same ideology as Orbán, such as and white supremacist online magazine American Renaissance. They describe him as ‘’one of the most important politicians in Europe today’’, ‘’the sort of leader the majority of people want for their own countries’’ and ‘’a true statesman.’’ As Maly (2016, p. 266) pointed out, ‘’the radical-right populist and nationalist parties have capitalised on the losers of globalisation. They position themselves in relation to new cultural and socio-economic cleavages and present themselves as protectors of the people against the threats of globalisation.’’ Orbán presents himself as the defender of ‘the people’ from the threats of globalisation – on both a national and international level – though the group of people he stands for represent only a small part of the whole: he is only referring to white Christian right-wing conservatives.

Homophobia in Hungary can also be explained by Orbán's stance on globalisation. He is very much against it, which ties in nicely with his anti-Enlightenment nationalism. Because of tensions between the national and the transnational, the LGBTQ community and politics are associated with the nation’s transnational ‘others’ – especially ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ (Renkin, 2009, p. 24). From this point of view LGBTQ people can be seen as the symbols of the liberal transnational ‘other’ of the EU or the West. The Pride March, for example, is the symbol of the global gay identity. In every Pride March around the world, people wave the rainbow flag, wear pink clothing, and carry around posters with slogans such as ‘The Gay Family’. Even the timing of the Budapest Pride March matches with the all the other European Pride Marches. By participating in this march, LGBTQ people identify themselves with the western community and its Enlightenment values – especially equality.

At the same time, the LGBTQ community in Hungary identifies itself with the nation by marching through public and nationally symbolic spaces, instead of going through the ‘gay cruising zone’ (Renkin, 2009, p. 28). In 2001, for example, the march started at Heroes’ Square, the most symbolical national space of Hungary, where public national rituals are being held. The connection between national identity and global identity stirs the most anger at Hungarian Pride Marches among Hungarian right-wing nationalists: ‘’His visible embodiment of a pride simultaneously gay and Hungarian […] drew by far the strongest reaction that day: a veritable storm of insults, spitting, and threats barely held back by the police line’’ (Renkin, 2009, pp. 30-31). Being gay, in this sense, does not match the heteronormative national subject, which makes homosexuals the nation’s ‘other’ who align themselves with the transnational liberal community.


What the above shows us is that Viktor Orbán’s anti-LGBT stance is an index of his anti-Enlightenment nationalism. Anti-LGBTQ thinking is implicit in his discourse about the nation and the ‘natural order’. He carries out this way of thinking through message politics. By doing so, Orbán is another politician who has taken part in the new international far-right network. Orbán’s anti-Enlightenment discourse has led to the banalisation of his nationalism and the idea that homosexuals are not equal to the heteronormative national subject. Moreover, it has created a mismatch in the identity of the Hungarian LGBTQ people, who seek to identify themselves with both the global as well as the national community, which results in more anger among Hungarian right-wing nationalists. As a result, Orbán’s anti-Enlightenment nationalism stirs homophobic violence and creates a ‘safe haven’ for anti-LGBTQ groups in Hungary.



Billig, M. (1995). Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.

Lempert, M. and Silverstein, M. (2012). Creatures of Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Maly, I. (2016). ‘Scientific’ nationalism. N-VA and the discursive battle for the Flamish nation. Nations and Nationalism 22(2), pp. 266-286. DOI: 10.1111/nana.12144

Renkin, H. (2009). Homophobia and queer belonging in Hungary. Focaal – European Journal of Anthropology 53, pp. 20-37. DOI: 10.3167/fcl.2009.530102