BUDAPEST—The Hungarian State Opera has cancelled 15 performances of Billy Elliot, after a pro-government newspaper claimed it could ‘turn’ kids gay.
For some Hungarians, it’s a sign of a renewed culture war after the far-right populist Fidesz party won an absolute parliamentary majority in April elections.
While anti-LGBT voices appear to be on top, it’s still not clear who’s winning.
The production, for which Elton John wrote the music, is an adaptation of a film from 2000 that tells the story of a boy in northern England who eschews the stereotypically masculine pastimes of boxing and sports to pursue ballet.
In an article from June 1, the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Irdok said the musical, which shows the titular protagonist “searching for women’s clothing” and “neon rainbows,” could impact the subconscious minds of children at an age when it’s still possible to “influence [their] direction.”
The gorgeous national opera building on Andrassy Avenue, Budapest’s main thoroughfare, is covered in a white sheet as renovations continue. A large banner advertising Billy Elliot, with the character depicted jumping joyously, is still prominently displayed.
The cancellation has inspired some of those unhappy with right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rule to purchase tickets.
A 30-something Hungarian walking past the opera on a chilly Saturday morning told The Daily Beast that he and his wife had booked to see a performance on Thursday.
“We have to support minority communities here,” said the man, who asked not to be named. He was perfectly well aware of the controversy and cancellation. He was making a point.
The Hungarian government says that the Magyar Irdo article was only partially the cause.
“The performances have not been cancelled because of the dispute in the press, but as a result of the reduced interest caused by these press reports,” the government’s International Communications Office said in a statement delivered to The Daily Beast.
According to Csaba Tibor Toth, an editor from the left-wing Hungarian site Merce, the situation is “murky.”
“The main narrative in Budapest is that it was banned by the government,” Toth said in an interview. “If we take it for granted that this is what happened, we are projecting a lot of power on Magyar Irdok and Orban’s circle.” Which, of course, the left is reluctant to do.
Toth explained that Magyar Irdok is the main mouthpiece for Orban. However, Orban’s circle features both socially conservative voices and those in line with “Western” far-right thought—voices like Milo Yiannopoulos, the gay self-described “Western Chauvinist” who spoke in Budapest in May at the invitation of an organization headed by Maria Schmidt, an Orban loyalist.
Toth claimed that elements of Orban’s circle who are sympathetic to the Western far-right “are saying ‘LGBT rights are widely accepted and we need to move on.’”
Hungary is one of the more LGBTQI tolerant countries in Central and Eastern Europe, according to the Hatter Society, a Hungarian LGBTQI advocacy organization.
Civil partnerships that grant many of the same protections to same-sex couples as heterosexuals have been recognized since 2009. Hungary has laws that ban discrimination based on sexual preference or gender identity.
But the country has “significantly cut back” on LGBTQI rights under Orban, the Hatter Society claims. For example, the government adopted a new constitution in 2011 that defined marriage as between a man and woman.
The cancellation of the dates after a “homophobic” campaign comes on the heels of a number of controversial happenings in Hungary that could presage a conservative crackdown.
Orban’s Fidesz party, which holds an absolute majority in parliament, has changed the country’s constitution to adopt the “Stop Soros” laws, which penalize aiding “illegal immigrants” with prison time and fines, have made being homeless illegal and changed laws to place a 25 percent tax on NGOs that receive foreign funding.
Fidesz has long painted George Soros, the Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire who funds numerous liberal causes, as an enemy of the state for “promoting migration.”
The government says the anti-Soros campaign and accompanying laws, which were made public ahead of the April election that gave them an absolute majority, “assert the will of the Hungarian people … while the Soros network and the pro-immigration policy of Brussels are creating the threat of attempts to also swamp our country with migrants.”
But critics have called the campaign, among other things, anti-Semitic. Concerns over anti-Semtisim were renewed this month when members of the youth wing of the Hungarian Christian Democrat Party, which is essentially a party inside Fidesz, placed a sticker reading “Immigration Support Organization” on the office of Menedek, a local NGO that helps refugees with social inclusion, job hunting and other facets of life in Hungary.
The building in which the Menedek office is found was one of the many that had a yellow star placed on it to mark Jewish residents during the Holocaust. The parallel escaped no one. The move caused an outcry, even in controversy-laden Hungary.
Another source of controversy, at least in Budapest, came from pro-government magazine Figyelo, which is owned by Maria Schmidt. It said that the Center for Social Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was “occupied” by “immigration, homosexual rights and gender science” and published a list of names of researchers.
Figyelo previously gained international notoriety for publishing a list of supposed “Soros Mercenaries” operating in Hungary—mostly NGO workers and professors at the Soros-funded Central European University—some of whom were dead.
The conflicting narratives from Orban’s inner circle on LGBT rights are causing people to chalk up a victory to the socially conservative forces in Fidesz.
Toth isn’t convinced. The Merce editor said that rhetoric concerning LGBT people has always been harsh in Hungary, while practice has been much more liberal. He doesn’t see police raids of gay clubs on the horizon.
Still, Fidesz holds an absolute majority in parliament and the opposition is in shambles. “Orban encourages competition in his circle,” Toth claimed.
With this competition between varying versions of right-wing ideology, Hungary’s “weird culture war,” spurred by Orban’s own, will probably continue, Toth concluded.