David Pressman, the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, has not shied away from calling out the anti-LGBT rhetoric and policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government. Since his arrival in Budapest last year, the gay human rights lawyer has been relentlessly criticized by the country’s state-controlled media for what they perceive as his provocative propagandizing of progressive Western values to a people who do not share them.
His weekend plans seem likely to spark another round of invective. On Sunday, he will mark the end of Budapest Pride Month by hosting a picnic at his official residence for Hungarian LGBTQI+ families—a celebration of a community who, under Orbán, are being made to feel increasingly unwelcome in their homeland.
“Candidly, we’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the interest in participation from Hungarian LGBT families and their allies—and I expect about 1,000 people there, making it what we’re told will be the largest event of its kind in history in Hungary,” Pressman told The Daily Beast. “And I think now’s a really important moment for the United States and the international community writ large to stand with this community that is increasingly being used in a divisive and political way that is in tension with the commitments this government has made to upholding international human rights.”
His comments on Friday came hours after dozens of embassies in Hungary released a joint statement expressing support for the LGBTQI+ community in the country “and their rights to equality and non-discrimination, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and freedom from violence.”
The call for support is timely. This week, Hungary’s largest bookseller, Libri, began wrapping books in plastic if the work includes LGBT characters to stop browsing shoppers opening them in stores. The retail chain said it was doing so in compliance with a 2021 so-called “child protection” law which banned the “display and promotion of homosexuality” to children under the age of 18. Another bookseller was fined on Thursday for selling a graphic novel about a love story between two teenage boys because it was for sale in the children’s section.
“We’re at a moment where we’re seeing events unfold including bookstores being fined for displaying books, we’re seeing books being wrapped in cellophane to try to somehow signify that the content of those books is something that needs to be segregated,” Pressman said. “We’re seeing real attacks on the dignity of this community, and so we thought it was important to be able to bring together LGBT families for a celebration.”
Exactly how the picnic will be received by his Hungarian hosts is another matter. After his speech last month at the Budapest Pride Opening Event, one pro-government outlet accused Pressman of “trying to make pedophilia PC.” But Pressman says the attacks—commonly in the form of accusations of “wokeism”—come regardless of what he speaks about. “The response is often the government saying: ‘You’re speaking about LGBT issues,’ or, ‘You’re pushing a woke agenda,’” he says. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Before being sworn into his current role in August, Pressman previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Special Political Affairs and as an Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security. He’s also worked with actor George Clooney—who calls him “Cuz”—as the executive director of the Clooney Foundation for Justice.
The hostility toward him in Hungary began before he even arrived in the country. Last July, a boat sailed down the River Danube in Budapest close to the site of the U.S. embassy carrying a skull and crossbones banner marked with the words “Mr. Pressman, don’t colonize Hungary with your cult of death.” (He now displays a photo of the piratical welcome in his office.)
Despite the personal attacks, he’s not taking criticisms of his actions personally. “This is really not about me, and it’s never been about me,” he said. “It’s about the United States’ longstanding commitment and President Biden’s personal commitment to stand up proudly and strongly for the fundamental human rights of all people everywhere, including LGBT people—including LGBT people in Hungary.”
He nevertheless concedes that there are “challenges in our relationship with Hungary” and that those challenges manifest “in ways that are at times intense and unique—certainly unique amongst allies.”
Likewise, Pressman has at times taken unique steps in response to certain issues. Of particularly pressing concern is Orbán’s habit of pushing Kremlin narratives—much to the consternation of other NATO members—and his personal fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Pressman’s watch, his embassy in October released a Twitter quiz asking people to guess if a series of anti-American quotes—including a call for war with the U.S.—came from Putin or Hungarian government figures. (Spoiler: they were all from Hungarians.) And last month, Pressman quotetweeted a post from Orbán referring to George Soros’ son as “Soros 2.0.” “The dog-whistle conspiracy theories are like the plot of Godfather 3: predictable & troubling,” Pressman wrote.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is a particularly acute strain on diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Hungary. In contrast with other NATO leaders, Orbán hesitated in condemning Putin’s war and has opposed EU plans to send more financial aid to Kyiv. On Friday, after returning from a NATO summit in Lithuania, the prime minister even claimed “the West wants war” and blamed the ongoing bloodshed in Ukraine on the U.S. “If the Americans wanted peace,” Orbán said in a radio interview, “there would be peace tomorrow morning.”
“I think that we have been very clear that the United States wants peace, we want this war to end,” Pressman said. “The person who can end this war—today—is Vladimir Putin. And it’s unfortunate when we see political actors including, in this case, the prime minister, suggesting that it’s the United States that is somehow driving this war. That could not be further from the truth.”
“We’re in a moment where the stakes are extremely high,” Pressman continued. “There’s a land war in Europe. There’s a war next door in this country and facts matter. And the fact of the matter is that Vladimir Putin stopped fighting, the war would end today, and if the Ukrainians stopped fighting, Ukraine would end.”
The ambassador added that “the world changed” with the beginning of the invasion last year. “Hungary I think has historically felt comfortable occupying a middle road between East and West, there are real choices to be made,” Pressman said. “And the United States is paying close attention to the choices Hungary is making, and I think it’s true—it’s undeniable—that Hungary is making choices that are different than our other allies and partners in the region, and that’s the subject of intensive engagement by the United States and an area where I am focused.”
Any present tensions between Washington, D.C. and Budapest notwithstanding, Pressman remains optimistic that “the Hungarian people see their future with the West.” This weekend, at the picnic, he hopes that the Hungarian government sees the “beautiful diverse array” of its own people too. Families, he adds, “who are living happy and fulfilling lives, who are advancing the very Hungarian values that this government stands for.”
The ambassador says invitations for the LGBTQI+ event have been issued to senior officials in Orbán’s government. Whether they show up or not is a separate question. “Unfortunately, I don’t expect them to participate,” Pressman said. “But they should certainly know they are welcome.”