BUDAPEST (Reuters) - “I am Gabor Szetey. A faithful Hungarian-European. Citizen, public official, member of the government. And gay.”
Of all the arenas in which a senior government politician could come out, Szetey’s choice — two days before a Gay Pride march earlier this month in post-communist eastern Europe — was one of the most defiant.
Hungary’s Secretary of State for Human Resources risked hostility because he wanted to highlight persistent intolerance, not just of gay people, but also of other minorities, in eastern Europe.
After decades under communist rule when homosexuality was banned or simply out of sight, most east Europeans still find it hard to accept. The lack of tolerance has been coupled with a surge in nationalism in some parts of the region.
“I think my coming out took so long partly because I was 22 in 1990,” Szetey told Reuters. He blamed the communist regime — which collapsed in 1989 in Hungary — for the fact many still keep their homosexuality secret.
“Until I turned 22, I thought I was an alien.”
Only the Czech Republic and Slovenia have legalized registered same-sex partnerships, none of the former communist states allow same-sex marriages, and some have no laws protecting sexual minorities from discrimination.
“This is a very serious issue for this region,” said Szetey, who lived in New York and Buenos Aires before coming home and taking the government post last year. “Dealing with all minorities, be it ethnic minorities ... or the whole Jewish issue, or the gay issue.”
Two days after his speech, participants of the annual Budapest Gay Pride parade were pelted with eggs and only a heavy police presence prevented violence as about 200 mostly far-right demonstrators protested against it.
“I was not afraid because the police were there, lots of police, but when they disappeared and three steps from me these people shouted ‘dirty faggot’, well that was scary,” said Andras Varkonyi, 28, a psychology graduate.
“There is still quite a serious lack of understanding not only in the political elite but also in general society,” said Juris Lavrikovs, communications officer of the European section of the International Lesbian and Gay Association.
Although homosexuality is now legal in neighboring Romania, which joined the EU this year, many people accept the powerful Orthodox church’s view of homosexuality as a sin and a disease.
Thousands were jailed in Romania during the rule of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu after a 1968 ban.
In June police detained dozens of protesters as hundreds tried to break up a gay rights march in Bucharest.
In strongly Roman Catholic Croatia, only few homosexuals have come out and most still lead a double life.
Poland has come under fire from EU lawmakers, who singled it out in a resolution condemning homophobia in the 27-nation bloc.
The nationalist League of Polish Families party, a junior coalition partner in the cabinet, has proposed a law to sack teachers who promote a “homosexual lifestyle” and wants a law banning “homosexual propaganda” in schools.
When asked how he would react if someone in the government came out as gay Roman Giertych, Poland’s deputy prime minister, leader of the party and minister of education told Reuters:
“I would react with joy, on the condition that the person was not in my party.”
Hungary still has far to go in giving gay relationships equal rights: a Eurobarometer survey showed last year that while 52 percent of Czechs agreed that same-sex marriages should be allowed in Europe, in Hungary this number was only 18 percent.
In a further protest at discrimination, two Hungarian lesbian women on July 14 held an unofficial marriage ceremony by the Danube river in Budapest.
The junior Hungarian coalition party, the liberal Free Democrats, has proposed a bill to allow same-sex marriages which may lead to a compromise by allowing registered same-sex partnerships, as in the Czech Republic.
“I really opened up in New York where Gay Pride meant that several hundreds of thousands of people marched: it was a carnival, a huge party where families joined with their kids to have fun and educate their kids about tolerance,” Szetey said.
“I will be the happiest if I don’t have to speak about this issue any more. If I have to, I will.”
Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak in Warsaw, Radu Marinas in Bucharest and Igor Ilic in Zagreb