Hungary bans sale of books with LGBTQ+ content near churches and schools, orders plastic wraps on them elsewhere

August 10. 2021. – 03:26 PM



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Last Friday, the Hungarian government issued the first implementation decree interpreting the anti-LGBTQ+ provisions of the controversial "Child Protection Act" that the Parliament adopted back in June. As we explained back then, the law was far from comprehensible, and even though the current decree was supposed to aid its interpretation, it does not do much in terms of unraveling the confusing restrictions:

Even affected members of the book industry can only guess what rules they would have to follow starting from September.

The most stringent reading of the decree places bookstores in an impossible situation and could force publications featuring LGBTQ+ themes off the market.

Plastic wraps, separation

The law passed in June bans making any content available to minors that feature portrayals or promotion of homosexuality or sexual reassignment. The exact practical application of these laws, however, remained a mystery for long. Fidesz MP Máté Kocsis, the author of the legislative proposal, promised that before autumn, the government would clarify any confusion with implementation decrees, explaining how industries affected by the legislation would have to apply it.

Among these are different types of media outlets, teachers and civic organizations providing sexual education, and vendors of certain products falling under the scope of the law. The first decree concerns the latter, amending the regulation on commercial activities.

According to the decree:

  • Any products targeted at children portraying or promoting deviation from one's gender assigned at birth, gender reassignment, homosexuality, or containing portrayals of sexuality as an end in themselves must not be placed in shop windows or anywhere in public view.
  • These products may only be sold in sealed packaging, separated from other products.
  • In addition, such products may not be sold within 200 metres of educational facilities, child or youth protection agencies, or churches.

The confusion remains

The most severely affected commercial enterprises are probably bookstores, which is hardly a surprise, as the whole dispute surrounding LGBTQ+ content started when a far-right politician put a children's book promoting tolerance through a shredder.

This video has English subtitles. If they do not appear, turn them on in the video settings.

We asked members of the book industry about how they prepare for the decree's entry into force in early September. Still, even though Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promised surgically precise restrictions, it seems that the implementation decree left much to be desired in that sense.

Katalin Gál, the President of the Association of Hungarian Book Publishers And Distributors (MKKE), told Telex that the association immediately called the board together as soon as the decree was published since industry members were clueless about what the regulation actually meant. Board members, consisting of both large and small companies of the publishing industry, will be meeting on Thursday to compare their interpretations and figure out how to put the rules into practice, though it seems likely that they would eventually have to turn to the relevant ministry for answers.

What seems apparent right away is that the law's terminology is still unclear. For example, there are no legal definitions for "portrayal of sexuality as an end in itself," nor for "promotion of homosexuality." As for "portrayal" of homosexuality, it gets even more complicated; literature, even youth literature, often features gay characters, and it is uncertain where the law draws the line.

Krisztián Nyáry, creative director of publishing company Líra Könyv Zrt, told Telex that the decree provides no clues concerning these questions, so an interpretation by the legislator would be most helpful. However, that is yet to arrive.

A radical understanding of the term "sexuality as an end in itself" may cover all sexual activity not explicitly aimed at conceiving children, which would wrap half of world literature in plastic, not sparing books on sexual education either, as Nyáry explained the dilemmas facing the book industry. He also complained that they have to piece information together from government officials' soundbites. That is how they learned that school textbooks, supposedly, do not fall under the scope of the regulation, even though they often feature works like Sappho's, well, sapphic poetry. But, as he pointed out, this differentiation does not make any legal sense, as it does not follow from the decree, hence, applying the regulations would require a comprehensive legal clarification.

Líra's attorneys are still hard at work on deciphering the text and deciding what books might fall in this category and what to do with them. As it turns out, there could be actual stakes to this: Líra had already received a 250,000 forint (~€700) fine before for failing to put a disclaimer on a children's storybook that contained "behavioural patterns differing from traditional gender roles." This fine resulted from an amendment to consumer protection laws passed after the book-shredding but before the recent anti-LGBTQ law. Still, it illustrates how the state may cause a headache if a business does not follow the letter of the controversial homophobic regulations down to a T.

Bookstores now fall under a similar consideration as pubs

Even more severe is the rule on the distance from churches and schools; a closer inspection of the text reveals that the turn "targeted at children" was omitted from this paragraph, extending the ban on all books. We still don't know what blanket terms like "as an end in itself" or "portrayal" mean. A strict reading of the rule may have grave consequences for many bookstores, provided the government takes its enforcement seriously. Before, similar restrictions only applied to tobacco stores and pubs, and the expectation that these bookstores should not carry any potentially restricted items seems entirely unrealistic.

This may be especially true in smaller towns, where bookstores can usually be found near the centre, a typical location for schools and churches as well.

Katalin Gál told Telex that last week, the association started to take stock of bookstores operated within these perimeters by their members.

The Libri-Bookline group gave a curt answer to our question regarding the actions they would take to prepare for the decree's entry into force, but even they emphasized that the criteria for classification are not quite obvious. As they wrote, they are currently in the process of interpreting the decree and estimating the practical extent of its effects, as it is difficult to determine whether or not the portrayals of sexuality in particular literary works are an end in themselves or not. We also asked the book chain and publishing house whether they believe the new restrictions on distribution would influence their publishing decisions, and though we did not get a straight answer, they made it clear that "the group will still strive to make all literary works available to the reading public."

However, MKKE's President believes that the law may have a chilling effect, pushing publishers of the books concerned towards self-censorship, as it may not be so viable from a business perspective to publish books which are that difficult to distribute.

New rules may lead to a price hike and dwindling sales

Tibor Rácz-Stefán, an author at Könyvmolyképző youth publishing house, reached out to Telex to shed light on this problem from an author's perspective. He believes that this new regulation is not only a catastrophe for the LGBTQ+ community, "it wreaks suffering on an entire industry: publishers, bookstores, authors are all bound to be hurt by it." So far, Rácz-Stefán wrote seven published novels, all of which contain LGBTQ+ characters, and as he writes, for good reason: As a gay man, he believes it's important for LGBTQ+ adolescents to find novels where they encounter characters with whom they can identify, thus helping them accept themselves.

He said that banning books with LGBTQ+ characters from shop windows is something he could survive, but the other two provisions are much more problematic. The most popular bookstore of his hometown, Balassagyarmat, is just a few metres from a church, and novels like the ones he writes will be forced out of these bookstores. But the situation will not be much better in other stores either;

Besides the environmental issues with wrapping books in plastic, it is also a costly practice that drives prices up, most likely causing a drop in sales figures.

The regulation makes no difference between books written for children and adolescents, so books in the young adult isle may also get the wrap. If bookstores want to play it safe, this may even happen if only a side character belongs to a sexual minority.

As examples, he named popular youth novels "Our Chemical Hearts," "Six of Crows," and Cassandra Clare's novels that serve as the base for Netflix's movie Shadowhunters: "Moxie will also be punished for showing reality, that gay people exist in the world."

The Hungarian government's recent anti-LGBTQ law outraged many in Hungary and abroad; thousands protested the proposal in front of the Parliament before its passing, where NGOs pointed out that the last-minute changes made to the bill originally introducing heavier sanctions on sexual crimes against minors conflated sexual minorities with paedophiles, and it is a frontal attack against freedom of speech in the vein of Russia's Sexual Propaganda Act. European governments, MEPs, and media companies also objected the law, along with several embassies. The European Commission had launched an infringement procedure against Hungary. In response to international criticism, PM Viktor Orbán recently announced a five-question referendum intended to reinforce the law. Read our detailed piece on the so-called “Child Protection Act” here.

This video has English subtitles. If they do not appear, turn them on in the video settings.

The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.