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Orban is using coronavirus to do what he's always wanted – deny trans people their rights

The pandemic has presented an opportunity for Orban to push through a new anti-trans law. Civil society must mobilise against him

Krisztina Kolos Orban
Wednesday 29 April 2020 09:57 BST
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While the coronavirus continues to overwhelm Europe, transgender people in my country, Hungary, are now facing an additional threat. A new law, which will almost certainly be implemented when parliament will vote next month, will mean that all official documentation, from passports to ID cards and credit cards, can no longer recognise adopted genders, and must revert to sex assigned at birth.

Anti-trans abuse is already common in Hungary, and this targeted discrimination by the government will make things much worse.

Our country’s authoritarian government is effectively using the pandemic as an excuse to seize power and erode human rights. Indeed, earlier this month, Hungary’s parliament gave Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period, an unprecedented affront to democracy in an EU member state.

Last week, the president of the parliamentary justice committee interrupted MPs to say that it doesn’t matter what “those concerned” – trans people –think about the amendment to end legal gender recognition – even though it will erode trans people’s rights in significant and insidious ways.

It was clearly not a coincidence that the Hungarian deputy prime minister chose 31 March, Transgender Day of Visibility, to submit the omnibus bill, which includes an amendment to the Hungarian Registry Act narrowly defining gender as “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes” assigned at birth. If the parliament adopts this amendment, it would effectively make it impossible for people to legally change their gender.

Hungary’s public health system is underfunded and poorly equipped to handle a full-blown coronavirus outbreak, and the country’s capacity to test for the virus remains low. And yet, in this time of crisis, Orban’s government has chosen to focus its attention on denying trans people their rights.

Hungary is one of only a handful of states without proper legal measures to regulate legal gender recognition. For years, trans people have faced numerous obstacles in trying to adjust their names and gender on identity cards and other legal documents. Their requests have been indiscriminately ignored or denied. Indeed, even Hungary’s constitutional court ruled that the lack of a quick and accessible legal gender recognition procedure undermined the dignity and human rights of trans people.

Yet Orban’s government failed to comply with this ruling, and 23 trans people who were unable to legally change their name and gender took the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. Two weeks ago, the court gave the Hungarian government until 4 June to resolve this issue. How did the government respond? By taking advantage of the global pandemic to quash the rights of trans people by legally denying their existence.

Civil society organisations now have a crucial task to perform in Hungary and around the world. They must closely monitor governments to ensure that the coronavirus crisis does not turn into a human rights crisis. They must step up to protect the basic human rights – including the right to health – of marginalised groups such as the Roma, migrants and refugees, people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities, ethnic and racial minorities, and trans people.

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As a non-binary trans person, I worry that if I were to go to a clinic to get tested for the virus, I would be discriminated against based on my appearance and identity. Fear of discrimination and distrust in medical staff are key reasons why 60 percent of Hungary’s trans people have avoided or delayed seeking medical care. With ventilators in short supply, I am terrified that exhausted ICU doctors might overlook trans patients, choosing instead to intubate those whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex.

Provisions must be put in place to protect members of marginalised groups, including trans people, from the negative impacts of lockdowns. In Hungary, where closed quarantine facilities are used to isolate those affected by Covid-19, it is crucial the government develops policies to protect trans people from discrimination and violence.

We must also be proactive in addressing the increase in domestic violence during lockdown. Hotlines and designated shelters should be established to support victims, and special consideration must be taken to protect trans people who might be at increased risk of abuse.

Governments should also consider transgender and other marginalised people in designing economic packages that will provide adequate assistance to people struggling to make ends meet, so that people do not have to choose between their health or basic sustenance.

Orban has seized on this unprecedented crisis as an opportunity to do what he has long wished to: curb the rights of trans people. Now, more than ever, civil society organizations must mobilise to defend those rights – in Hungary, and around the world.

Krisztina Kolos Orban is vice-president of the Transvanilla Transgender Association and co-chair of Transgender Europe.

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