Queer Budapest: new book celebrates the LGBTQ+ history that the Hungarian government wants to erase

Queer Budapest: new book celebrates the LGBTQ+ history that the Hungarian government wants to erase

Hungary's conservative government is keen to portray LGBTQ+ people as a recent, “liberal” phenomenon. But history shows that isn’t true, as academic Anita Kurimay proves in her book, Queer Budapest, 1873–1961. In an interview for The Calvert Journal she talks about the Hungarian capital’s long-documented queer culture and community, alongside an extract from her recently-published book.

10 May 2021
Text: M. Buna

By the turn of the 20th century, Budapest had initiated a conscious endeavor to establish itself as a modern European capital. But advancing its liberal politics also meant facing — and regulating — a more public sexual culture: something which already challenged the country’s well-established boundaries between public and private space, crossing the lines of both gender and class. That culture also carried a queer dimension. Hungary’s new capital already had its own map of homosocial hangouts, including thermal baths, cafés, and promenades in the City Park and along the Danube.

Today, Hungary’s far-right government is keen to reiterate this presumed connection between sexual freedom and liberal democracy with officials claiming that it was the arrival of liberalism that ushered in the possibility of existence for queer communities in Hungary.

But history tells a different story. “All political regimes (from liberal to conservative to communist) were invested in not only keeping queer life quiet, but also in actively destroying evidence of the presence of LGBTQ+ people”, says historian Anita Kurimay, author of the newly-released Queer Budapest, 1873–1961.

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Using sources such as police journals, the writings of sexologists, and contemporary novels and newspapers, Queer Budapest, 1873–1961 chronicles and reappraises how LGBTQ+ people have been part of Hungarian history long before 1989. Kurimay’s work reinserts the history of these queer communities by revealing how they have navigated the contradictions and paradoxes of various political regimes. “Any apparent lack of queer history in Budapest does not arise from an actual absence, but is rather the direct result of intentional and cumulative erasures of the historical record of queer existence,” she says.

The Budapest Metropolitan Police first created a “homosexual registry” in the early 1900s. Male homosexual acts had been criminalised since 1878, but this registry was initially used to keep track of gay men, rather than to press criminal charges against them. According to Kurimay, this registry had long-term consequences. “Until the Second World War, authorities were mostly concerned with cracking down on public homosexual acts. Therefore, those who faced criminal charges were men from the lower classes, who were without the means to secure private places where they could carry out homosexual relationships. In fact, during this time, being on the registry could even offer protection for well-to-do homosexuals, for whom entering the registry could be a gateway to police protection from blackmailers.” The government itself was also keen to use gay men for their own ends. “In the pre-1918 liberal era, LGBTQ+ people were presented as a sign of modernity,” says Kurimay.

But liberalism did not mean that LGBTQ+ people were able to live openly or in peace. Only those who kept their same-sex desires strictly private could be considered full members of Hungarian society. “The political system approached homosexuality as a sort of communicable disease; something that, in most instances, people acquired, but were not born with. Consequently, regimes were invested in limiting public discussions around homosexuality that might encourage its spread,” says Kurimay.

That tendency only became more pronounced under the conservative interwar regime. Queer love became emblematic of male weakness, although something that could nevertheless be “rehabilitated”. By the time the country’s communist dictatorship came to power between 1949-1989, men in the “homosexual registry” were persecuted across the board. “Even following the decriminalisation of consensual homosexual acts in 1962, those on the registry were often blackmailed by the communist secret service to become informants,” Kurimay says. As police presence increased on Budapest’s streets during the interwar years, “both straight and queer sexualities were more policed in public, a trend that continued until the 1980s.”

Two men swimming in Budapest. Image courtesy of Chicago University Press

The following extract is from Queer Budapest 1873 - 1961. The book is available to buy from University of Chicago Press.

By the early 20th century, there was an increasing number of men, not only in Budapest but also in smaller cities, who formed their own identity as well as their social communities based on sexual preference. Homosexual men and men with queer sexual interest built a growing network that often cut across ethnic, class, and age differences. The most obvious place of networking was the homosexual association. Kornél Tábori and Vladimir Székely, two prominent fin-de-siècle journalists, found that by the first decade of the 20th century, there was a formally established Hungarian homosexual association.

Although not officially registered — it could not have been legally — our eager journalists state that the association in terms of its function resembled other registered associations. It was based in Budapest but soon had “offices” in a number of cities within the Hungarian kingdom, including Arad, Nagyvárad (Oradea), Kolozsvár (Cluj- Napoca), Pécs, and Székesfehérvár. The offices were in touch with each other as well as with the main office in Budapest. Aside from providing information about issues relating to homosexuality, these places facilitated the meeting and socialising of homosexual men. By the turn of the century, there were also homosexual bars and cafés, especially in Budapest, that allowed queer customers to create communities, as well as give them opportunities to find sex.

Although there were no openly homosexual establishments, there were places that served as homosexual gathering places. These semiprivate venues in the centre of Pest tended to be quite restrictive in their admission of patrons. In general, it was those with professional jobs and social stature who were allowed in. Working-class homosexuals tended to carve out their own establishments in the poorer suburbs and neighborhoods and, according to Tábori and Székely, were generally less discreet. As their book Beteg Szerelem (Sick Love) informs us, while the “better sort” of homosexuals certainly had wild parties in their clubs, it was the working-class urning partik (male homosexual parties) that apparently became infamous for being carnivalesque and out of control. Nevertheless, while there might have been wild antics and rowdy costume parties, most queers tended to be secretive and often met in private places. It might have been less interesting to readers looking for titillating entertainment, but the great majority of homosexuals led mundane lives and concealed their (homo)sexual life outside of the queer community.

Hungarian authorities were not the only ones who looked to the metropolises of Western Europe and the United States for inspiration and knowledge. By the first decade of the 20th century, Hungarian homosexuals actively sought out information about their counterparts in some of the largest European cities.

For many, that queer community extended well beyond Budapest. The community in the capital was tuned in to the international information exchange about matters of homosexuality. The Hungarian authorities were not the only ones who looked to the metropolises of Western Europe and the United States for inspiration and knowledge. By the first decade of the 20th century, Hungarian homosexuals actively sought out information about their counterparts in some of the largest European cities. They did so in a variety of ways. Information on the medical and legal aspects of homosexuality were circulated among members. News stories involving homosexuals were printed not only in papers in Budapest, but also in smaller and regional publications. Those who could read most certainly could find access to queer publications such as the ornate German publication Der Eigene (The Unique), the first homosexual journal published in Berlin. They would have been familiar with the publications of French authors such as Andre Gide, Marcel Proust, and Jean Cocteau who discussed homosexuality in their writings.

In addition, this period saw the explosion of pornographic catalogs that could be ordered through the mail. Once they were in someone’s possession, these catalogs could be circulated widely. If mobile and financially secure, Hungarian homosexuals and people with queer desires could and did visit Berlin, Paris, or Vienna. Everyday language and references to homosexuality mostly arrived through the German language, initially without translation. During the last years of the 1900s, German terms such as warme bruder, schwester, and urning were terms used by authorities and homosexuals alike. At the time of Tábori and Székely’s writing, schwester (sister), which was also the dominant phrase used in Berlin, seemed to be the preferred term used among men who sexually desired and loved other men.

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Male prostitutes carved out their own turf at a number of locales. Tábori and Székely explain that their most frequent workplace was a busy street, where prostitutes had their own routes and corners. The City Park and Elisabeth Square earned infamous reputations, but the promenade by the Danube and the Castle Gardens also served as “consulting places”. Male prostitutes also appeared at masquerade parties, in bars, and frequently in the city’s many baths. As Budapest’s bath culture expanded, receiving international praise and an increasing number of guests, so did the number of “knights of sick love” (as Tábori and Székely called gay men) who frequented them. Some male prostitutes would even offer their services in the love columns of various papers. Such was the case with the following ad published in the personals of a daily newspaper: “A handsome young, 18-year-old would befriend an energetic, well- to- do gentleman. Letters to the publisher under the motto, Night Eye.”

Tábori and Székely’s understanding and representation of nonnormative sexuality was highly gendered. The assumption that soldiers who engaged in sex with men, for example, would retain their “masculinity” and “virility” was rooted in prevailing beliefs about the strength of Hungarian masculinity. In contrast, women (most of whom were pushed into prostitution for economic reasons) lost both their femininity and moral purity after becoming prostitutes. Even if the authors pitied them, women who sold their sexual services were considered not just as embodiments of their own impurity, but also of Budapest’s and even of the nation’s. Soldiers were neither considered the epitome of the decline of Hungarian virtues, nor were they personally at risk of losing their own virility. In Tábori and Székely’s treatment of prostitutes, similar to that of the Metropolitan Police, the sex of the prostitutes was more important than the sex of their client. Selling one’s sexual services and keeping one’s respectability and decency intact was an unattainable pursuit for a woman. In the case of male soldiers who prostituted themselves, their supposedly virtuous armed service on behalf of the nation could still earn them respectability.

The authors’ lack of concern about the consequences of sex between men seemed to be shared by the military itself. As István Deák, in his seminal study of the Habsburg officers, notes, despite the fact that homosexuality must have been widespread in the army, “all in all, the military courts were not preoccupied with sexual crimes.” He concluded that the army prosecuted homosexuality only if it involved nonconsensual sex, minors, or subordinates from the rank and file. The uncontested masculinity and “heterosexuality” of soldiers (and most Hungarian men), moreover, seemed to be taken for granted, not only by authorities of the time, but also by historians.

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