February 21, 2024

To wrap, or not to wrap? Hungarian bookstores face fines over closed packaging for LGBTQ+ books

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — In a snug, wood-paneled Jewish bookstore in Hungary’s capital, Eva Redai carefully climbed the rungs of a ladder to arrange titles on the shelves. Among the books were volumes bound in plastic wrapping — titles containing LGBTQ+ content that the country’s right-wing government has deemed unsuitable for minors under 18.

The 76-year-old has run the Láng Téka bookstore in central Budapest for nearly 35 years, since just before Hungary’s democratic transition from state socialism. But never, until now, has she needed to segregate the books she sells to avoid violating a government ban.

“I consider this such a level of discrimination. This law is an act of force that can hardly be made sense of,” Redai said. “As someone who’s been in this business for such a long time, even I cannot decide which books fall under the ban.”

Hungary’s government under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has in recent years taken a hard line on LGBTQ+ issues, passing legislation that rights groups and European politicians have decried as repressive against sexual minorities.

A “child protection” law, passed in 2021, bans the “depiction or promotion” of homosexuality in content available to minors, including in television, films, advertisements and literature. It also prohibits the mention of LGBTQ+ issues in school education programs, and forbids the public depiction of “gender deviating from sex at birth.”

Hungary’s government insists that the law, part of a broader statute that also increases criminal penalties for pedophilia and creates a searchable database of sex offenders, is necessary to protect children. But it is seen by Orban’s critics as an attempt to stigmatize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and conflate homosexuality with pedophilia.

Earlier this month, a government office levied a hefty fine against Hungary’s second-largest bookstore chain for violating the contentious law. Líra Könyv was ordered to pay 12 million forints (around $35,000) for placing a popular LGBTQ+ graphic novel in its youth literature section, and for failing to place it in closed packaging.

The fine, the second issued by the government in a single month, sent booksellers rushing to determine whether selling certain titles without closed packaging could result in financial penalties for their own stores. Along with outlawing LGBTQ+ content for minors, the law also prohibits depicting “sexuality for its own sake” to audiences under 18 — a rule that could potentially apply to countless works of literature.

Krisztian Nyary, an author and the creative director for Líra Könyv, said that the language of the law contains many ambiguities, which places a burden on booksellers to determine which of the thousands of titles they offer may contain proscribed content.

“The practical problem is that the sellers are supposed to decide what the law applies to and what it does not,” Nyary said, adding that the Bible, too, depicts homosexuality. “In a small bookstore of four to five thousand titles, or a large one with sixty to seventy thousand titles, a bookseller does not know in much detail what the books contain.”

Nyary said Líra Könyv plans to challenge the fine in court, and does not intend to begin placing books in closed packaging. The requirement to do so is “anti-culture,” he said, and could carry adverse financial effects as well.

“The ability to sell a packaged book is one-tenth of what it is when it’s unpackaged. It’s like putting a painting in a dark basement: Everyone knows it’s there, but you can’t look at it,” he said.

The Láng Téka bookstore, a much smaller business, has opted to comply with the law. On Wednesday, an employee packaged titles that depict homosexuality in household cellophane wrap, and slid them onto the packed shelves. Eva Redai, the shop owner, posted a sign on the front window reading, “In this bookshop, we also sell books with ‘non-traditional content’.”

“This is completely against my own principles and thoughts,” Redai said. “But obviously, I’m a law-abiding person, and I also don’t want to pay a fine of several million forints for my non-existent crime. So we, too, are trying to obey the laws which they have recently forced on us.”

Mark Mezei, a novelist in Budapest, has published a book which contains a lesbian relationship — making his work subject to the restrictions. But he believes Hungary’s legislation, which he described as “bad for democracy,” will not have a chilling effect on authors.

“Whoever wants to write is going to write … it doesn’t matter what legislators think,” he said. “That we live in times when such a thing can happen is not up to me. But as a writer, this doesn’t influence me at all.”

Others, too, are resisting the legislation. A group of university activists this week have given away over 100 free copies of what they call “banned books” — those subject to the closed packaging provision — in front of one of Budapest’s largest bookstores.

One activist, 22-year-old Vince Sajosi, said on Wednesday that Hungary’s law reduces the accessibility of important works and “restricts a process of social development.”

“We want these books to appear in Hungarian literary public life and in everyday conversations, which is why we want to give them to people for free,” he said.

Redai, the bookstore owner, said that in Hungary today, people that identify as non-heterosexual “are being stigmatized and ostracized, and they are not considered equal members of society, which I simply find outrageous.”

“This feeds into an idea that, unfortunately, already happened in the 20th century, where people were judged and persecuted based on their appearance, skin color, religion or other affiliation, and many, many people fell victim to this idea,” she said. “Quite simply, this could be the beginning of something terrible that so many of us have tried to forget.”

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