Dorottya Rédai: My activism and my academic work support each other

She was conducting research on sexual education in Hungarian schools and what children think about sexuality and related matters. Then came restrictions from the conservative government - not only on her research, but also on the rights of sexual minorities throughout the land. To her surprise, Rédai was about to become a celebrity.  

Read the interview in Czech translation here.

‘The LGBTI+ community in Hungary is one of the most popular targets for Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s hate crusades,’ observed TIME magazine with reference to its inclusion of Dorottya Rédai on its list of 100 Most Influential People of 2021. The profile piece went on to mention Budapest’s recent restrictions to the rights of sexual minorities, including the de facto cancellation of the right to a change of legal gender and a constitutional change to the definition of the family that rules out the adoption of a child by partners of the same gender. 

An independent academic and activist for the rights of sexual minorities, Rédai has become widely known for her opposition to Orban’s policies. She has also gained renown for her children’s book A Fairytale for Everyone, in which she and co-author Boldizsár Nagy set traditional fairy-tale characters free from their gender templates. The book presents a Romani Cinderella, a lesbian Snow White, and non-binary big game. It so infuriated the Hungarian establishment that one politician made a point of shredding it.  

How is Rédai adapting to her new role? What is life like for her under an autocratic regime that perceives her and others like her as the enemy? And how can academia fight for human rights and a more just society?  

You are an academic in the field of gender studies and education, one of 2021’s 100 Most Influential People and, according to many, a symbol of courage and a leading figure in Hungarian human rights activism. How does it make you feel to be introduced in such a way?
I got used to it after a while. It was totally unexpected that I would become famous (laughter). Like many children, I had these childhood fantasies that I would be famous and do something important in the world, but I am quite an introverted person, so it was a bit of a surprise. At first, I didn’t want to be visible, but gradually I became okay with putting my face and name to our cause. Also, when A Fairytale for Everyone was published, there was a situation in which I had to step in as the project’s coordinator. It wasn’t really a question of choice for me. 

It sounds as if this is not exactly something you wanted. Was the change difficult?
Well, I did like working in the background, so being a public intellectual was new for me. What was difficult was the intensity and the several months when I spoke to four or five journalists per week. But after a while you learn what to say, as journalists mostly ask similar questions. It doesn't take much of an effort anymore and everyone is like: Oh, you’re speaking so well. And I feel like: Yeah, because you are the 100th person to ask that question (laughter). 

I always try to ask unanswered questions. That’s why I don’t want to ask about your book A Fairytale for Everyone (laughter). Our readers should know that the book portrays fairy-tale figures with non-traditional gender roles, such as a princess slaying giants, or a princess leaving her handsome-prince husband for neglecting her. The book caused a big stir in Hungary. On one hand it has been a bestseller that is being translated into ten languages, including Czech. On the other, a petition was filed to remove the book from sale, and a certain right-wing politician destroyed the book on a paper shredder. You have described in many interviews what led to the book’s creation and what followed. What I haven’t been able to find out, though, is what led you to the field of gender studies.
I have always been a feminist, even as a child, although I didn't know it (laughter). I found it so unfair that my brother had privileges that I did not. I didn't understand why he was favoured over me or treated better. And later, when I was a teenager, I sensed that it was so much easier to be a man than a woman. But it didn't really come together as a structure until my final years at university. I took a course called “Gender and language”, where I learned about a coherent theory that explains what's wrong with the world from a gender perspective. It was a revelation (laughter). I finally understood things. It doesn’t make life easier, as you know, but at least I know why things are happening. For me, that was always very important. It’s the researcher attitude, I suppose.

Four years ago, Viktor Orbán's government banned the teaching of gender studies at Hungarian universities and made it impossible for you to work in Hungary as an academic in gender studies. Was the attitude towards the field always so hostile, or is it something that changed with Orbán’s government?
Even before then, gender studies were never truly recognized here as an academic field. Gender studies scholars had a constant struggle to make themselves accepted and for their knowledge and scholarly achievements to be recognized. As a result, there were very few scholars in the gender studies field and it was always very difficult to explain to people what we were doing.

This started to change in the 2010s, when topics that are very important in gender studies, such as violence against women, gender identities and sexual orientation, became part of public discourse. Suddenly these were not suppressed or taboo topics anymore. At the same time, however, Fidesz came to power and started to introduce legislative action that gradually led to the intensification of anti-gender politics.   

As well as affecting academia, Hungarian anti-gender politics affects civic organisations. Your entire career as an activist is connected with one such organisation, the Labrisz Lesbian Association. How does the government's approach towards feminist and LGBT NGOs affect your everyday work?
Over the years, the government has made our lives much harder. The first open attack against NGOs in 2014 was large-scale surveillance of the recipients of Norwegian Civic Funds,  in which, somewhat ridiculously, they tried to find misuse of funds. They didn’t, of course. Since then, a lot of bureaucratic obstacles have been placed in our way, and LGBT+ and feminist organisations have been kept under surveillance. 

Also, there's no funding. There was never much state funding for feminist and LGBT+ NGOs, but since Fidesz has been in power there hasn't been any. There's a debate among us about whether it's good to have state funding for our activities. I don't think it is. If we received any funding from this state, it would restrict our independence.                          

For the reasons you have just mentioned, many activists and academics are considering leaving the country. Is this already happening? Is it a topic for you?
Between 5% and 10% of the population has left the country in the past 10 years. Many of these people are intellectuals, LGBT+ people and members of other minority groups. So it is happening, and it is really dramatic.

I am considering moving abroad for professional reasons because in Hungary, obviously, I cannot really develop academically or professionally in gender studies. I don't want to go away forever, just for a while, because I am so exhausted by what's going on here. I need some fresh air intellectually because I feel I'm going stupid (laughter).

Your academic work has focused on gender and sexuality in education. Is there a memory from your research that stands out?
Well, there were lots of memorable moments in my fieldwork for my PhD. I spent a lot of time in a working-class school, talking to students and teachers, observing their sex education classes and then talking about sexuality with them. My supervisor was always like: You are so amazing! How can you talk about sex with teenagers? (laughter) It was not so difficult. You must find a common language.

The school had lots of Romani and very poor students. It was interesting to find out how their conception of sexuality defined their ideas about gender, ethnic and class belonging and vice versa. It was really fascinating to analyse how ethnicity, class, sexuality and gender work together and constitute each other in very specific ways. I wish I could do such research again. It has been my best research and writing time so far. 

Would it be possible to do it in Hungary now?
Nowadays, if you go to a school saying that you are researching a gender- or sexuality-related topic, they won’t let you in. The liberal elite schools might, but they are over-researched already and I wouldn’t want to research them again and again.  I would really love to go back to school and do research of my own design.

You once said in an interview that you wish to advance equality through expressions of creativity. Since we are speaking of your career wishes, I cannot but ask if there is one such expression you would like to work on in the future? 
I'm kind of at a crossroads in my life, and I must try to figure out which way to go. I would love to write more creatively. For a long time, I've been thinking of starting a blog, to write creatively about things that are bothering me. I don't have time for it now but maybe I will in the future. 

I often wonder these days whether I should drop academia and become a full-time activist and public intellectual, because I'm so much more successful in this field, and I'm making more impact in it. In academia you don't make much impact by writing an article that only some of your colleagues will read. It's very rare that you can reach a bigger audience. And apparently with activism you can (laughter). 

On the subject of difficulties academics have in making an impact in society, do you think there is a role for academics where a government is violating human rights and discriminating against minorities?
I am an academic who is an activist at the same time, and it's very important for me to be both. But there are many researchers who don't feel that they have this kind of mission. As far as I’m concerned, as an academic I should try to make a social or scientific impact, and for me this can be best done by allowing academic work and activism to support and feed each other.

At the same time, social sciences are greatly challenged and undervalued nowadays. The idea persists that only natural sciences and exact sciences matter. There is little support for social sciences, and social scientists are not properly respected. I think that this is a global phenomenon. For this very reason social scientists must make their voices heard. What's also very important is for social scientists to speak to the public in a way that the public understands, because they so often talk in their lingo. I think this is something scientists should practise more. 

You have also researched gender stereotypes in education. What was the most common gender stereotype among the teachers you encountered?
Well, a lot of teachers are still stuck with the binary and heteronormative idea that boys are like this, girls are like that. Somehow, they can't embrace diversity among children. They can't let go of the idea that there are two genders that must complement each other. Even if we think in terms of boys and girls, not children who don’t identify with either gender or who identify differently, children are so diverse. But schools still pursue the idea that some sort of unified order should be forced on children, otherwise they cannot be handled. Education is based around this. And I don't think it is suitable for children’s education in the 21st century.

On the subject of education, Labrisz has had a programme dedicated to discussion of LGBT+ issues and sexuality-based discrimination with students for more than 20 years. How is the programme doing now?
The famous “child protection law” - I always like to use quotation marks even though that's the official name, because what kind of protection is this? - states that homosexuality and ‘gender change’, as they call it, must not be promoted in schools. External organisations which provide such educational programmes must register before the ministry decides which programmes can go to schools. Although this law was implemented last July, there is still no way of registering a school programme.

So everything is up in the air. Nobody is inviting us because everyone is afraid. The whole education system is in crisis. The LGBT+ question is the last thing teachers wish to deal with at the moment. There are ongoing strikes and acts of civil disobedience, which are now illegal. Teachers are one of the worst paid intellectual professions in the country: they are literally starving. And on top of this there is a regulation that the head of a school can be suspended for supporting a programme which can endanger children's ‘healthy development’, as they call it. 

Once a teacher closes the door, they still have some freedom to do what they want. But it's very stressful because then they are afraid of complaints from parents. Some still try to work on topics of human rights and sex education because they realise it is their job to talk about these issues now, as external programmes cannot be invited in.  

At the top of the interview you mentioned that the development of anti-gender politics in Hungary was gradual. Interestingly, statistics suggest that Hungarian society is in favour of same-sex marriage and generally supports the LGBT+ community. What do you think the government wishes to achieve with this?
That's a good question. There's a general understanding that this is happening because autocratic governments always try to divide society and need some sort of enemy to do it. In the middle of the 2010s, it was refugees, but as there are no refugees anymore, they need a new enemy. But it's not just that. They have a worldview that they wish to impose. A worldview in which LGBT+ people are abnormal and society should be set so that women and men have their traditional gender roles. LGBT+ people can exist in it, but they are closeted and don't demand any rights for themselves. 

This is a strong agenda which you can see spreading all over the world. It is so strong in Hungary because the government is the main actor. And the legislative power it holds can be put in the service of anti-gender ideology. 

How is the community dealing with this agenda?
Actually, the activist community has become stronger, more active and more collaborative. Of course, it's very hard for us as well. Many of us suffer from burnout because we must work so much for so little money, and we can never rest and gather our energies because there is always something happening that we must respond to. 

We know that the life of the LGBT+ population in Hungary is made harder by of all these homophobic and transphobic legislative measures. A lot of people feel entitled to express their hatred. People are very often afraid. As an activist, I have no choice and I'm fine with being out - whatever happens, I will deal with it, and I have my supportive community. But those who are not out and are isolated, are much more afraid and intimidated. On the other hand, a lot of people have become much more supportive of LGBT+ people in the past few years.  

In October you are coming to the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, where you will speak at the Inspiration Forum about democracy and our role in it. We have spoken a lot about democracy in this interview, or rather the lack of it. I wonder if, when looking back, you think there was ever a chance for Hungary to avoid the road it is now on, or if this is something that, given the regime’s power, couldn’t be prevented?
I don't think it depends on us, really. It's very important to have a strong civil society and protest, of course. Hungarians don't protest, so big demonstrations are a great rarity. But if the regime is not democratic, you can protest as strongly as you want and still there will be no change. Maybe there are other ways of protest which we haven't figured out yet, but my impression is that democratic ways of protesting don't work with an authoritarian regime.

It seems that broader coalitions are more powerful. We have started to support and collaborate with people from other disadvantaged social groups: disadvantaged, discriminated social groups must be seen to be in solidarity. Solidarity and coalitions are more important now than ever before. 

This way, if one group is attacked, another group stands up for them, and this makes protest and expressing opinion much more powerful. Also, there are many people who join a protest only if it’s about their problem, because they don’t see the bigger picture of how discrimination and oppression are intersectional. I think a lot of people have realised recently that hating LGBT+ people is a problem not just for LGBT+ people but for society as a whole.

What does freedom mean to you now, when you yourself are experiencing its evaporation from society?
In order to function sanely in this surreally oppressive society, you must have some sort of internal freedom, to think, act and talk the way you want to. I talk freely now: I'm exhausted and I don't have the patience to express things very politely anymore (laughter). And that’s also a kind of freedom, if you are brave enough to take it. I think that’s how I deal with it. Of course, it doesn't mean to be offensive, just honest. Obviously not everybody appreciates this, but a lot of people do. I also think if someone has the chance to change their life, they should take it. In order to have more freedom you must act. By doing what you can for your own freedom, you contribute to freedom in society. 

My last question concerns whether or not you believe that Hungary can still have a fairy-tale ending for everyone. 
I'm not hopeful. I think Hungary is already far gone on the way to authoritarianism. It's very difficult to stop it now, and the regime won't stop itself. The ruling politicians won’t wake up tomorrow and say, ‘Oh, we are not democratic enough. Why don't we change our ways?’ This is not going to happen because they have secured power at so many levels. After the last election, they destroyed the remaining political opposition. Now, civil society organisations are the only opposition.  

I’m curious about what will happen now because people are facing a lot of trouble with things that don't have anything to do with human rights and LGBT+ people. There’s a profound economic crisis in Hungary. People’s heating bills may end up seven times higher than they were, there's no petrol to be had at an affordable price, inflation is soaring, food is 20 - 30 % more expensive than it was just a few months ago, and salaries are not growing. There are not enough teachers and healthcare workers. This may trigger more people to start large-scale protests. So I do wonder what’s going to happen. Some change may be possible because of this, because it is not a sustainable situation.