In Hungary for years, the government has regularly attacked sexual and gender minorities, passing a series of laws restricting their rights and freedoms. In addition to exclusionary statements by pro-government politicians, a number of laws have been passed since 2020 that violate the rights of LGBTQI people. Gender recognition and adoption were banned, transphobic passages were added to the Fundamental Law, and in June 2021, following Putin's example, the parliamentary majority voted in favour of the so-called "propaganda law", which banned the "promotion" and "representation" of homosexuality and transgenderism in education and the media.
The law is deliberately vague, so it is not clear exactly what "promotion" and "display" cover - simple informative presentations, guest speakers talking about their own experiences or simply presenting different identities could fall into this category. It is also not entirely clear what sanctions apply to those who do engage in activities that fall into these categories.
In order to legitimise the law already passed, and to make its campaign against the rights of sexual and gender minorities part of the parliamentary election campaign, the government has called for a national referendum on four deliberately manipulative and false issues to be held on 3 April 2022, at the same time as the elections. Government communications framed the action as a referendum on child protection, while the aim was clearly to stigmatise and incite against sexual and gender minorities.
A total of 14 Hungarian NGOs led by Amnesty International Hungary and the Háttér Society have launched a nationwide campaign called ‘Important 2X’ to convince people to vote invalidly on all four questions, thus invalidating the homophobic and transphobic referendum, which is also a big step towards the abolition of the propaganda law. Following the annulment of the referendum, on 8 April the National Electoral Commission fined several NGOs for the campaign. The main organisers, Amnesty International Hungary and Háttér Society, for example, received the highest fines possible under the law. Following an appeal by the NGOs, the Curia eventually overturned the National Electoral Committee's decision in three of the five cases, while the remaining two cases are currently before the European Court of Human Rights.
A national representative opinion poll and several focus groups were organised before the campaign started in February 2022 to finalise its exact message and presentation. Unusually, the campaign involved not only those directly affected, but also their loved ones and friends, to show how our shared values of security and equality are at risk from the referendum, and why an invalid vote is the only good answer to the government's homophobic and transphobic questions.
Throughout the campaign, we shared four videos and ten photo stories on social media featuring LGBTQI people and their parents, siblings, colleagues and friends, showing the damaging consequences of the government's exclusionary policies and the referendum campaign on their loved ones and their own lives. In total, the videos have been viewed by more than 2 million people on various channels. We also produced an e-learning course on the rights of LGBTQI people and the impact of the referendum. We also created a dedicated website (www.ervenytelenul.hu) for the campaign, which includes the videos, photos, e-learning and a detailed questionnaire. On this site, it was also possible to join the campaign as an activist and as a supporter. We published advertisements in national and local public and tabloid newspapers, news portals and a TV spot on ATV. 115 billboards and other public space advertisements were also put up across the country. In total, we had more than 200 appearances in the Hungarian press with the campaign.
The campaign mobilised more than 400 activists across the country, who helped to achieve the goal by organising local actions and flash mobs, putting up 70 000 stickers and posters and persuading their friends. And on 31 March we painted the main campaign message on the Parliament building: "Vote invalidly on the referendum!” During 10 days in March, we took the campaign to 20 Hungarian towns and cities, convincing people that invalid voting is the right way to vote. We closed the offline part of the campaign on 1 April with a speech in front of tens of thousands of people at a joint concert of the Tanítanék Movement and the noÁr Movement. A documentary film about the campaign, "You have to be here to believe it", was also produced and will be screened in cinemas in Berlin and Amsterdam, as well as in cinemas in Germany.
Thanks to the successful campaign, the referendum on 3 April received the highest ever number of invalid votes, resulting in all four questions being rejected. The 2016 quota referendum had a 6% invalidity rate, while the 2022 referendum had between 21 and 22%. In total, more than 1.7 million people cast invalid votes, with 42% of voters supporting and 58% opposing the government's homophobic and transphobic policies.
Thanks in part to the invalid referendum, the government has not (yet) tabled further restrictive legislation as previously pushed through, and the number of statements stigmatising LGBTQI people has also fallen dramatically. The large amount of feedback we received also showed that for many people, the result of the Invalid campaign alone gave them some hope and comfort, in addition to the disappointing election result, while many members of the LGBTQI community reported that they received a lot of love and support during the campaign, which made them feel much less alone and vulnerable in the face of the government's exclusionary policies.
The government is estimated to have spent $16 million (HUF 5 billion at March exchange rates) on advertising its referendum campaign alone, while our national campaign, including all expenses, spent less than HUF 75 million. One of the most important features of the campaign, which was innovative in the Hungarian NGO sector, was that we very consciously used positive, values-based communication, building on our earlier national values research. Based on this, we decided to target the audience we wanted to reach by focusing on the values of safety and equality, while the campaign's look and the specific messages were finalised based on feedback from focus groups. Also innovative in the sector, we deliberately overshadowed the organisations' brand and visibility in the campaign and built a completely separate image and brand for the campaign so that nothing could distract from our message.
Thanks to the campaign led by Amnesty Hungary and the Háttér Society, 1.7 million people stood up for a safe and equal Hungary for all in the national referendum on 3 April. In an extraordinary campaign lasting almost two months, we achieved one of the most despicable propaganda referendums of all time, defeating the government's policies of stigmatisation and ostracisation with the highest ever percentage of invalid votes.
The campaign was one of the three finalists for one of the most prestigious human rights awards, the Vaclav Havel Prize, and a finalist for the Dutch Human Rights Tulip in 2022.
In 2023, the campaign won the 'Most Impactful Project' award at the NIOK Civic Awards Gala.
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