Will Budapest's Drag Scene Survive the Pandemic and Populism?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
For years, Hungary's capital has enjoyed a liberal, bohemian image. Now, a cocktail of populism and the pandemic are threatening to reshape Budapest's identity.
By Dariusz Kalan
- For years, Budapest has enjoyed the reputation as one of Central Europe’s most cosmopolitan and bohemian cities, with a vibrant drag scene. It’s been an oasis for LGBTQ tolerance.
- But the pandemic has brought tourism to a grinding halt, eliminating a key reason why the country’s conservative government allowed Budapest to be a liberal outpost.
- Now, a slew of anti-LGBTQ laws and policies, combined with the economic hit of the pandemic, are threatening to kill the city’s drag scene.
You can put the wig and fancy clothes on, but these are the eyes that make you a woman.
The transformation begins with blocking out eyebrows and applying Supracolor, which is followed by the trickiest thing: the eyeliner. If you mess it up, you need to start the whole thing all over again. It took Valerie Divine, a 29-year-old drag queen from Budapest, months to master it. “Women say their daily makeup brings out the advantages and hides the flaws. In our cases, it gives an entirely different dimension to our faces,” says Divine, who won the Drag Queen Hungary competition last August.
Grounded by the COVID-19 lockdown, Divine is understandably disappointed: The last time he practiced the art of makeup and performed was on Halloween night. Yet, it’s not only stay-at-home orders that are worrying him about the future of his industry in Budapest.
Over several years, the city has gained global recognition as one of the most progressive nightlife destinations in Central Europe, an image cemented by the 2019 European Best Destinations contest in which Hungary’s capital came first. Cosmopolitan, busy and bohemian, it also became an oasis for LGBTQ tolerance. The city’s reputation has been central to its ability to draw tourists even as the rest of the country took a conservative turn over the past decade under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
If this continues, I fear my life could be in danger.
Valerie Divine, drag queen
Now, with the pandemic bringing travel to a grinding halt, Budapest’s liberal vibe no longer enjoys that shield of tourism. Two major gay clubs offering drag shows, Alterego and Crush, are closed, with Crush being shut down permanently. And in the shadow of the pandemic, Orbán’s ruling nationalist Fidesz party has, since last spring, launched an anti-LGBTQ campaign that’s threatening to fundamentally change the character of Budapest.
“It has always been an island in an otherwise conservative country,” says Divine, who is openly gay. “If this continues, I fear my life could be in danger.”
Last May, the Fidesz-dominated parliament voted to end the legal recognition of transgender people. Later in the fall, Orbán took issue with a children’s book featuring homosexual characters, which he described as an “act of provocation.” In an interview with a state radio station, he warned the LGBTQ community to “leave our children alone.”
Divine thinks the government’s crusade is an attempt to divert attention from its handling of the pandemic and the fact that the previously strong economy has faltered. “Our community has been picked as a new enemy after migrants, Brussels and [the financier George] Soros,” he adds. The most recent move is a revision of the country’s constitution with a “Christian definition of gender roles,” under which children will have to be raised in their birth gender and parents are legally defined as a man and a woman. A separate bill, also in effect, bans same-sex couples from adoption.
“The atmosphere is indeed getting thicker,” says Bonnie Andrews, requesting the use of the name the 29-year-old veteran drag performer is known by in public. “Two years ago, after a performance, I would drop by a store in a drag outfit. Now, I would be scared to do so.”
In 2014, Budapest-born Andrews went to London for a year, where he and his boyfriend enjoyed the “colorfulness of people, religions and habits,” unlike in Hungary where “everyone is white.” Budapest was the one exception in Hungary until recently.
Without foreign tourists, with closed clubs, pubs and restaurants, and with the ruling party stoking a new culture war over LGBTQ rights, Budapest’s flourishing drag scene faces the dual brunt of conservative attitudes and economic hardship. In order to confront the latter, many drag artists have moved online.
“It’s not the same when you perform around people,” Andrews says. “I can’t feel the laughter, the fun, the pressure.” He earns between $50 and $70 per show and feels lucky to have bartending as a second safety job. He was saved, he says, by food delivery services introduced by the bar he works in.
Times are equally harsh for those who organize drag shows. Gyula Antal Horváth, who is in charge of the Drag Queen Hungary competition, calls this job “f**king nonprofitable.”
“I do it because I love it,” he says with a smile.
He shares the concerns over the campaign against sexual minorities and its impact on Budapest, which seduced him nearly nine years ago. “When I moved to Budapest, I thought I’m in heaven,” says Horváth, born in Transylvania in central Romania. “Now things are going very wrong — and not only here, but all around the world.”
Still, he believes the city will rub along. “The spirit of Budapest will endure, even the far right,” he says.
- Dariusz Kalan, OZY Author Contact Dariusz Kalan