‘What’s in a name?’ As a Hungarian trans man, I can tell you: Everything I can’t have

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A transgender man from Hungary tells us about life under Viktor Orban’s anti-trans legislation and the real impacts its having on transgender life

“Do you have any questions for me?” asked the HR woman at the end of our Zoom interview.

Her smile seemed a little plastered on but I couldn’t decide whether that was due to a poor internet connection or because this was probably the tenth call she’d had that day.

The interview itself was fairly routine, with the woman stressing how great, family-friendly, welcoming and environmentally-conscious the company was at every given opportunity. I did okay as well, telling her about my studies and work experience, answering all the annoying motivational questions that every job interview seems to consist of nowadays.

But, instead of asking a standard post-interview question, I had a very different issue to enquire about.

“I know I applied to this job as Alexander, but my legal name is a female one. Would this cause any problems?”

This was, unfortunately, not an isolated part of my job search, but one that I had to deal with every single interview.

Job-hunting is already an exhausting and sometimes anxiety and self-doubt inducing process (Am I qualified enough? Am I a good fit?) but if you add in the issue of also having to come out to complete strangers every single time, you can imagine the frustration I was feeling.

Shakespeare once asked “What’s in a name?”, and boy, do trans people have an answer for you.

I remember the day the Hungarian Parliament voted on the bill that got rid of our right to change our name and gender. It’s called ‘Paragraph 33’, because it wasn’t even its own bill: it was part of a package of legislation, nicknamed the ‘salad law’ because it consisted of some totally random bills the government just threw together to pass as quickly as possible.

It was just one little legal paragraph, consisting of only a couple of lines and it was voted on within literal minutes. The biggest irony of it all? The law was proposed on 31 March, on International Transgender Day of Visibility, because, well, why not twist the knife while you’re at it.

In practice it was already impossible since 2017, but it became more impossible as they changed the definition of ‘nem’ (which means both gender and sex in Hungarian) to ‘születési nem’ which literally translates to ‘sex/gender at birth’.

This becomes unchangeable after a birth certificate is issued, and, as your legal gender marker can’t be changed, your deadname will also have to remain the same. This is because Hungarian law dictates that names have to be chosen from an official, state-approved list which is kept separate for female and male names with no unisex names available.

When you take away someone’s name, you take away their right to live their life peacefully: their right to work, to study, to interact with others, and even to consume products and services without having to share their personal (and medical!) history with complete strangers.

So even though I almost completely pass as a guy in my everyday life (the facial hair is patchy, sure, but it’s there finally), every single time I have to use my legal name, it results in a problem where the outcome of the situation is entirely dependent on the other person’s views on trans people.

Sometimes, they’ll be absolutely chill about it many Hungarian people, contrary to popular belief, are actually really nice and welcoming. Sometimes, they’ll be confused. And well, sometimes they’re neither of the above. I don’t think I have to educate people reading this article on the disproportionate amount of violence trans people face. We know the statistics.

It’s not just job-hunting that produces problems. Want to sign a lease for a flat? You have to use your legal name. Want to arrange a doctor’s appointment? Legal name. Applying for school? Legal name. Want to pick up a package from the post office? Legal name. Have some errands to run at the bank? Legal name. Stopped by the police? Legal name. Even if you just want to get a library card, you’ll be asked for your legal name and to show your ID.

On the day the law was passed, there were some articles about it on some of the independent news sites the country still has. There are only have a handful of those and the number is shrinking every day. Foreign media outlets covered it, too. It made it into The Guardian and The New York Times to name a few.

The UN said, hey, don’t do it, and the European Union said, hey, don’t do it, and activist groups said, hey, really don’t do it, because not only is this inhumane, it literally goes against the very constitution that you wrote.

Then it got quiet again.

Hungarian advocacy groups are still fighting and I respect and cherish them for it, but we know that it’s almost impossible that anything will actually change.

Trans people, though, we are resourceful

At uni, I prepared a standard email that I sent out to all my professors before classes began so they knew of the situation. At the post office, I just lie that I’m picking up a package for my brother.

Many trans people change their name to names that are really uncommon in Hungary and sound gender-neutral. But eventually you run out of resourcefulness. Because when you have to be ‘resourceful’ all the damn time, do you know what you become? Tired. Burnt out.

I’m one of the luckiest ones here. I’m well-educated, speak fluent English, have a supportive family and had the chance to move to Budapest a couple years ago. My job-hunt might have been a bit longer because I’m trans, but I did manage to find a job at a multinational company where I’m respected and where me not using my legal name is not an issue.

I hear stories from trans people every day. Some are not allowed to use the changing rooms or restrooms they want. Some employers mandate that the name on their entry cards or email addresses has to be their deadname for “legal” reasons. I, myself, said no to a job because the HR person insisted that my name in the company email would have to be my deadname. To this day, I still don’t understand why they thought that me sending out emails under a woman’s name, then calling the same people with my very definitely male voice would not confuse clients.

LGBTQ+ people are the perfect scapegoats for Viktor Orbán and we will remain so for the foreseeable future. Although we might as well call it LGB people now, because on paper and in legislation, trans people simply do not exist in Hungary.

The only places that are still loud about these issues are the trans groups on social media. They are shouting one main question: Where to now?

Posts about how to move to Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Canada and so on filled the groups after the law was passed. Information about immigration, the requirements of getting a citizenship, the cost of living, and trans health care were posted and shared. Pros and cons were weighed and discussed.

Should I move to Germany where I’d need to live for at least 6 years before I can get a citizenship and then change my name? Or should I move to Austria which is closer to home but requires 10 years in most cases to get a citizenship?

What’s more important to me – my family and friends that I’ve had for 25 years or that maybe one day, in the far away future I might be able to become a father myself? (Alongside not allowing legal name and gender changes, Hungary has also passed a law that makes adoption only available to married couples – and you guessed it, equal marriage does not and has never existed in Hungary.)

Paragraph 33 was passed over two years ago. Most of us are still here, I think, but I believe that after Orbán won his fourth election in a row this April (by a landslide), more of us will be leaving very soon.

As I’ve said, I’m one of the privileged ones. I found a job. I have a supportive family. I will be able to leave if I choose to. But if I do, I know I will feel a bit like a failure (even though I know I shouldn’t). I’ll be abandoning a sinking ship with all those people left behind who don’t have a chance to leave this country.

I know trans people are facing challenges everywhere too. I see the rhetoric in the UK, I see the laws in the US, and I watch in shock that this is also happening in countries I always considered to be more developed and democratic than Hungary.

I also can’t offer any happy endings here, because I know first-hand that your rights can be taken away within minutes, and I think trans people all over the world are starting to realise that.

So, stay resourceful, take care of yourselves and keep sharing your stories from all over the world. Because we might not exist on paper, but believe me, we’re still here.

Alex Tóth
Alex is a trans writer from Hungary. When he’s not working on the next Great Hungarian Novel, he enjoys watching hockey, buying way too many plants and spoiling his sausage dog.

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