In Europe, Pride Is a Key Political Barometer. Budapest’s Was Safe, at Times Even Joyful. 

People take part in the annual Pride march in Budapest, Hungary, July 11, 2015.

Photo by Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

BUDAPEST, Hungary—When Pride marchers had filled Elizabeth Bridge, the people walking in the front, on the Buda side, released hundreds of multicolored balloons, and the thousands of participants let out a happy cheer. I realized it was the first such cheer I had heard since the march began two hours earlier. “You see, it’s a hybrid,” said Katalin Orban, a media studies professor at Budapest University, who marched with her partner, Zsofia Ban, a professor of American studies and a prominent Hungarian fiction and essay writer. “It’s not like Moscow or Kiev, but it’s not like Vienna, either—it’s not a celebration.”

Something odd has happened in Europe in the last few years: The continent’s political dividing line seems to have become defined by the way the Pride march proceeds there—if it proceeds at all. In Moscow, an attempt to stage Pride in May was punished with beatings and jailings. In Kiev, Ukraine, in June, the police failed to adequately protect marchers, some of whom were beaten (several police officers were also injured). Later in June, police used water canons to disperse the Pride march in Istanbul, Turkey.

In the eastern part of the continent, people seem to have come to see Pride as the ultimate measure of a country’s European-ness. The European Court of Human Rights has ordered Moscow to allow its Pride parades to proceed, and Moscow responded by banning them for the next 100 years. In Ukraine, which hopes to join the European Union, the president has said that marching in Pride is a constitutional right. And while Turkey, which isn’t a member of the EU, bashes Pride, a socially conservative EU member like Poland ensures that it has become a fairly unremarkable festival. But Hungary, run by a right-wing government that many local intellectuals believe can fully be called neo-Nazi, is an outlier in the European Union—and Pride has become a good annual indicator of its political fluctuations.

In 2006, a longstanding struggle between the right-wing Fidesz party and Hungary’s then-ruling liberal democrats and socialists spilled into the streets, with violent protests and riots in Budapest. The following year, the police allowed Pride, along with a right-wing counterprotest, which was allowed to march on the same central avenue as the LGBTQ demonstrators. When the two columns of marchers met in a square, the police managed to avert a violent confrontation, but Pride participants who reached the square later were attacked as they left the event. What had for a dozen years been a small, peaceful celebration turned into a site of violent political struggle.

Over the following few years, the police worked out strategies for avoiding bloodshed. One year, they asked Pride participants to travel to and from the march only by subway; they then shut down several stations along the way, to ensure people would not be attacked as they came and left. Katalin Orban recalled that the march felt particularly embattled that year.

Counterprotesters would turn up by the hundreds, usually dressed in black and wearing heavy black boots. One year, they tossed a strong-smelling substance at the marchers, apparently so they could be identified in other parts of town later in the day and beaten. The police began clearing the march route of spectators entirely, erecting a solid cordon, and forbidding anyone to join along the route.

Pride organizers responded by working to normalize the event by attracting corporations, straight allies, and gay celebrities. Two years ago, Zsofia Ban gave a moving speech at the opening of the festival, imploring LGBTQ Hungarians to come out publicly, focusing especially on one of the country’s most prominent theater directors, Robert Alfoldi. The speech was apparently affecting and effective: A number of prominent Hungarians have publicly come out since, and this year, it was Alfoldi who spoke at the opening.

The person who recounted the speech to me was Richard Schuster, Google’s communications manager for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Schuster is one of the founders of WeAreOpen, an effort to attract corporations to lend public support to Budapest Pride and to march in the parade. This year, about 100 companies, large and small, joined the march. These included multinationals like Google, Microsoft, and IBM, and Hungarian tech companies that have made it big, like Prezi and Ustream. Schuster talks in communications-officer speak, repeatedly invoking “synergies,” but the point of the campaign is clear: A little commercialization can be a very good thing for Pride.

WeAreOpen participants milled in Prezi’s lovely courtyard, eating pizza and drinking good Hungarian rosé, before setting off for the march. Two successive security gates were set up on Budapest’s historic Andrassy Street, one intended to ensure people entered in small groups, the other involving a bag check. It was very mild security by the standards of a city like Moscow, but unusual for Budapest. This year, police set up cordons on side streets a block away from the march route. This meant that, unlike last year, the marchers did not walk through a tunnel of police in riot gear. But it also meant that spectators were too far away to see anything. This march was a statement, not a spectacle.

The gathering place, in front of the opera house, stank of excrement. Shit had apparently been strewn along the bottoms of the trees that line Andrassy Street. This was a milder form of the tactics of Moscow’s self-proclaimed Orthodox activists, who consistently throw human waste at LGBTQ demonstrators.

This year, for the first time, organizers asked Pride participants to come in identifiable groups. “I think it’s to provide a link to everyday life,” suggested Katalin Orban. “To show that we are not just gay, doing our homosexual thing full-time.”

The groups were few: a homeless contingent; parents, former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and his people, Christians for Gays, the liberal Hungarian Dialogue Party, and perhaps a dozen more. The former prime minister’s appearance affirmed Budapest Pride’s odd status as an annual opposition demonstration. But as one of the organizers, using a megaphone, announced the small contingents as they passed, Ban quipped, “It’s like a May Day parade, with all the trade unions from different cities.” The effect was amplified by tiny rainbow flags virtually everyone suddenly seemed to be carrying: They were the exact size of the individual red May Day flags from our childhoods.

A couple of years ago, one of the counterprotesters burned a rainbow flag. But this year things were calm. A group of about 30 men tried to break through the police barrier when the marchers were walking along the Danube, but they were easily turned back. “That’s half as many as last year, and 1 percent of what we had in ’07 and ’08,” one of the organizers, a 30-year-old human rights lawyer named David Vig, told me. The count for the march itself was, according to the organizers, 20,000—twice the number from the year before. “I think we’ve reached critical mass of people and corporations,” said Vig. All 20,000 were instructed to use a single street to leave the march—all other routes were sealed by police—and to use one of three buses or a tram to travel home.

One reason Pride may have been so peaceful, said Vig, was that Jobbik, a nationalist party even further to the right than ruling Fidesz, was taking this year off from inciting violence against Pride It’s a tactic universal to the part of Europe where Pride is dangerous: Politicians call on thugs to disrupt LGBTQ events, implicitly or explicitly promising impunity. This year Jobbik, which has its eyes set on the next election, may be repositioning itself as a more mainstream party and is therefore temporarily toning down its rhetoric.

“I think also Justice Kennedy’s decision and the Facebook rainbow campaign were helpful,” added Vig. This sounds a bit fanciful—to suggest that politicians who position themselves as rabidly anti-American would be influenced by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court—but it also seems to be true. Something similar has happened in Russia, where a few prominent figures seem to have dialed down their homophobia slightly when talking about the decision. Even in Russia, America is perceived as the world’s political mainstream, so a major event in the United States can subtly shift the conversation.

Indeed, a couple of activists suggested that the American marriage decision may be the reason Fidesz appears to have delayed the announcement of a major new campaign focused on promoting “traditional family values.” This government has based its rhetoric and policies on “traditional values” and the Catholic Church, which it has even written into the country’s constitution. It has also edged ever closer to Russia, which, in turn, views Hungary as the western frontier of its imagined “traditional values civilization.” But a Pride march of 20,000, protected by the police and assaulted only by some crappy smells, would be unimaginable in Russia or any of its closer allies. Then again, back in the Soviet era, Hungary had the reputation of “the funnest barracks in the socialist camp.”