The night before Budapest’s LGBT Pride march, the tension was real. Annual LGBT Pride festivals have been held no fewer than 14 times in this Eastern European city, but in 2007 and 2008, marchers were verbally and physically attacked by counter-demonstrators—skinheads and far-right extremists—and assaulted with eggs, firecrackers and petrol bombs. Riot police used water cannons and tear gas to separate rioters from marchers and detained 45 people. At least eight people were wounded in the clashes, including two policemen. Demonstrators charged that police were not adequately prepared and had not provided enough protection.

This year, march organizers were buoyed by an amazing video message from U.S. celebrity Whoopi Goldberg and a statement of support signed by 13 foreign embassies, including South Africa and the United States—two countries often conspicuously silent on international LGBT issues. A representative of the Dutch Gay and Lesbian Police Officers’ Association, who was coincidentally staying at the same guesthouse as me, had come a few days earlier to train Hungarian LGBT leadership on responding to hate crimes during a Pride march.

I woke up early on the morning of the march, wanting to be alert and prepared for whatever the day might hold. I walked the length of the march corridor, watching workers set up two-meter tall fencing along the whole route. Hundreds of policemen, in full Kevlar riot gear and gas masks, were deploying along the main maarch route and the side streets feeding onto Andrassy Street, one of Budapest’s main boulevards.

The march was scheduled to start at 1 pm. The organizers—Rainbow Pride Hungary—recommended that children, people with disabilities and the elderly not attend the march for their own safety. The crowd seemed small at the starting site. Fewer than 200 of us milled about in a small space between the fences that had been set up in the impressive Hösök Ter (Heroes Square). Hungarian activists had chosen the starting site and the march route to forge a historical connection to the heroes of the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet domination. The nervousness in the small crowd was palpable—a balloon popped and everyone jumped. But the crowd was nothing if not committed and there was a sense of determination and maybe just a bit of the stoic realism for which Eastern Europe is famous.

The march stepped off fashionably late. But by 1:30 the ubiquitously unflappable club anthems were booming from huge speakers on the lead truck and we were marching. The crowd had swelled to 2,000 by the time we were a third of the way down the march corridor. I was proud (and relieved) to be marching side-by-side with Juris Lavrikovs of Latvia, and Paata Sabelashvili, of Georgia, two gay men who are on the staff and board (respectively) of ILGA-Europe. In addition to being lovely, committed, sophisticated activists, these guys were also a lot of fun to spend the day with. ILGA-Europe is a tremendously important organization, based in Brussels and providing support to the LGBT movement in Europe.

A scene from Budapest Gay Pride 2009. Photo by Cary Alan Johnson, IGLHRC.
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As the march moved through the streets of Budapest, I learned the importance of the term “throwing distance.” The police had established the march corridor so that anti-gay demonstrators were corralled on the side streets, at all times at least a city block from the marchers. I had to strain to hear their taunts. Some gay men I met later at the guest house told me that the demonstrators numbered no more than 200, seemed disorganized and aimless, and that their taunts seemed less directed at the LGBT community than at some nameless, faceless threat to Hungarian nationalism. The media reported that anti-gay demonstrators burned a rainbow flag, and several dozen were arrested for disorderly conduct during the course of the day. One British national was reported to have been attacked by skinheads.

The police seemed committed to ensuring that the violence of previous years would not be repeated. But for most of the activists that I met, there was a sense that while the security was appreciated, we had been cut off from the rest of the city. We may have been out of the closet, but we weren’t necessarily in the streets. One of the goals of LGBT Pride should be increased visibility—that’s the difference between a Gay Pride march, which invites, cajoles and demands a political interaction from spectators, and a Gay Pride parade, which is mainly a celebration of pride and done for our own self-actualization and enjoyment.

But still the march was great. At 49, I thought I’d lost my gusto for the very special ping that comes from marching down the middle of a street and claiming my queerness in the company of my fellows. There’s still something wildly empowering about it. Special recognition must go to some of our steadfast allies. Amnesty International’s delegation was strong and visible, as was the Hungarian Humanist Movement. For the most part, these two groups are key allies of the LGBT movement worldwide.

The march ended in a small park called Diak Ter, and again the organizers wisely decided to not hold a big rally or party that could have ultimately become a target for skinheads intent on finding an outlet for misdirected anger. Instead, dozens of well-trained volunteers carefully dispersed the crowd toward public transportation hubs. Katherine Fobear, a very cool young American from Detroit, who is studying lesbian social anthropology in Amsterdam and had come to Hungary for Pride, informed me that a lesbian volunteer had been one of the few casualties of the day. Three skinheads caught this woman, still wearing her Pride T-shirt, on her way to the train and assaulted her. We’re trying to get in touch with Labrisz, the Hungarian lesbian group (www.labrisz.hu) to get more information on her well-being.

My friend from the Dutch LGBT police officer’s association suggested that while the Hungarian police had done a good job, more effective crowd control techniques would have enabled them to contain the protesters rather than the marchers, while still maintaining order and security. Perhaps the relative success of this year’s march will allow both the organizers and the police to feel more secure about their ability to protect the marchers when they are in closer proximity to their opponents. Maybe next year the march can be a more interactive dialog between LGBT people, our supporters, and the small minority still obsessed with shouting down freedom.