Remarks of Ambassador David Pressman, Budapest Pride Opening Event

Remarks of Ambassador David Pressman – as delivered

Budapest Pride Opening Event 

June 16, 2023 

Kristály Színtér, Margitsziget


Distinguished elected officials, members of the diplomatic corps, brave advocates, what an honor it is to stand before you today as the Ambassador of the United States – alongside my partner Daniel, having just celebrated our 22nd anniversary – to applaud your bravery, recognize your achievements, reflect on the challenges ahead, and reaffirm the United States’ support for your efforts to advance human dignity and the fundamental human rights of all Hungarians.  And, of course, to also wish you a very Happy Pride.   

Szabadság, szerelem. These are powerful Hungarian words.  Words whose meaning resonate far beyond any dictionary definition.  Words that express fundamental, universal values.  Freedom and love. 

Freedom and love.  Szabadság és szerelem. That little extra word is important.  Because no one should be forced to choose between the two.  We do not live in a binary world:  Freedom or love.  Love or freedom.  We deserve – we have the fundamental right – to both.   

I would like to speak this evening about freedom.  And I would like to speak tonight about love.  But I cannot speak about them without first speaking of hate. 

The sad and somber truth is that as we assemble here today LGBT people are under attack in countries around the world, including in Hungary.   

Perhaps this is driven by ignorance.  Or hate.  Or fear.  Or, perhaps its driven by cynicism and expediency.    

To believe that homophobic vitriol and policies may be born, not from conviction, but from opportunism does nothing to mitigate their harm.  But it does tell us something about intentions.  Preying on the vulnerable to stir up hatred, to rally supporters, to augment poll numbers is nothing new in this country – or in my own – but the consequences on the psyche and health of individuals, families, communities, and of nations, are real and devastating.   

Hungary is a beautifully diverse country filled with Hungarians who have always, and will always, define themselves in conversation with their history as well as their own hearts, their own souls, and their own god.  And that is precisely why this country is home to gay Hungarians, lesbian Hungarians, bisexual Hungarians, transgender Hungarians, and intersex Hungarians — as is true of every country around the world.   

This is neither the product of cultural imperialism nor the export of a decadent West.  It is simply a fact, here as everywhere.  It is a Hungarian reality.   

The truth is that there are Hungarian kids today struggling with who they are and who they love.  They yearn to be proud of themselves, proud of their country, and proud to build their future within it.  And it is also a truth that they are often told – through laws and statements of their political leaders and their media megaphones – that they have something to hide.   

That they should not be proud of themselves.  That their country is not proud of them.  And that they have no future in Hungary.   

That they are, somehow, not actually Hungarian; when they are. 

That they don’t exist; when they do.   

That they are invented; when they are made in God’s image.   

That their identity is the product of propaganda, when in fact it comes from their own beating Hungarian heart.   

Hungarians are fiercely independent, sophisticated, and intelligent people, and rightfully proud of their rich culture and history.  No matter how many government-produced posters of “Brussels” bombs may be emblazoned around town at any given moment, the reality is Hungary is not under “attack” by outside forces, or vulnerable to a “liberal virus” or “western decadence,” or cowering before George Soros, or at the mercy of omnipotent conspiratorial powers.  No, the reality is something far simpler. 

The story of Hungary, including its movement for equality, is one being written not by foreigners, but by Hungarians.   

Not by them, but by you.   

Not by people abroad, but by the people in this room.   

It is not fictional.  It is a true story that is rich, resonant, and real. 

And the United States supports you as you write that story, and in your effort to advance human dignity.   

While the news should report this truthful story factually.  I can already read the headlines Minister Rogán’s team is dictating for tomorrow’s papers.  No doubt I’ll be accused of staging provocations, of importing Western wokeness and foisting obscene values while meddling in Hungary’s domestic affairs.   

What won’t happen is any of the government’s captured and controlled media outlets printing this speech in full.  What they’ll cut out – what they always cut out – is the fact that it is Hungarians who believe in these universal human rights, and it is Hungarians leading the fight for them.   

What they’ll cut out is all of you.  

But they should print this speech, because tonight is different.  While the government-controlled media would have you believe these topics are all I talk about, in fact this is the first speech I have given here on LGBT rights.  As I approach my one-year anniversary here — having spent much of the year focusing on other issues of strategic importance to our two countries — they should print what I am actually saying about this topic rather than what they portray.  They should print it in full.  I dare them. 

But no matter what the government-controlled media will or will not print, no matter what it does or does not say, it cannot distract from one simple, undeniable fact:  Hungary made its choice.   

Hungary chose to be part of the West.   

It is Hungary and Hungarians who chose to join the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the European Union and to uphold their bedrock principles.   

It is Hungary and Hungarians who chose – 25 years ago next year – to join NATO, and who pledged to uphold our shared security as part of a community of democratic values.   

It is Hungary and Hungarians who in 2003 — 20 years ago — passed the Act on Equal Treatment and the Promotion of Equal Opportunities, which forbids discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.    

In short, Hungary made a choice, and it is a choice Hungarians should be proud of – and most are – and a choice that should be honored.  A firm, unequivocal, and prideful declaration of Hungary’s identity and place – in Europe, in NATO, in the West.  A choice to move away from an era of oppression and repression – and towards an era of freedom and, dare I say, love.   

Szabadság és szerelem.

Hungarians chose freedom and love because they had lived the opposite.  I recently walked through Budapest’s House of Terror Museum.  Among its most haunting elements is the depiction of government efforts to turn Hungarians into informants against other Hungarians, neighbors against neighbors, brothers against brothers, and parents against their own children –-families against themselves — and all in service of oppression… and of empowering the few at the expense of the many.   

It is impossible not to see echoes of this in your Parliament’s vote earlier this year to encourage neighbors to report to the authorities their gay neighbors raising children.  Turning neighbor on neighbor conjures a dark past of covert agents and informants, of fear and betrayal, in this country and this region that I do not need to recount.  You have a museum for that.  While this legislation did not become law, the fact it was ever considered let alone supported by this government and passed by the legislature is chilling.   

Sadly, this proposal is not unique; others became and remain law.  Laws prohibiting “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” were adopted by Russia in 2013.  These Russian laws found a new home here in Hungary eight years later – like a virus spreading- when the government adopted laws to forbid “educational programs aimed at the promotion of …homosexuality.”  And this law remains in force today.  And – in both Russia and in Hungary – the crackdowns on discourse related to gayness were preceded and accompanied by a closing of space for independent institutions and civil society.   

History teaches us that when governments start discriminating against one group – whether for who they love or what they believe, their politics or their race, or the color of their skin – others are usually not far behind.   

And it teaches us clearly what can happen when we fail to speak out and stand up to these laws and policies as soon as they infect our democracies.   

It begins with innocent-sounding laws to protect the children.   

But then we are asked to report on our neighbors, our friends, our families. 

Ghettos of the mind, ghettos in our politics – and ultimately ghettos in our communities – are built brick-by-brick by steps like these, by those who lead and those who enable them.  The silence of many is mortar sealing our fates.   

Good people who believe in their bones “never again” must never forget how it begins, how yellow stars shone alongside pink triangles in the eerily silent twilight hours of what soon became the darkest night.   

The path to the unthinkable isn’t built over night.  It is taken step-by-step, and it is paved with hate, opportunism, and complicity.  Not only the overt steps – adopting laws that target insular minorities – but quiet ones:  dog whistles, insinuations, and, of course, the silence of too many.   

We should learn from that history, and heed Prime Minister Orbán’s powerful words on International Holocaust Remembrance Day a decade ago, when he said, “We shall protect the country’s every citizen and know no compromise in this regard.  We shall not tolerate and strongly condemn the stigmatizing of minorities in any form.”  I agree with the Prime Minister’s words.  We should all live up to them.    

Both here, and in my home country, when opportunists target LGBT persons with laws that challenge their dignity, undermine their humanity, and compromise universal values, it is a test of whether our institutions are able to uphold fundamental rights and individual liberties, whether citizens – even, indeed especially, the most powerless minorities – can hold their powerful government accountable to their own commitments.  The struggle for human dignity is, like democracy itself, not a destination but a process.   

So, as I said, I would like to speak only about freedom and love.  I do.  But sometimes that is not possible, and sometimes – in places like Hungary and Russia – it may not even be lawful.   

One of the best parts of my job is the chance to travel throughout this country, and speak with Hungarians young and old, the privileged and the powerless.  I especially like speaking with students – high school, university, graduate students.  Nobody will tell you the truth like a fifteen-year-old.   

I ask many questions of students, and I always encourage them to ask me questions, too.  I tell them nothing is off limits.   

One day, at a high school in the countryside, a student raised his hand and asked, “What is it like to be an out gay Ambassador in Hungary?”   

About midway through my response, I paused.  Not for lack of words.  But because while I was speaking, I heard another voice in the back of my head.  And that voice was trying to figure out whether by answering this high school student’s question was I also violating Hungarian law. 

Here I was, the representative of the President of the United States of America in Hungary, and I was questioning what I was allowed to say.  About myself.  Whether answering this earnest student’s question was I also violating Hungarian law. 

This is the devious power of such laws.  It isn’t merely what a government may do to censor and restrict speech.  It is the silence left behind because people are too afraid to speak up in the first place.  It is that even earnest questions and truthful answers, really are off limits. 

Democracy is when you have the right, if you wish, to say whatever you are thinking.  Authoritarianism is when you stop yourself from saying what you are thinking, because you are worried that if you don’t, someone else will.  Or that it could cost you your freedom.  

Hungarians have lived through authoritarianism.  They know what that feels like, because they have experienced it.  And they know this system of repression runs on fear and hate.  And they know, because they experienced it, that real democracy runs on freedom and love.  That’s why they picked it.  And that’s why they’ll defend it.  

I speak to you tonight because I believe there is more freedom and love in the world – and in Hungary – than there is fear and hate.  I regularly introduce myself as an optimist – often an unexpected laugh line in Hungary.  But I am optimistic about Hungary and Hungarians.  I’m optimistic, fundamentally, because I can be with you here tonight.   

There will always be hate and fear in the world.  There will always be those that would rather divide than unite, tear down rather than build up.   

But here’s the thing:  I’m an optimist because I know that those of us that choose freedom and love are stronger than those who choose hate and fear.  We are stronger because we fight for something better, something good, something worthy, something just, and the United States of America will always be on that side, and by your side in this righteous struggle.  

I am clear-eyed about the challenges we face, but I am honored to be here among you tonight, at the start of this month of celebration.  Not just to talk about freedom, or to talk about love.  But to speak with you, together, unflinchingly about freedom and love. 

Szabadság és szerelem.

Thank you.