The LGBTI locals will give you a sense of cautious optimism that Budapest is gay-friendly.
But caution is still key in the capital of Hungary, which has only had a democracy for 30 years. Hundreds of years of oppressive empire rule – where it was not easy to be openly gay – hangs over the current generation.
The Soviet Union most recently ruled until it collapsed in 1991. In 2019, the country has a conservative government pushing a religious ‘traditional family’ agenda. Young Budapest locals are ready to shake this image off, but Parliament is not.
Budapest does have a growing band of LGBTI bars, and night clubs though, as well as community hubs and cafes. The city’s pride festival is growing year on year – but the government has been restricting its size.
But some people are ready to let the rainbow shine over the city. Pink Budapest, who also run the city’s LGBT magazine Humen, want to bring in the global LGBTI community to help this scene thrive.
Because right now, it remains hidden just beyond the main drags. It has all the signs that with the right support, it could come bursting out of the alleys.
I was told ‘there is no gay history’ – but that’s wrong
One way to get lost in the beautiful backstreets is with a guide.
We went around the historic Jewish district with Fungarian guide Miklos. It’s home to the first vision of Zionism, the concept of a Jewish state which Israel was formed to achieve.
The area is now home to Budapest’s famous ‘Ruin bars.’ They are now popular with western tourists seeking a boozy holiday. But they were formed by young Budapest locals who reclaimed derelict buildings. [‘Young Budapest locals looked to reclaim the derelict sections of their city, so rather than expensive renovations they simply made the dilapidation part of their aesthetic. The result is something cooler-than-cool – and a place boozy westerners have claimed as their own’ – something along those lines, makes the sentence active instead of recounting].
Miklos, an older gay man, becomes the first of many LGBT people on my trip to the city to point how gay people are ‘normal’ here; ‘not outrageous.’ However, he does insist there was ‘no gay history here [in Budapest].’
‘Being gay was not punished under communism,’ Miklos tells me. ‘It was discreetly tolerated.’
I push Miklos though, as he isn’t being completely forthright with the facts.
‘You’d never admit to being gay during this time. Not because it was illegal, but it would be used against you if you ever became a problem to the state.
‘Caught by the wrong Soviet officer in the cruising area between embankment and Elizabeth Bridge, and you could end up being arrested.’
He tells us this outside the Ritz hotel building, where he jokes that he was lucky enough to stay overnight once.
But that’s because it was once the Soviet Union police station – an architectural irony so many of the buildings in Budapest share. Miklos was held overnight after being arrested near the gay cruising area for not having his ID.
They released without charge in the morning, I can’t help but wonder if every gay or bi cruiser was as lucky.
Actually, Budapest’s LGBTI history is rich
The fact the city had a cruising area is proof enough of a gay history to me. But, digging a little deeper, I uncovered so much more.
Budapest was home to Károly Kertbeny who first coined the terms homosexual and heterosexual. Kertbeny was also friends with Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a pioneer of gay rights who came out in the 19th century, demanding an end to anti-sodomy laws in Hungary.
Indeed, Hungary’s rich language is arguably queer to its very core. It has no gender pronouns, : literal translations refer to everyone as they/them.
Similar to the reason Italy and Rome are full of Mussolini’s grandiose buildings, Budapest is a city that does not fail to remember its previous regimes.’
‘Momento Park’ is home to its communist history, to remind Hungarians of the importance of democracy – even if they are living in a country where the media is once again heavily controlled. It’s found just a short drive out of the city. I visited with the tour guides ‘Rainbowlink Budapest who took me in their communist era ‘Trabant’ car.
The memories of communism are fresh here
Hungarian history is a story of oppression and liberation. Hungarians fought off the Turks, Austro Hungarians, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in its recent history, and the scars from these battles are reflected in the monuments across the city.
Budapest’s Liberty statue, that towers over the rolling hills that sit either side of the Danube, splitting the Buda and Pest side of this city.
Its most recent change was to remove the Soviet Red Star and replace it with a Palm Leaf to symbolize peace after the Soviet Union fell.
It’s from this statue, where you can see why the UNESCO World Heritage protected the view of this beautiful city. The heritage status protects the city’s skyline from having any new build towering higher than Budapest’s exquisite government building or the main cathedral, St Stephen’s Basilica.
Architectural rules also mean no building can have the same facade as another, so every surface is unique.
While it’s important to soak up the history on the ground, the most valuable piece of advice I received from the locals here was: spend your time in the city looking up as you wind through its cobbled streets.
The LGBTI and gay scene in Budapest
The gay nightlife might not be extensive, but hidden in this historic city are pockets of LGBTI queerness.
Dotted through the city are, what the locals call, ‘gay-friendly bars.’
But the true home of the local LGBTI night scene is Alter Ego. An all-singing, all-dancing explosion of drag queens and gayness.
If you want karaoke, relaxed vibes or some food with your queer vibes? My favorite LGBT community spot was the Why Not cafe and bar. I felt safe in here: The room was full of smiles, with older and younger generations mixing. A true community vibe lost in so many other cities.
Omoh – aka ‘homo’ spelled backward – is the gay techno party hosted once every two months which is very popular with the gay and bi male scene in the city. Garçons is another popular night. You’ll also find the wider LGBT community hanging out at Vibe.
Obviously, if you’re going to Budapest, you’ll have to seek out some homo-eroticism in the city’s famous thermal baths and spas. Both Gellért inside the city, and Széchenyi Thermal Bath just a short tube or bus to the city park, which has huge outdoor pools.
But cruising is not necessarily something you’ll find acceptable here. Though the locals know it happens at all the baths. If you’re looking for male on male cruising, Szauna 69 is your spot.
Don’t expect many rainbow flags in gay Budapest
You can also visit one of the many venues, restaurants, and bars owned by local gay entrepreneur Hubert Hlatky Schlichter. The philanthropist is a figure at the heart of the community, who organized the city’s vigil to the Orlando Massacre.
His Beef Bar and Kiosk restaurants are divine both in the food on offer and lavish decor. When we eat at Kisosk, the gay cult movie ‘Some Like It Hot’ was blasting out and projected on the huge wall in the restaurant. The vast space could easily, and often is, turned into a party space. But the way this queer aspect to his venue was just a backdrop was telling.
Hubert and his husband recently appeared, in a brave public move, on the front of the local LGBT Humen magazine.
So go to Hubert’s exquisite venues, knowing he believes the LGBTI community just wants and should be seen as ‘normal.’
‘I don’t think we need gay bars because everyone should be equal.’
Hubert, as he’s known locally, recently opened Tutu. It even hosts a raunchier kink vibe too if their sexy Instagram account is anything to go by.
But know when I went, we struggled to gain entry as international members of the LGBTI press. Then when Hubert arrived and overturned his staff’s actions, we entered to what felt like a school disco.
Men hovered on the right and women lingered on the left.
The vast cavern between them was filled only one man commenting on ‘how many fags were in tonight.’
Speaking to Hubert inside, he defended the lack of usual LGBTI bar rainbow paraphernalia by saying:
‘I don’t think we need gay bars, because everyone should be equal.’
It’s a telling quote of where the community is right now. They hide in plain sight, with no plans to irritate or, to coin a recent UK politicians phrase, ‘expose’ themselves as different.
The locals crave the acceptance of being deemed ‘normal’.
But I left Budapest wondering if hiding is stopping LGBTI Hungarians from truly being accepted.