BUDAPEST -- On a chilly March Sunday, Turbina, a nightclub in downtown Budapest, is already heaving -- and it's only 4 o'clock in the afternoon. As 1980s pop blasts out, partygoers wearing heavy makeup and costumes adorned with sequins and neon, strut, pose, and dance along a makeshift runway. This isn't a fashion show, but Hungary's biggest "vogue ball," a banner event in the country's ballroom scene and a mecca for many in the LGBT community.
A distant, more glamorous cousin to traditional ballroom dancing, the modern ballroom scene is exploding in Hungary. And with the country seeing a regression on LGBT rights in recent years, Hungary's LGBT community has found a much-needed safe space in the ballroom scene, which for many has become a home away from home.
It isn't easy being LGBT in Hungary right now. On the same day as April 3 elections that could unseat long-time right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungarians will vote in a government-initiated referendum ostensibly on "child protection," but which has been slammed by rights groups for being anti-LGBT.
The streets of Hungary's capital, Budapest, are lined with political campaign ads showing a woman hugging a baby. The ad, from the Fidesz-dominated government, reads "Let's Protect Our Children," a not-so-subtle reference to the LGBT community, who the government has said would force queer propaganda and gender reassignments on children.
"This is unjustified, false, misleading," says Lilla Hubsch, a petite transgender woman with luscious long hair and square glasses. She is taking a vogue class at a studio in the trendy downtown area near Budapest's Nyugati railway station a few days before the ball. "Being transgender in Hungary now feels like being a punching bag that the government put out for people to hit," Hubsch says.
In power for over a decade, Orban and Fidesz have been accused by critics of dismantling democratic institutions, trashing judicial independence, taking control of the media, and being hostile toward Muslim migrants and people from the LGBT community.
Already a dancer, Hubsch discovered vogue in 2019. Emerging from the ballroom scene, vogue includes highly stylized moves inspired by the exaggerated femininity seen in fashion magazines and runways.
"From then, my self-acceptance, my self-image, and my relationship with my body changed completely," she says. "And this is due to vogue and ballroom." For Hubsch, vogue is not just a dance style, it's also a community that "does not disappear when we step out of the door."
Growing up in rural Hungary, Hubsch studied drama in high school and came out as a woman in her final year. Her mother and brother didn't take the news well, she has said in an earlier interview, although her friends and classmates were supportive.
It was after moving to Budapest in 2019 that she started vogue classes. "We used to do it in our dormitory room. But that was just miming," she says.
Constantly "updating myself," art has had a significant role in Hubsch's life. "I'm trying to improve in contemporary dance, that's what my life is about besides ballroom. My jobs are just so I can finance my life and progression," she says. In the daytime, Hubsch works in a fast-fashion store and on the weekends, in a night club.
Now, Hubsch says, her close family accepts and supports her, while her wider family is still trying to get to grips with the idea that she is trans. "I'm lucky," she says, "because even if they don't agree with me on things, they are not trying to suppress me."
Furnished with colorful lights and mirrors from floor to ceiling, Koni Racz is teaching Hubsch's beginner class at the dance studio. A stunning 25-year-old with long hair and a French bulldog that follows her around the room, Racz is one of the most prominent people in the Hungarian vogue community. Originally from Szeged, a town in southern Hungary, she has competed in various international vogue events.
After a brief warm-up, Racz, who identifies as pansexual, tells the dance students about the history of the ballroom scene. It became popular across U.S. cities in the 1970s mainly with black and Latino drag queens who sometimes faced prejudice even within the LGBT community. The vogue craze entered the mainstream after the 1990 cult documentary Paris Is Burning and Madonna's black-and-white music video, Vogue.
"Find yourself in vogueing," Racz tells her students as they start to improvise. "That is what's most important: discovering yourself in these movements."
Racz practices what she preaches, and vogue has become an important part of her identity. "In my previous relationship, we fought a lot about vogue, how it was more important for me than the relationship," she says. "But I have a strong personality, so he didn't get very far, the poor thing."
For Hungary's LGBT community, the ballroom scene is about more than just self-expression -- it's about staying safe.
"If we went to a heterosexual nightclub or if people would see us on the street, bad things could happen," Racz says. "But we try to protect each other and the community, so we perform in safe places, often gay bars."
Bad things, like in June 2021, when two gay doctors in Pecs, a city in southern Hungary, were beaten in a homophobic attack. Or in July last year, when there was an attempted attack on a Budapest apartment that was displaying a rainbow flag in its window.
According to a 2019 study, 22 percent of Hungarian LGBT students have endured physical abuse, and 82 percent have experienced verbal abuse, yet only one-third reported these incidents to their teachers, parents, or other adults.
Members of the LGBT community are concerned that the April 3 referendum will only serve to demonize them even more. The four referendum questions being asked of Hungarian voters concern the teaching of LGBT issues in schools and have been criticized for stigmatizing the LGBT community by implying that they try to force ideologies on children.
"These questions are invalid and insensate," says Johanna Majercsik, a spokesperson and board member of Budapest Pride, which is among 11 Hungarian organizations urging voters to give invalid answers to the referendum questions.
In recent years, Hungary has adopted laws that have been widely criticized as homophobic and transphobic, including the abolition of legal recognition for trans people in May 2020 and a de facto ban on adoption for same-sex couples in December 2020.
Most controversially, legislative amendments adopted in June 2021 provoked huge criticism within Hungary and an unprecedented outcry internationally, with many German soccer teams illuminating their stadiums with rainbow colors during the UEFA European Football Championship.
The amendments approved by parliament, which Prime Minister Orban has said would protect children and families, restrict the distribution of media and educational materials showing "diversion from one's biological sex, change of gender, [and] propagating or portraying homosexuality." Tacked onto a law on protecting children, critics of the amendments have said they conflate queerness with pedophilia. Under fire from the European Union, Orban's government is hoping to legitimize the amendments with a high level of popular support in the upcoming referendum.
"This law and the referendum make homophobia and transphobia presentable," Majercsik says. "Those who have already been hostile to the community, feel entitled to verbally abuse someone on the street or spit on them."
As afternoon turns into evening, the Sunday ball is the biggest one yet. The contestants wear formal dresses, aerobic suits, with many of the garments either vintage or custom-made. A competing couple both wear fake mustaches, a tribute to Freddie Mercury. Some of the dancers who are competing in many categories have to change their costumes multiple times, running off to the makeshift dressing rooms.
'I Fell In Love With This Culture'
While her dance students all cheer, Racz walks onto the stage in white, high-heeled boots, lace garters, and a purple fur coat. Racz is one of the five judges this evening, along with drag queen Miss Victoria Rose, who is known locally as the "queen of vogue" and regularly performs around Budapest.
At one point, the music gets more sensual and the MCs command everyone to put their cameras and phones down for the "sex siren" and "body" categories, where competitors walk in red swimsuits inspired by the hit TV series, Baywatch. In these categories what's important to the judges isn't what a contestant's body looks like, but how sensual they appear and how comfortable they are in their own skin.
"Wait, I'm not a real woman, I can't do multiple things at the same time," jokes Miss Victoria Rose. She takes a break from organizing the prizes, VHS tapes painted in gold, to give an interview.
"I fell in love with this culture," she says about vogue. "And I think we must cultivate it in Hungary." As a judge, she is hard to please, often asking the competitors to keep dancing until she picks a winner. Other judges are equally strict: some competitors are disqualified for not wearing a dress properly or disrespecting the sign of the black liberation movement.
Working as a teacher in a primary school, she says she has mixed feelings about the situation for Hungary's LGBT community. "The kids know everything about me, and they love me very much. I have good feelings about the future. I trust future generations to be more accepting and smarter," Miss Victoria Rose says.
While she says her life hasn't been impacted by the new legislation yet, she adds that "there are difficulties right now and, obviously, I don't like the direction Hungary is headed politically."
The night ends with "Vogue To Everything," a category where competitors can wear anything inspired by the 1980s. This brings out the most competitors, with everyone dancing and singing along to Beyonce and the theme tune to Friends.
"This whole dance style is about self-confidence," competitor Milan Zoldi says while striking a pose for the camera. "It gave me a lot of confidence. I didn't dare stand out in the past, but now I'm going to compete in three categories."
Zoldi learned about vogue three years ago and now he teaches a group in Debrecen, a city in eastern Hungary. "In vogue I found myself and I found a family. It's hard to fit into society as a gay person. But here, you can be anything or anyone."
Despite the government narrative, promoted in Fidesz-friendly media and on billboards, support for LGBT communities is actually growing in Hungary. Tens of thousands of people attended the most recent Budapest Pride march in July 2021, a much greater number than the few thousands that attended in previous years.
According to a recent poll by Amnesty International, 73 percent of Hungarians reject the government's narrative regarding LGBT people, and acceptance is at a historic high.
"I think that those who were against these communities became even more radical," says Budapest Pride spokesperson Majercsik. "But many, who belonged to a moveable middle, might be fed up with the government constantly picking on [such] groups."
Having talked to politicians in the six-party opposition alliance running against Orban's party in the parliamentary elections (which includes Jobbik, a far-right party), Majercsik believes that the opposition would have a better approach to LGBT issues.
"We need to repeal the laws that cripple people's lives as soon as possible," she says. "And we have high hopes as well as [high] expectations in that regard."
The House Of Bandits
At 10 p.m. on the dot, the event comes to an end.
"I'm very satisfied," says Daniel Moritz, the ball's organizer.
He's already planning a follow-up. "Vogue is based on competing, on freestyle, and dancers need these events. Plus, new people might join us if they like it," he adds.
What is perhaps special about the ballroom scene is how it offers formalized support outside classes and events. So-called "houses," which traditionally acted as families for gay or transgender people who were ostracized from their own birth families, are an integral part of the ballroom scene worldwide.
In Hungary, the houses are collectives rather than actual lodgings as some were in the past in the United States. They are led by "mothers" and "fathers" who look out for their members' well-being and are there to offer moral and emotional support.
Moritz was a member of the Royal House of Milan, a well-known U.S.-based house, before founding the Kiki House of Bandita, which started with 13 members, including him and Miss Victoria Rose. Kiki, Moritz explains, means the younger part of the ballroom: less serious, more friendly.
"When we founded the house, this law came out that made all of us a little bit illegal. So now we are going against the law," Moritz says, explaining why the house is named after bandits.
"It isn't just about gathering the best dancers," he says. "It's also about the connection between us."