Hungarian psychiatrist Lajos Romsauer was a child when he realized that he was gay, 20 when he shared his secret with someone and 52 when, last February, he publicly admitted to homosexuality.
Now, he is the president of the new National Assn. for Hungarian Homosexuals, Eastern Europe’s only state-recognized organization for gay people.
“It was impossible to speak about homosexuality in Hungary,” he said. “It was taboo.”
He hopes the new association, founded in part to combat the threat of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, will help change public attitudes and fight discrimination.
“We do not want to live our lives in the corner and in the restroom,” Romsauer said, noting that the association preferred to use its own name, Hom-Eros.
“We are no better or worse than others. We are different only in our sex lives.”
In most of Eastern Europe, homosexuality is not dealt with frankly. In Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and East Germany, it is a shrouded subject. In Romania, it is a crime, and many exiles say the secret police there blackmail many homosexuals into serving as informers in return for immunity from prosecution.
Although Hungary is in many ways the most liberal of the Soviet Union’s East Bloc allies, Romsauer reports a great deal of discrimination and prejudice here.
He loses many psychiatric patients when they learn he is gay, he says, while teachers and members of other professions lose their jobs if discovered to be homosexual.
There is little artistic exploration of homosexuality, and newspapers refuse to carry homosexual “Lonely Hearts” personal ads.
And Romsauer remains, he says, the only Hungarian to have found the courage to declare his homosexuality to the media, and he had to fight three years for permission to form the association.
The breakthrough came about not through official concern for the rights of the lesbians and male homosexuals who he believes make up 10% of Hungary’s 10.5 million population.
It came partly, says Romsauer, through the replacement of a health minister who regarded homosexuals as “non-people,” partly through the Soviet-style glasnost , or openness, affecting Hungary, but mainly because of official concern about AIDS.
“The association would never have come about without AIDS,” Romsauer said.
According to official figures, AIDS has killed five people so far in Hungary. Eight other people have the disease, and 154 virus carriers have been identified. Homosexual males are at high risk for infection from the disease, which is transmitted through sex, contaminated blood or shared needles.
But, although the first goal in the group’s charter is to fight AIDS, the association also has the right to campaign in public and negotiate with authorities against social and cultural discrimination.
Official permission for its creation was therefore “a very great success,” Romsauer said, speaking in his spacious apartment close to the Danube.
Adorned with fine art, his home served until recently as an unofficial meeting place for dozens of homosexuals and lesbians.
In April, however, the authorities allowed the association then being formed to rent premises on the edge of Budapest where men and women members have been playing chess, holding discussions and dances and arranging excursions.
Romsauer and other medical colleagues staff a phone line for homosexuals wanting to talk about AIDS or other concerns.
Himself a divorced father of a 17-year-old girl, Romsauer says two-thirds of Hungary’s homosexuals are married, which causes a lot of problems and neuroses.
Receiving no public subsidy, the association run by a council of four men and one woman must be self-supporting from donations and dues of $1 a month.