Margaret Atwood speaks out against anti-LGBTQ+ book-bans

Margaret Atwood

Multi-award-winning Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood has spoken out against anti-LGBTQ+ book bans, claiming attacks on diverse literature can lead to “open season” on other issues.

Atwood, who’s perhaps best-known for her 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, spoke in a keynote address on Wednesday (11 October) during the annual Budapest Forum.

Atwood spoke about book-banning, culture wars and the Hungarian government’s decision to censor books with LGBTQ+ themes. 

She said: “Once you start forbidding [something], it becomes a question of who can forbid what … [and] how much state power is involved?

“Because once state power is involved, there’s a political agenda, not just a politeness agenda … and you can destroy your political opponents by accusing them of having said the wrong thing.  Once you start with that, it’s open season.”

Hungary’s law against the “promotion of homosexuality among minors” has forced bookshops to wrap books deemed “sensitive” in plastic or move them to the adult section. Failure to do so can result in a heavy fine. 

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Atwood added: “What you don’t want is a government in which the judiciary and the executive branch are the same. Or the judiciary is just a wing of the executive branch, because that’s when you get a lot of very perverted justice.

“This [the debate on freedom of speech and the associated culture war] is going to be a battleground for a while.”

In 2021, the legislation led to a publisher being fined 250,000 forint (£599) for displaying a story – a two-part Hungarian translation of American author Lawrence Schimel’s stories Early One Morning and Bedtime, Not Playtime which follows two children, both of whom have same-sex parents – in the same section as children’s books.

Speaking about raising the subject of Christianity with Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Atwood said: “If you’re not loving your neighbour, whoever that neighbour may be, you are not following the teachings of Christ Himself.

“And I would propose to him [Orban] the parable of the Good Samaritan. That’s a good place to start.”

In July 2023, Orbán accused the European Union (EU) of conducting what he called an “LGBTQ+ offensive” by rejecting “Christian heritage”. 

Orbán has frequently positioned himself as a so-called defender of Hungary’s Christian values, and in 2021 he introduced a law banning the “display and promotion” of LGBTQ+ identities among under-18s.

The far-right leader previously defended the law saying that “gender propaganda” is the “greatest threat stalking our children” and that LGBTQ+ identities have “no place in Hungary”.