Joci Marton is a Roma LGBTQ+ activist from Hungary, working to showcase Roma LGBTQ+ identity through art inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities (SOGI). Here, he discusses what led him to become an activist; his recent exhibition “Owning the Game;” and how Roma LGBTQ+ identity is represented in the media.
Can you start by telling me a bit about your background? What led you to become involved in Roma LGBTQ+ activism?
I grew up in Nograd county in northeast Hungary, one of the country’s poorest regions. My family was not an exception and my background is lower working class. When young Roma go to study in Budapest or in other major towns in Hungary, there is a good chance they come across Roma activism. In recent years, the situation has become slightly different due to the Fidesz government’s anti-civil politics, but when I went to college, there were many organizations that were what we can call cradles of Roma activism, if I can use a tiny little bit of sentimentalism. I personally — and I think my other fellow Roma — needed these organizations because they provided economic support and a protective community as well. I’m telling you this background to explain that Roma LGBTQ+ activists usually come from the mainstream Roma community and not from the LGBTQ+ movement. The LGBTQ+ movement when I was young was elitist, even if it was not conscious of this fact — the activists were intellectual, white, middle-class people, and they were shaping the movement according to their taste and needs. I could easily get involved in the Roma movement, but I did not find open doors in the LGBTQ+ movement. The good news is that things are changing. Intersectionalism is a principle that you can now find in all of the most influential Hungarian LGBTQ+ organizations’ work. I’m optimistic because the need for Roma LGBTQ+ activism is now recognized.
What was the inspiration behind your recent exhibition “Owning the Game,” which focused on photographing the Roma LGBTQ+ community?
The Roma LGBTQ+ community is an intersectional community, which means that we represent both communities, but the needs or problems that we face are often neglected. Though there were many subjects I could have focused on, I chose representation and within that, mainly on the visual illustration of the Roma LGBTQ+ community. This lack of representation creates many negative feelings and can cause a lot of damage. It’s not just about personal feelings; it also causes severe disadvantages because you are invisible. Therefore, I wanted to portray ourselves as we are. Our life is challenging, and no one wants to deny that, but at the same time, we are powerful. We don’t need pity — what we need is a place around the table where decisions are made and dignified representation in public spaces. That is what is going to help us feel like we belong.
Can you tell me more about how you created this exhibition? Did you have any difficulties finding subjects to photograph?
I did not start the project before it was clear what the common values that we wanted to stand up for were. We agreed that the main goal had to be advertising and celebrating diversity because we could not let anyone be left out. We wanted to break with the habit of promoting a point of view that legitimizes the rejection of certain people. Otherwise, what would be the meaning of our existence as an intersectional movement? The Roma LGBTQ+ movement has to prove to mainstream movements that it is possible to unite people without eliminating anyone.
Finding subjects to photograph was actually the hardest part of my project because participation required extensive self-revelation and those who decided not to take part in the photo project had legitimate reasons. I never felt that these failed meetings were useless, however, because even if they were not present in the photos, their ideas still helped to shape the whole concept.
What was the response to your exhibition, both within the Roma and LGBTQ+ communities and in greater Hungarian society?
The main problem that makes our activism difficult in Hungary is that the majority of the left is not progressive at all. The most popular left side media outlet Partizán, which is led by an openly gay man, often publishes transphobic content. I know that outside of Hungary, readers expect that I will mostly talk about the reaction of the homophobic Orban regime, but to be fair, the right side completely ignores my activism. One of the reasons for that, I guess, is that though I am talking about them, I am not talking to them. I never address them. It is pointless to talk about intersectionalism or another more nuanced approach to minority politics with an openly racist and homophobic political community.
The Roma community is not as homophobic as it is often portrayed, but heteronormativism and even homophobia are present, just like in every ethnic group of people. As an activist, I think the Roma movement needs more intersectionality, but not only from a Roma LGBTQ+ approach — we definitely need more Roma feminism.
The LGBTQ+ community is an extremely diverse group of people who hold all kinds of points of view. For example, some members are white male millionaires, and some are Roma women living in a settlement. I deliberately mentioned two extreme examples, but I am happy that with my project I contributed to the discussion about our diversity and the need for new approaches.
In 2020, you were featured in the Hungarian edition of Elle. Can you tell me more about this experience and the reception it had in Hungary?
As I mentioned, our aim was to occupy public spaces and not necessarily just the walls of exhibition halls. We were extremely happy that our images reached a wider group of people. We have received only positive feedback regarding the exhibition. What worries me is that intersectionality arrived late in Hungary, and with numerous criticisms. It is challenging to represent intersectional activism outside of the Roma and the LGBTQ+ movements because there is a lot of resistance to it, even on the left.
How would you describe what life is like for an LGBTQ+ person within the Roma community in Hungary?
I know that people ask this question with nothing but good intentions, and as an activist, I am thrilled that finally we have a chance to talk about ourselves. However, we need to keep in mind that individual stories can be misleading. I can only talk about my life, but this is not going to tell you anything about my peers who are even less privileged. After all, I am a cis man at the end of the day. What worries me regarding the quality of the life of Roma LGBTQ+ people is that the government’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is beyond endurance these days. The Hungarian government has recently passed a law that conflates pedophilia with LGBTQ+ issues, and in the future, according to this law, it will be illegal to promote homosexuality, though nobody knows what exactly is meant by this. LGBTQ+ people are under constant political attack, and the most vulnerable are young people in the countryside who lack safe places and who are exposed to increasing hate because of anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda. Among the most vulnerable of course are Roma and lower-class white youth, and if the government succeeds in banning all kinds of educational materials, they are the ones who will be left alone.
Are you working on any new projects that you can tell me about?
Yes, I am really happy that I am one of the founding members of Ame Panzh, an informal Roma group, which broadcasts content on social media to change public discourse about minorities and thematizes the recent topics through a feminist/Queer Roma point of view.
What can readers do to support the LGBTQ+ Roma community?
Promote inclusion and if you have a platform, give some space to those who lack it.
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