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The Myth of Czech Tolerance

The Czech Republic has steadfastly followed in the footsteps of Europe’s most
liberal countries in its advancement of gay rights, preceding many of its Western
neighbours in instituting gay-friendly laws and ostensibly setting the standard for the
rest of the former Eastern Bloc.


On the surface, the Czech Republic appears to be one of the most open and tolerant
countries in Europe, particularly in contrast to its comparably conservative
neighbours. Czechs are renowned for their liberal stance on sex, drugs, alcohol and
religion. It seems reasonable to assume that this lenient attitude extends to sexual
orientation, as well, especially considering the country’s long history of passing
legislation promoting gay rights: homosexuality was decriminalized in 1962; the age
of consent was equalized in 1990; anti-discrimination protections were instated in
the National Labour Code in 2001, giving gay soldiers the right to serve openly in
the military; and most notably, registered partnerships were legalized in 2006, allowing gay couples many of the same financial benefits and civil rights as legally
married heterosexuals.


Despite the many advances in legal rights, a recent University of Chicago study
reveals that Czechs may not be as tolerant as they seem. Between 1988 and 2008,
five rounds of surveys were conducted to determine individual countries’ attitudes
toward homosexuality. Researchers found that since 1994, Czechs’ overall
acceptance of homosexuality, specifically the act of sex between two men or
women, has declined, making the Czech Republic one of only four of the 42
countries polled to see such a trend. When Czechs were asked whether they thought
sex between two adults of the same gender was always wrong, almost always
wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all, they were one of only four
groups whose responses of “not wrong at all” declined over the years. Cyprus,
Latvia and Russia saw similar results. Additionally, the instances of Czechs
claiming gay sex is “always wrong” increased, a distinction shared with only Latvia
and Russia.


“This is the only country in the region with a strong gay scene,” said Grant
Maxfield, an American ex-pat who has handled communication and bookings for
Come2Prague, a gay vacation service, for two years. “There is a massive difference
between gay Prague and gay Bratislava.”


The gay party scene in Prague is thriving, and the city boasts more gay and gayfriendly
clubs than any other Eastern European city. Vinohrady has been designated
Prague’s unofficial gay district by LGBTQ men and women (many of whom call the
neighbourhood home) because of its high concentration of gay clubs and bars.
According to Prague-life.com, the capital city hosts an estimated 600,000 gay
tourists a year, aided by the Prague Information Service’s 2010 release of a “gay
tourism” map.


However, Maxfield has also seen discrimination in the four years he has lived in
Prague. “I’ve had Czech friends who have had trouble. I used to mentor a young gay
guy whose parents tried to ‘fix’ him,” Maxfield said. “Attitudes here are a lot worse
than those of a lot of people in America.” Maxfield cited the Queer Parade in Brno,
which has seen a significant dissident presence since its 2008 beginnings. The first
parade’s route had to be shortened from its intended 14 blocks to four because police
could not restrain Neo-Nazis and other extremist groups that tried to block the
march with tear gas attacks.


This August, Prague held its first pride parade, a four-day event attended by some
5000 people. Political opposition, most notably from President Vaclav Klaus,
marked the days leading up to the parade. Klaus stressed that “homosexualism”
should be tolerated but not celebrated, and condemned Prague’s mayor, Bohuslav
Svoboda, for supporting a festival for “deviant fellow citizens.” Prague Archbishop
 

Dominik Duka also called on Svoboda to retract his support, claiming that Prague
Pride 2011 is aimed at promoting an “undignified” and “loose” sexual lifestyle.
“We live in a society where tolerance is a basic philosophical principle,” Svoboda
said in response. “This is not a debate about ‘isms.’ It is an obligation of everyone in
a tolerant society to protect minority rights.”


President Klaus and Archbishop Duka were not the only ones protesting Prague’s
first pride parade: riot police had to hold back dozens of right-wing extremists
shouting insults at the marchers, and two were arrested for throwing smoke bombs.
The Czech Republic’s Conservative Christian Democrats also held a peaceful
counter-parade heralding traditional values. Parade-goers, however, did not seem
dismayed: many responded to the affronts by smiling and waving as they touted
their rainbow flags and danced to music blaring from loudspeakers mounted on
vans. The festival was comprised of about 80 events, including exhibitions, parties,
picnics, film showings, seminars, and even speed-dating, culminating in a concert
series held on Střelecký ostrov, an island on the Vtlava river.


The parade’s organizers wanted it to be “different in character form other parades in
the Czech Republic,” said Prague Pride 2011’s president and coordinator, Czeslaw
Walek. “We wanted to combine the culture and human rights approaches to bring it
to the Western Europe standard, and to attract more of the general public.”
The embassies of 13 countries, including the UK and the US, also signed statements
of support.


“I thought there was a wonderful showing of international and local support for the
parade,” said Janika Hnus, a Prague hairdresser who attended all four days of the
festival. “The dissident presence was small and did not affect the parade in the least.
My girlfriend and I could kiss in public, which we normally do not do, and it wasvery liberating. We need more events like this to show that not all Czechs are so
apathetic about gay rights.”


Walek thinks it is integral that LGBTQ Czechs get involved with activism in order
to promote the average Czech’s understanding of their lifestyles. “Generally, one
would say that the Czech Republic is more open,” said Walek. “But the University
of Chicago study found that attitudes are getting worse, and I can see that. I think
that part of the reason is that we are sitting in our clubs, and are not out informing
people what and who we are. The Czech people aren’t coming in contact with us, so
they don’t understand us. We need to open our doors, have a more positive attitude,
and show that we do not bite.”


Seeing the disapproval the University of Chicago study revealed manifested in
Czech society motivated Walek to organize Prague Pride 2011. “I’ve heard of
people getting beaten up for looking gay, or coming out of a gay club,” said Walek,
who cites the lack of protection from hate crimes in the Criminal Code as a serious
hindrance to gay visibility. Police can look into a violent act committed against a
gay man or woman, but such an act is not considered a hate crime under the Code.
As a result, there are no statistics documenting hate crimes against homosexuals in
the Czech Republic, either by the police or NGOs. A poll presented at Prague Pride
2011 revealed that one tenth of gays, lesbians and bisexuals have been physically
attacked over their sexual orientation in the Czech Republic. Some were abused
more than once, and 94 percent of victims neglected to report the crime, most citing
mistrust of the police as the reason.


Walek also considers the Registered Partnership Act inadequate. With 101 of the
177 votes cast in the 200-seat parliament – the exact number required – legalization
of registered partnerships for same-sex couples was barely passed over President
Klaus’ veto on 1 July, 2006. Prague was the second post-Communist country, after
Slovenia in 2005, to ratify the act. Gay couples were granted important privileges,


like the right to an inheritance, to receive information about his or her partner’s
health, and not to have to testify against one another in court. According to
Colourplanet.cz, 1181 same-sex couples have registered their partnerships since
2006. However, these couples still lack important rights, like spousal health benefits,
mutual property ownership, adoption, and of course, marriage. In addition,
transsexuals receive no protection, rights or benefits from the Czech government.
“The problem is that the public does not know about us,” said Walek. “The Czech
media doesn’t write much about us, and there is too little activism here in the Czech
Republic.”


Maxfield has come to similar conclusions: “Czechs are very narrowly focused on
their own lives. They’re nonchalant, indifferent,” he said. “People here are very
private. They live by a principle of non-involvement.”


Maxfield likens the phenomenon to the atmosphere on Prague’s trams: people
quietly keep to themselves, but dislike any disruption to the natural order -- in other
words, the Czechs’ laissez-faire attitude only goes so far. While on one hand,
Maxfield says, “it’s not like Poland where they throw eggs. If you were a gay man
or woman showing affection in public, the most you’d get is a scowl from an old
lady.”


On the other hand, he also sees a trend toward more condescending attitudes, which
is only abetted by what he labeled the principle of noninvolvement. “Nationalism is
on the rise everywhere around the world because of financial troubles, which brings
attitudes that are anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-anything different,” he said.
Such intolerance has been exhibited in many of the Czech Republic’s neighbouring
countries over the past year. In April, 262 members of Hungary’s 286-seat
parliament voted for and passed a constitution banning gay marriage. In June,
extremists threw rocks, bottles, and firecrackers at gay pride participants in Croatia, just one day after the country was approved to join the European Union. Similar attacks marred May’s Bratislava for the Rainbow Pride Parade in Slovakia, where 80 skinheads hurled stones and bombs at marchers, wounding at least two people and forcing the cancellation of the parade. The Slovak cabinet also rejected a proposal to create a committee for the rights of non-heterosexuals on 11 May. In June, Polish Nationalists threw firecrackers at Warsaw’s annual parade.


Outward expressions of hate are rare in the Czech Republic, particularly in Prague.
But does this lack of violent crime against homosexuals demonstrate Czech
progressiveness, as many assume, or widespread apathy? Living in a country rife
with indifference may have put gay Czechs in a worse situation than homosexuals in
neighbouring countries: acceptance of their lifestyle is not only in decline, but
hidden beneath a façade of ineffectual laws and a vibrant party scene, rather than out
in the open, vulnerable to criticism and debate.


“It is very important to consider the difference between tolerance and respect,” said
Kristýná Cirpová, PR manager of Gender Studies, an NGO devoted to disseminating
information on gender-related issues, and one of the leaders of the Platform for
Equality, Recognition and Diversity (PROUD), a newly established
nongovernmental gay rights organization. “Basically, tolerance in the Czech
Republic often goes with the conviction that ‘we can tolerate “them” if they do not
disturb us – publicly, visibly, etc.’. We can call this conditional tolerance.”
PROUD plans to work against conditions that allow said conditional tolerance to
fester. The organization primarily aims to instate protection for LGBTQ seniors,
enforce laws against discrimination of LGBTQ people in the workplace, invest in
education of LGBTQ issues at all levels of the Czech school system, and get
legislation allowing homosexuals to marry passed.


“The course of events in recent years even shows that youths’ tolerance towards
LGBTQ people is decreasing,” said Cirpová. “They often face negative reactions
form their surroundings – colleagues at work, classmates at school – and, in the
streets, may even be exposed to ridicule, insults, or sometimes, physical violence.”
In Cirpová’s opinion, the Czech government is partially to blame for such
developments, because public institutions do not inform the public about LGBTQ
topics, and organizations for the advancement of gay rights have little influence, and
almost no funding.


“Although people face homophobia everywhere, specific socio-cultural context and
the historical development of the Czech Republic prevented Czech society from
benefiting from the influence of new social movements, whose impact is today
visible in other Western countries,” said Cirpová. “In my opinion, activism was, and
still is, seen as something suspicious, and as something which could also lead to a
very small number of representatives of the LGBTQ community to become publicly
active.”


Róbert Furiel, President of Charlie, the LGBTQ student society at Charles
University, agrees. “What I found out about during past years is that Czechs like the
proverb ‘live and let live’, thus not being too passionate against the LGBT people,”
Furiel said. “General passivity is still common, and unless you are very aggressive
or outspoken while promoting homosexuality or LGBT rights, they let you live.
Some will support you and some won’t, but apart from some extremists, no rocks
will be thrown or pitchforks drawn. This passive stance leads to the image of Czech
society as being more accepting, but unfortunately, the passivity also hinders further
promotion or discussion of LGBT rights.”


The indifference ingrained in the Czech character means that ultimately, LGBTQ
people will face a kind of limited tolerance in the Czech Republic: while there will be little outright objection to their sexual preference, they will lack the respect of

much of the community. Many gay Czechs seem content in their complacency, but
most activists find this stagnancy unacceptable.


“I think that gay Czechs who just complain, waiting around for something to
happen, are fooling themselves,” said Hnus. “Nothing will ever change if we don’t
push for it. We need to be more willing to fight for what we believe in, but that
doesn’t come easily for Czechs.”


Unfortunately, working against the problem poses a difficult paradox: how will the
disapproval of homosexuality ever subside in a country whose population is too
apathetic to attempt to understand different lifestyles? This problem is only further
exacerbated by the modest visibility of the gay community. One can hardly tell that
Vinohrady is its home – the gay bars and clubs are scarcely discernible, and some
are hidden, or even locked to the public. There is a low level of organization among
the gay and lesbian communities in the Czech Republic; the long-term work put into
building a gay society similar to those flourishing in Western Europe, the United
States, and Canada just isn’t there. Many Czech activists believe that tolerance will
grow only as the gay community does, through increased encounters and
experiences between Czechs and openly gay individuals. Unfortunately, for many,
speculation for a faraway future does not inspire much hope for change in their
lifetimes.


“Czechs are just apathetic, and that won’t change,” said Maxfield. “They don’t have
the riots they have in Greece, but they don’t stand up and fight for anything else.”

June 15, 2011

 

About the author

Jennifer Guay is a freelance journalist from Montreal, Canada. She studies political science and journalism at Boston University.

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