LGBT+ COMMUNITY IN CZECH REPUBLIC: Tolerance or Indifference?
by Gioia Zurzolo
The Czech Republic is considered one of the most tolerant countries in CEE towards the LGBT+ community. For instance, it was the first post-communist country to legalize same-sex registered partnerships, preceding many other European countries in making some headway.
Many people believed that Czech Republic could take the lead to fight for equal gay rights in the conservative region, encouraging its Eastern neighbours in taking some steps forward. However, local activists argue that Czech tolerance towards LGBT+ community is an attractive narrative that does not reflect reality for what it truly is, particularly outside of the capital.
Lots of LGBT+ people prefer to move to Prague where it is possible to find an international environment and open-minded society. This makes the capital a better place compared to the countryside, where it is not easy to come out as homosexual without fearing consequences. As revealed by a survey recently conducted by the Czech Academy of Sciences, 48% of respondents argue that confessing homosexuality in a city or a town where they live could cause trouble, while 43% think the opposite. Moreover, 74% of respondents agreed on recognition of the right to enter registered partnership, while the high percentage goes down to 51% regarding same-sex marriage, as well as to 48% regarding adoption. The percentages show that the Czech society is not hostile towards same-sex relationships, but there is still some hesitance when it comes to supporting further improvements on LGBT+ equal rights.
Considering these contradictions, a brief historical, social and legal analysis on this reality in Czech Republic could help reflect on and find answers to the question of whether we talk about tolerance, or rather indifference towards gay rights and equality.
Homosexuality in Czechoslovak history
The topic of homosexuality started to reach the public space already by the end of the 19th century, when a small gay community began coming out of hiding, even though people engaged in same-sex relations were persecuted by the Crime Code of that time. Unfortunately, any effort to gain public exposure was put on pause in the late 30s due to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, when people suspected of homosexuality were systematically persecuted and deported. After WWII, the communist regime adopted a new Penal Code in 1948, which defined homosexuality as a crime against human dignity, declaring it punishable by up to one year of imprisonment.
When the Destalinization era began, Czechoslovak leaders convened to implement a partial liberalization of the legal system and after lengthy discussions on the issue, the new Penal Code of 1962 unexpectedly approved the decriminalization of homosexuality. Consensual sexual relations between adults of the same sex were no longer a criminal offence but it was still hard to publicly talk or make any reference to homosexuality.
Only in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, gay community started to harness a new spirit of activism aimed at fighting exclusion and seeking legal recognition. Curiously, the first groups supporting gay people were founded and led by psychiatrists. Their main goal was not to “cure” them, but to help people accept their sexual orientation and cope with it. One of the most important groups was called Socio-Therapeutic Club of Homosexuals and it was founded in 1988 by Sexologists Ivo Procházka and Antonin Brzek. That was still a tough time but surprisingly in 1989, gay activists got the authorization to publish the first gay journal and the Club could formally become a gay association, renamed as Lambda.
Nevertheless, activists were still subjected to limitations of social exposure, at least until the end of the communist regime. The real change happened only after the Velvet Revolution, marking the beginning of a new and real liberalization of Czech Republic. In 1990, a new association called Movement for Equality and Homosexual Citizens appeared as the first gay political group, founded to take part at the riots spreading in the country and later to support the unsuccessful campaign of the first openly gay politician, Jiří Hromada.
A campaign for Equality
Over the course of the 90s, gay activists kept making their voices heard and thanks to their mobilisation they achieved important legal goals, such as the change of the age of consent from 18 to 15 years of age for all kind of sexual intercourse Gay community conditions were much better compared to the rest of the region. The percentage shows that 78 % of Czechs supported a law in favour of domestic partnership already in 1994. In fact, a bill for registered same-sex partnerships was proposed in 1998 but despite the general support, it was hard to overcome political opposition. All proposals were rejected until 2006, when the registered partnership law had finally passed. This was a historic achievement: same-sex couples finally got the access to several rights, including inheritance and alimony rights, excepting for adoption rights.
Even though Czechs were in favour of registered partnerships, they weren’t so open to other legal rights such as adoption and marriage. As the CVVM poll shows, in 2007, only 36% supported same-sex marriage as well as only 22% supported the joint adoption. There was still much work to do but the absence of a national-level organization led to a long impasse of the campaign, highlighting the necessity to pursue goals that would have challenged the perceived tolerance in Czech Republic, such as the same-sex adoption.
In 2011, activists managed to organize the first Prague Pride. It rose oppositions from conservative and far-rights groups, as well as politicians who did not endorse the event, despite of opposite expectations. For instance, the main disapproval came from the former President Václav Klaus, who not only called gay people as ‘deviant people’, but also affirmed that homosexuality is something to be tolerated but not celebrated.
Such an approach by a political figure demonstrates the limits of Czech tolerance with respect to further improvement towards the legal status of LGBT+. As for the registered partnership bill, a proposal regarding adoption took long time to be discussed and only in October 2016 the government supported a plan which would allow gay people to adopt the children of their partners, but it is not mentioned anything related to same-sex marriage. In addition, the plan has to be approved by the Parliament, which has not discussed it yet and will not do it at least until the next general elections.
Undoubtedly, Czech Republic appears much more tolerant in comparison to its conservative neighbours such as Poland, Austria and Slovakia, but it is not yet ready to take the lead to improve LGBT+ rights’ equity in the region. Czech ‘tolerance’ is more often seen as indifference. A low level of religious belief might make Czech Republic more tolerant than Poland or Slovakia. This may appear as a general assumption, but as the Pew Research Center points out in a survey conducted in 39 countries, it seems that there is a strong link between country’s religiosity and acceptance of homosexuality. Despite of some exceptions, the more religious a country is, the less tolerant it is towards homosexuality.
There is still a large space for improvement both in legal and social terms. As Jan Seidl from the Prague Centre of Queer Memory said, conditions have obviously changed since the fall of communism but Czech tolerance shows its limits on more liberal issues.
That brings us to the conclusion that there is a gap between acceptance and respect, and what LGBT+ community faces in Czech Republic is exactly expressed in those terms. Aside from Prague and Brno, where the international atmosphere allows gay individuals to have an easier time coming out, Czech society is still hesitant to recognize more equality towards LGBT+ people. It makes the country ‘less homophobic’ than the rest of the Central Eastern Europe but not necessarily ready to go further, which means that there is still a long way to go and much remains to be done to both consolidate and improve the gains reached till now.
Gioia Zurzolo holds a MA in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs from the University of Bologna and currently is a Research Assistant Intern at the IIR.
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