Lesbian Activism in the Czech Republic
— Susanna Trnka
IN THE BACK room of a bar, twenty-five or thirty women sit around a large table, filling up the room with I smoke. Marcela, the President of L-Klub Lambda—the only official lesbian organization in Prague—stands at the head of the table, encouraging them to become active in an upcoming AIDS demonstration.
"AIDS can affect you toot you know," she chides. A few women huddle and whisper around a stack of newsletters freshly xeroxed by one of the member's mothers who works at a newspaper: Others sit quietly, sipping their drinks.
The meeting officially ends and the women break up into small groups, some obviously lovers, others meeting for the first time. Women in their fifties chat with women in their twenties, married women, women with children, women just coming out—they sit in groups, drinking, smoking, gossiping and making jokes.
The building where L-Klub47 used to hold its monthly meetings has been returned by the state to its original owners. With the explosion of businesses scrambling for office space, finding a room to rent is not an easy task in Prague. So for now, L-Klub members gather in the back halls of restaurants or bars.
But even without a regular meeting place, L-Klub Lambda has done much to expand the lesbian community, particularly by encouraging a seedling Czech lesbian culture. A few months ago, L-Klub members began printing their own newsletter devoted to lesbian issues. In the last year they organized a lesbian cultural performance and published the first collection of Czech lesbian poetry, Promluv (Speak Out).
Before the Velvet Revolution
Four years ago any kind of lesbian organizing would have been illegal. Before 1989, homosexuality was still recognized as a "disease" in the Czech Republic, and though the law did not explicitly forbid female homosexuality, it did prohibit gay behavior in public as a "disturbance of the peace." Meaning L-Klub member Vera explains, if I walked down the street holding a woman's hand and somebody thought we were lesbians, they could report me for disturbing the peace.” "We had no hope of organizing," Marcela adds, because "just inviting women into my apartment to talk could have been reported by my neighbors and had me interrogated."
Lacking any organization or community meeting places before 1989, one of the most difficult problems for lesbians was isolation. When women did meet it was either by accident ("we could just tell" is the common refrain), through sporadically-allowed personal ads, or in two underground, gay male clubs.
"There was a brief period when we could place personal ads in the newspaper, in 1968 [during the Prague Spring when political reforms loosened the reins of cultural censorship] and for a few months in 1983. And that's how I found my previous girlfriend,” Johanna, a lesbian in her forties, explains.
“There were these two awful gay men’s bars, the T Klub and U Petra Voka, where a few women went, but but the only time I went there I got hassled—it was obvious they didn't want us," adds Karla, Johana's partner. "I didn't know any other lesbians except my partner, Karla explains, "and I found her because I was lucky. I had no examples of what it was to be a lesbian—I thought I was going to get married, have three children and be miserable. But I never did. I held out, and when I was twenty-one I read the Well of Loneliness—it was translated into Czech during the first Republic—and then I knew the rest of my life would be miserable."
Some women did bow to social pressure and marry: some married out of choice while others tried to find different ways of creating a normal life. Twenty-three year old Lenka explains why she thought she might be transsexual. "It was so difficult to find other lesbians that I thought if I became a man I could live a normal life."
Confusing homosexuality with transsexuality, Czech sexologists commonly responded by making lesbians "normal" through sex changes. The Czech Republic had the highest rate of female-to-male sex changes in the world. Lenka later realized that "I don't hate my body or want to change it the way 'real' transsexuals do, so I stayed a woman."
Creating a visible community, much less organizing as lesbians was impossible. "We weren't supposed to be here," Karla states. "Under socialism everything was perfect, which means no gays or lesbians, no handicapped people, no prostitutes. Legally we did not exist."
In February 1989, nine months before the Velvet Revolution, a group of gay men and female-to-male transsexuals at the Institute of Sexology discovered a way to detour the laws against organizing. Since they were receiving psychological treatment, they founded Lambda as a support group for patients of "sexual disorders," thus undermining any criticism that they might be explicitly political. In this way, they not only got permission to exist as an organization but even managed to get funding for an internal newsletter.
Lambda soon broke away from the Institute of Sexology. A year and a half after it was founded, it split along gender lines into two groups: L-Klub for women and M-Klub for men. L-Klub and M-Klub, as well as eighteen other gay organizations scattered across the Czech Republic, are linked through the SOHO parliament, a coordinating body for gay and lesbian activism.
During its relatively brief period of existence, SOHO has done much to change the legal situation of gays and lesbians. Due to its pressure, the age of consent for gay and lesbian sex was changed in 1991 from eighteen to fifteen, bringing it in line with the age of consent for heterosexual sex. This winter SOHO will present the Czech parliament with a proposed bill to legalize domestic partnership.
Karla Hyanková, SOHO's foreign secretary credits SOHO's very existence as it greatest accomplishment. "In other previously socialist countries, such as Hungary, there were gay and lesbian organizations created before ours, but they didn't last as long. The economic situation isn't strong enough—people have so many financial worries." Gay organizing thus often gets left out on the sidelines.
Planning the Future
Twenty-one year old Jana Pechková lives with her mother. She has lived her whole life in the same bedroom, which she shares with her eighteen-year old sister. Her American girlfriend thinks this is strange but Westerners have no concept of how hard it is to live in Prague, Jana tells me.
Jana works as a commercial artist for the National Center for Health Promotion and is on the advisory board of a proposed AIDS drop-in center. She began attending Lambda a few months ago but isn't too enthusiastic about its effect on new members. "When I went to my first meeting, nobody even introduced me. I just sat there for half an hour and then walked out Somebody stopped me at the door and gave me her—phone number and through her I got involved. But the meetings are boring, all we talk about is money and letters from abroad."
In order to expand Lambda's membership and make it more accessible to new members, Jana received a grant from the Ministry of Health. "They won't give us money just because we are lesbians, but since everybody knows lesbians have the highest rate of alcohol and cigarette—addition, they'll fund a two-page health promotion column in our newsletter. This way we can expand from 150 copies to thousands, which we can send to schools, doctor's offices, libraries—anywhere people who aren't out yet can find it Then," she pauses, "we can put in an ad for a retreat of some kind or get together where new people can meet each other in a meaningful way."
Vera, Marcela and I meet in a beer hall in order to "loosen our tongues" before I interview them. The pub is full of men stopping on their way home from work to eat sausages and down liters of beer. Other than the owner and bartender, we are the only women there.
Vera Vompolová edits the "women's two pages" in the monthly gay and lesbian magazine, Sohorevue. She isn't in the best of moods today because of problems with the magazine's primary editors. "We only have two pages and they can't even get that right. Two pages," she explains, "not because we lack material, but because the men don't want us there—they don't even want us to have this much."
The lesbian movement, Vera asserts, is suffering from being under the auspices of gay men. "The only reason they want us in SOHO is because they know that internationally most gay organizations are co-gender and if they kicked us out, ILGA [the International Lesbian and Gay Association] might not like it."
"The problem," another woman later tells me, "is that Jiri Hromada, the President of SOHO, is one of those gay men who really doesn't care for women, he thinks we're stupid." Someone else adds, "When Hromada talks about gay rights, he doesn't mean us, he means men."
But creating a completely lesbian association, the women agree, has its own problems. Not only is it financially tenuous, but there is the problem of leadership. Most of the lesbians in Prague are not visibly "out" enough to be comfortable in the spoffight. "What we need," one woman says, "is someone like Hromada but a woman, someone who is willing to go on TV as a lesbian."
Lesbian Identity and Disillusionment
Lenka Jurcikova meets me at the metro station. It's her day off but she still has to cover for her boss while he goes out to lunch.Lenka is very out and doesn't mind being interviewed at the Prague Market where she sells groceries. But, she warns me, "1 told my boss that I'm meeting a girl and he's curious to know what you look like." She smiles as if to say she knows this is a bit silly.
"What did you say?" I ask.
"That you look normal."
Lenka comes from a small town in Northern Bohemia. Her first experience with Lambda was at a meeting of lesbians in Brno. She was excited to find "a room full of women just like me." The lesbian community in Prague did not, however, hold up to her expectations. "It's mud," she tells me bluntly. "The women trading each other around, the promiscuity. It's disgusting."
Lenka is not alone in her criticism; many of the women I spoke to commented on the "problem of promiscuity." "A lot of women show up once at Lambda, grab a girlfriend, and then disappear because they're afraid someone else might take her away," Jana explains.
"I don't want women who are coming out," another woman laments, "to see this and think that this is what being a lesbian is about."
Lenka believes that part of the problem is the sudden switch from isolation to openness. "Things are too open now," she says. "People who had trouble finding another gay person are now being surrounded by them and they don't know what to do. I feel it too. I used to think I would be in a life-long monogamous relationship with a woman, now I don't think that's possible anymore, but I'm still disgusted by my behavior."
One of the primary tasks facing Lambda today, according to Kala Hyankova, is the promotion of a positive lesbian identity. "What we need is for lesbians to act independently from gay men, to organize themselves, and to create an identity as lesbians."
One of the most striking aspects of the Czech lesbian community, at least to a Westerner, is the absence of a formulated and defined lesbian identity. Women rarely speak of their own lives in relation to some kind of "common" lesbian experience. Throughout my interview with Czech lesbians, I never heard any of the stock phrases used by Western lesbians, such as "because I'm a lesbian..." or "as lesbians, we...." Instead, any assumptions of lesbian commonality were undermined by women stressing the uniqueness of their own lesbian experience.
Most of the women I spoke to are unconcerned with creating a common "lesbian identity" and instead are quite certain and proud of the fact that their way of being a lesbian is different from anybody else's.
"It's good you're interviewing me," Lenka says as we begin to talk, "My answers will be completely different."
Marcela takes the idea a bit further, "Everyone has a different idea of what it is to be a lesbian, you can't say this is what it is to be a lesbian and this is what it is to be heterosexual. Some of us knew it from when we were very young, others from the age of forty or fifty. Who says that a fifty-year old woman who was once married and had children is less of a lesbian than someone who comes out at nineteen?"
The lack of a common lesbian identity, whatever its strengths or weaknesses, is partly due to the wide variety of life experiences (in terms of age, marital status, bisexuality, transsexuality) of the women who over the years have attended Lambda Praha.
Another factor, as Karla implies, may be the tenuous relationship Czech lesbians, and indeed the majority of Czech women, have with feminism. It is not uncommon for lesbians to reject feminism as something ridiculous. "We aren't feminists—we don't hate men," a woman in her twenties explains to me. "That has nothing to do with being a lesbian."
A few lesbians such as Karla and Vera are searching for ways to integrate feminist consciousness into lesbian experience. They are well aware, however, that Czech feminism has to be created and can't just be imported from the West. "We need to learn how to meet together but as women, we also need to create our own feminism because our problems are completely different from those of women in the West," Karla asserts.
Vera hopes Czech lesbians will be able to learn something from the history of the lesbian movement in the West. "It's important for the world to know about us," she says, "so we can see what they've accomplished. Obviously we can't just adopt whatever they've done, but maybe it will raise questions for women here."
The interpersonal dynamics between Czech lesbians and Westerners, though potentially fruitful, can also be problematic. As one woman told me, "Western lesbians come here, throw their money around and try to convince us to speak English, and really have no idea what life is like for us here."
Economically, the divide between Western lesbians in Prague, whatever their class background, and their Czech counterparts is huge. The cover charge, for example, of the very popular and gay-friendly night club, Radost, is fifty crowns--a mere $1.50 in American terms, but more than the average Czech's hourly wage.
Differences obviously exist in cultural terms, such as in approaches to community and to coming out When I told one of my Czech friends about coming-out groups in San Francisco, she was clearly baffled and uninterested by the idea of so many people coming together to share their experiences of being gay, bisexual or lesbian. "My problems are different from everybody else's—what could we possibly have to talk about?" she asked.
Vera, however, is optimistic that a worthwhile relationship between Western lesbians and Czechs can develop, particularly through cultural exchanges. "Maybe we could have a poetry reading or an art exhibit together. We need to exchange ideas."
But Lambda's main priority, according to Vera and almost all of the lesbians I spoke to, is to secure its own meeting place. "First, we need a room to meet in," Vera sums it up. Until then, the lesbians of Prague will have to continue gathering in various pubs and restaurants around the city.
March/April 1994, ATC 49