Adéla Horáková: We’re not Poland and Hungary but there’s a real danger we may be walking down that path

Adéla Horáková, photo: Ian Willoughby

Adéla Horáková quit a top job as a lawyer to devote all of her energies to campaigning for same sex marriage with Jsme fér (We Are Fair). The organisation has collected a total of 100,000 signatures in support of marriage equality, but over two years after a bill was submitted to MPs there has been next to no movement on it in the lower house. When we spoke during Prague’s recent Pride week, the wide-ranging conversation took in everything from Horáková’s own experiences of coming out to the possibility of the vilification of the LGBT community seen in other states in the region also spreading to the Czech Republic.

When you talk to older LGBT people here, how was it for them before 1989, in the final decades of communism?

“The main thing is that they were hiding – and they are still used to hiding.

“So in fact it’s not always easy to talk to elderly LGBT people, because they’re not used to visibility, they’re not used to being out and open and outspoken.

“But when we do find them, and when we do speak to them, they do appreciate the progress.

“The attitudes of ordinary people are changing more quickly than the attitudes of politicians.”

“Many things have changed and improved, that’s for sure.

“But they are also some things that they would have hoped would also have changed already, but they have not, such as marriage equality and the possibility to form stable families by having joint adoptions.”

There have been quite a few legal changes, including the introduction of registered partnerships in 2006. How much did EU accession [2004] influence progress in this area?

“Very much, I would say.

“I remember the accession talks. I followed them very closely – I am a lawyer specialised in EU law – and I could see that the strengthening of democracy and respect for equality was something that I would not say was brought here by the EU but is certainly being practiced in the EU more than in was in the Czech Republic before.

“So I think the EU played a crucial role in introducing the idea of equality and dignity, and it still does: Just a few days ago the European Commission announced that they would be withholding funding for those cities in Poland that declared themselves to be homophobic.

“The EU is also very vocal in their support for LGBT people throughout Europe, which we appreciate enormously.

Photo: Petr Vilgus,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“Especially when you see domestic politicians just making us a target, it’s necessary for our well-being and mental health to know that there are institutions and people who stand behind us.”

When it comes to Czech society in general, do you feel that there is more acceptance of sexual minorities than there was, let’s say, in the ‘90s?

“Definitely. The attitudes of ordinary people are changing more quickly than the attitudes of politicians.

“The politicians are always lagging behind. We, in general I think, don’t have politicians with a vision.

“We have people who play it safe. We have people who just want to preserve the status quo. They don’t lead the country into the future, they want it to stay in the muddy past.

“But the people themselves are changing. If you just look at the support for registered partnerships, which skyrocketed from, I don’t know, 50 percent when it was adopted to 80, 90 percent today.

“The same is happening with marriage equality – it’s steadily rising over the years. Also the support for joint adoptions.

“I think the reasons for that are twofold, and the primary one is that we are being seen, that we are not hidden and people see that we are not monsters or a danger to the society.

“That’s why events like Prague Pride are super important, even do we do hear a lot of criticism.

“I do understand that there might be aspects of it that people would not feel comfortable with – but we need to look at the bigger picture and not just the ‘scandalous’ few photos of a few people.

“All those decades of social debates and fight for equality that happened in Western Europe did not happen here.”

“We need to look at the fact that this is a festival that brings us to the light. And the fact that we are seen is one of the reasons, but a very important one, why the attitudes and support of people is rising.”

The situation of LGBT people in the region has gotten worse in recent years. Why do you think it’s happening now?

“That’s a million dollar question. My personal, a bit amateur, opinion is that there’s not one single reason for it.

“The crisis that shook the world in 2008 is certainly one of them. People in times of crisis tend to withdraw and hold onto the past.

“I think it might also be a certain immaturity of democracy in these countries – it is a young democracy in Poland and in Hungary.

“All those decades of social debates and fight for equality that happened in Western Europe did not happen here.

“We do not have a solid, nationwide behind us about the equality of women, the equality of LGBT people, the benefits of equality.

“And the third reason might just be a disappointment, of especially the older generation, from what the change in regime didn’t bring.

Viktor Orban | Photo: European People's Party,  CC BY 2.0

“There might be other reasons as well. Actually I’m going to mention one more: It is just the pure calculation on the side of politicians like Orban, who just want to seize power, or the Catholic state of Poland as it is now, Kaczynski and his party, they just want to seize power and they’re looking for ways to do it.

“So their homophobia I would say is maybe not authentic – it’s just a cynical game with people.”

Obviously things are far worse in Poland and Hungary than here. But is there fear among your community that something similar could happen here?

“Certainly. We are not Poland and Hungary, but there’s a real danger we might be walking down that path.

“If you look at some of the statements, for example, from some of the politicians from the Civic Democrats, acclaiming and congratulating the politics that Kaczynski is doing – for example, deputy [Alexandr] Vondra is hailing their style.

“And he knows very well what they are doing. He knows the hatred they are spreading, he knows the muzzling of democracy, or the deconstruction of democracy, they are doing.

“And knowing this he still calls their style good conservative politics.

“He’s certainly not the only one who is either admiring the style of Orban and Kaczynski or silently supporting it and maybe hoping to follow.

“So there is a very real danger we might be walking in the same direction and we need to very quickly, and very clearly, say that this is not where we’re going.

“And we need to ask our politicians and hold them accountable for not making role models out of these countries.

“We can be civil, we can be neighbours, we certainly need to cooperate, but we need to say very clearly that this is not the direction in which we’re going.”

What was your response around 10 years ago when as president Václav Klaus started using this term “homosexualism”?

“Maybe uneducated indifference is a good place to start, on the way to respect.”

“I don’t really have many opinions about Mr. Klaus.

“To me he’s actually very boring. He’s this angry man that’s just… I don’t know where his frustration and his fragility come from, but he’s just spewing hatred.

“When I speak to psychologists they tell me that people who have the need to attack other people usually have some kind of inner struggle.

“I don’t know where his comes from, but I wish him very well and I hope that he will have peace of mind one day.”

If I could ask you please about your own story, have your ever encountered discrimination?

“I have not encountered open discrimination. I have certainly experienced these what we call micro-aggressions: so expressions of disapproval or maybe even disgust with LGBT people, even among my friends and among colleagues.

“I have to say that it takes a lot of energy within ourselves, within myself, to keep thinking that these people were not born this way.

“Nobody is born a homophobe. All the aversion towards LGBT people is always taught, is always put into people’s heads.

“I need to keep thinking that this is not them, actually, and when I speak to them, when I try to debate with them, it doesn’t mean that I always change their mind, but we manage to have a civil discussion.

“And I do with pleasure have to say that there have been people whose mind I have changed – and I feel very happy for that.

Photo illustrative: Wokandapix,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“So perhaps me personally, not so much. Also coming from the Ústí region, which is actually the least religious region in the Czech Republic, very industrial, the lack of influence of the Catholic Church is a good thing for LGBT people.

“But maybe I’m just lucky. If you look at the statistics, there was a report of the Ombudsperson’s Office last year on how life is for LGBT people in the Czech Republic.

“You see that almost 40 percent of them have encountered discrimination, or harassment.

“But shockingly 91 percent of these incidents are never reported.

“So the violence against LGBT people, whether it is discrimination or harassment, whether it is verbal or physical, is happening on a daily basis.

“We just don’t hear about it – and that’s why Czech society has this idea that it is a paradise, and that life is super easy.

“Two-thirds of straight people think that there is no discrimination for LGBT people – but one-third of LGBT people have lived through discrimination, though, like I said, 91 percent of these incidents are never reported.

“And that creates this false idea that we are talking about non-existent problems, that we are creating problems where they don’t exist.”

By the way, do you think Czechs are a tolerant nation? When I first came here I thought they were. But after a few years I realised they’re not really so tolerant – they’re just not interested. They don’t care what the other guy does.

“I believe that all people are good.

“I believe that there is a pre-disposition in all human beings to tend toward being good. Because it’s pleasurable for them as well. And I think Czech people are no exception.

“[Not coming out at work] takes a toll on us. There is actually an economic for that – it’s called ‘cost of thinking twice’.”

“I know we see ourselves as a tolerant nation – this is being put to the test in recent years.

“I would say that in terms of LGBT people it is often not a real respect, which is what we would need and want, but maybe an uneducated indifference, which we sometimes call tolerance – I’m not so sure if that’s the right word.

“But I would say that maybe uneducated indifference is a good place to start, on the way to respect.”

Getting back to your own story, if you don’t mind me asking, could you tell us please about your own coming out?

“When we speak about coming out, there are usually two, three different aspects of it.

“First of all, it never ends. It’s a thing you do your whole life, basically.

“The first phase is sort of this inner coming out, when you come to terms and when you realise that you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.

“I remember this phase was very quick and very easy for me. I don’t remember a moment where I would think, Oh my God, there is a problem.

“It was more like, Hmm – all right, and then I moved on.

“I was nervous telling my mother. She was sad for a little moment but very quickly, within hours, she hugged me and told me she loved me.

“I was lucky in this respect to have friends and family who were supportive.

“But certainly that is not the case for many, many people.”

How was it in your working environment?

Photo: Nick Karvounis,  Unsplash,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“That took a little bit longer. And I’m not an exception. That’s actually something that’s happening very often – that you come out in your inner circle, to your family and your friends, but it takes much longer in your work.

“Because work is something very important, work is something that gives you money and independence, gives you a livelihood, and you don’t want to jeopardise it.

“And also we feel, It’s just work – we don’t need to speak about personal stuff.

“What we don’t realise is that it takes a toll on us. And there is actually an economic for that – it’s called ‘cost of thinking twice’.

“Basically if you think of your brain as a computer, a part of your processor is always dedicated – if you’re not out at work – to shutting down, to hiding.

“And that capacity of your processor cannot be focused on work, as it should.

“For me it took years. After university there were years where I was not out at work.

“The typical thing: You come back after a weekend and you discuss with your colleagues what you have done – and I would avoid referring to my girlfriend; I would say either ‘we’ or ‘I’.

“But I distinctly remember one moment where I said, OK, this is enough, I’m not going to do that any more.

“I came to my last firm, Dentons, and I was going for lunch with a colleague of mine and he asked me, So, you know, do you have a partner, or what’s your life situation?

“And I avoided the question. I just deflected it and I went to another topic.

“Then I went back to my office and I was angry at myself.

“I thought, This is not right – why am I doing this? I am humiliating myself and I am contributing to the problem, because, like I said, visibility is very important.

“The more people see us, the more people know us as their friends and colleagues and being open, the more accepting they will be.

Prague Pride,  photo: Lukáš Vrána,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“So I told myself on that day that it was going to be the last day that I’m going to lie about it and hide.

“And shortly after that we had our first Pride event and Dentons is now a proud supporter of marriage equality – and I like to think that my coming out played a role in that.”

You turned your back on this really high-flying career in law to focus on advocating for marriage equality – what led you to take that step?

“Feeling that I need to contribute to making things better. Being disappointed with the current state of affairs, with how many things are forbidden for LGBT people, such as the fact that we cannot enter into marriage, we cannot jointly adopt children and, yeah, that we’re just being attacked by many politicians, by church leaders.

“I felt this is not right and I felt I need to defend us. And for a long time I was actually a volunteer, so I had my day job and then I was volunteering in LGBT organisations.

“I did that for a very long time and then I just couldn’t… I wanted to focus 100 percent of my energy on this.

“I felt it was very important, especially seeing the trends in Poland and Hungary.”

Legislation on marriage equality has been before the Czech Parliament for over two years now, but it’s being stalled all the time. Do you think we will ever see it here?

“For sure, we will, I am absolutely convinced of that and I will do everything in my power to make that happen, me and my colleagues.

“We feel huge support from the people around us.

“But now it’s been two years, like you said, and nothing is happening. They’re just shoving us under the table, if that is the correct expression, trying to put us aside, and we want to tell them that we’re here, we’re not forgetting and we’re going nowhere.

“And that we want them to do their job – they’re paid for passing laws, or deciding on laws, and to put us aside for two years is just not right.”

Have you ever had a chance to discuss this issue with the prime minister, Mr. Babiš?

“Yes, I did. He personally expressed his support for the idea, which I welcomed.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

“I do have to say I am a little bit disappointed with the development afterwards, because it’s been two years and even though ANO has a very large club [deputies’ group] in the Parliament, they have not been able to make up their clear position.

“For a big party like this, that likes to appear strong and decisive, to be actually so indecisive on something so important is a bit worrying for me.

“And I think it’s illegible for the voters – people don’t know what to think. And when you don’t know what to think about a party, I think you’re less likely to vote for it, because you just can’t read it.

“That’s not only the case of ANO – that’s the case of many other parties.

“So happy for his personal support, disappointed with the development in the Parliament afterwards.”