Czech human rights activist Lukáš Houdek: Once I learnt to defend myself, it was natural to start fighting for others

Lukáš Houdek, photo: Veronika Ruppert / Czech Radio

Lukáš Houdek is a Czech artist, a leading figure in the Hate Free Culture initiative, and an openly gay campaigner for LGBTQ rights. During Prague Pride week we met up to talk about his work, which has taken him from excluded localities in the Czech Republic to Ghana or, most recently, the Republic of South Africa. I began by asking him what led him to get involved in the field of human rights.

“For me it was very personal. I am Czech, ethnically, even though some people think I am Roma - in fact that happens quite a lot. I was bullied as a child for my sexual identity, living in a small town in the Czech Republic. And I started to be interested in Roma issues when I was around 15 years old. When people ask me how it happened that I went to study this subject at university I say I think the connection was being an outcast in a small town, when nobody likes you, everybody laughs at you or beats you. So when I was able to stand on my own two feet, it was logical to try to fight for justice for others as well –because I do not like injustice, and racism and prejudice is injustice.”

So you established the Hate-Free Culture initiative?

“Yes. Well, it is a governmental project and I was selected to lead a governmental campaign against racism and that is show we established the Hate-Free Culture initiative.”

What does your work there entail?

Photo: elPadawan,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“It was very difficult in the beginning, because as I said, it was a governmental project and they had their own ideas about what it should look like. We decided to take an experimental approach and they did not like that at the beginning. That’s the thing – it is experimental, it’s reactive. Of course, we have a general idea about what we are going to do this year, next year, but we do not have a detailed plan. We decide from one day to the next and plan just a few days ahead so as to be able to react to what is happening at the given time.”

How do you react?

“If there is a hot issue we call experts or find a human interest story that is relevant to the issue and conduct an interview or make a video – kind of like a media approach. Because we were tired of campaigns that would put up billboards once a year, billboards that were no longer relevant because they were planned two years ago. We wanted to do something HERE and NOW.   So we tried this new approach – to make a campaign that is here every day and discusses issues with people via social media.”

Do you find that it works? Have you managed to change someone’s attitude – or are you preaching to the converted?

Photo: Dominik Jůn

“I honestly don’t know. I think about it a lot – if we are successful in our work. I think it is very hard to change someone’s opinion, but when we chair debates online we can see that there is a change, at least in the manner in which they communicate about these issues. In the beginning, when we started, people were very aggressive, people were not able to talk to each other about these issues and so we prepared a very good codex I think and are now making people adhere to it. And I would say that after seven years we have been successful in this – there are still people with very diverse opinions joining in the debates –which is very valuable – but they are debating in a civilized manner. If you look at the discussion forums under articles in the mainstream media it is a kind of discussion ghetto  -nobody really wants to get involved because they would get into nasty conflicts with people of other opinions. We try to avoid this and that is why people consider our debates a “safe space”. I think that is something that we achieved – the people are willing to discuss thorny issues in a polite, civilized way.”

What makes people prejudiced and racist – and when do they become so? At what age?

“I think it is a lack of knowledge –a fear of the unknown. If you get to know someone, or some community, for sure it has to change your opinion a bit. We also do that. We have Open Breakfasts to which we invite people from diverse religious, ethnic, sexual groups. They bake something at home, bring it, they share it with the others and they talk – those breakfasts started many new friendships.  And we are happy to see members of the broader public at these events. Some come because they want to see Muslims, for example. They have heard so much about them but have never actually seen on live, so they come. The diversity in those groups is very important.”

What kind of racism do you see in the Czech Republic today? Overt or latent? Against whom?

“In general, there are very strong feelings against the Roma. That is something that has been here long-term and that does not change. Five years ago there were very strong feelings against Muslims and refugees. And people said the Roma got a respite from the hate because it turned against refugees and Muslims, but it was not really true. We have software monitoring our debates and we found that the hate against the Roma was unchanged, only the hate against Muslims and refugees was even stronger. What we saw as well – and that is very sad – is that when there was hate against Muslims some people would speak up in their defence, but in debates about the Roma no one would speak up for them.  The Roma do not have many supporters. So I would say that the worst prejudice here is against the Roma who are still struggling to improve their lives.”

Is it overt or latent racism?

“In that respect the situation is different from that in the US, where you really have very serious hate crimes. We have hate crimes here as well, also directed against Muslims or human rights activists, but people do not get killed, normally. We had such an incident in the 1990s when neo-Nazism was on the rise, but now racism is more on a verbal level, online or in the small things that people say or do daily. The fact that as a Roma you are cannot rent an apartment or have a hard time finding a job…”

Without it being said – explicitly …

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“Without it being said or, sometimes, even with it being said. I think many Roma have a problem with self-confidence, they do not believe in themselves, because when these things happen every day you assume they will happen to you –so you don’t even apply for a job because you think it is a waste of time – maybe it wouldn’t be, but you expect the worst.”

How much racism is handed down from generation to generation? How much is it about what a child hears growing up at home?

“For sure it is a big factor. I will tell you an interesting story that one policeman told me. He said he was watching a boxing tournament on TV at home with his kids who were about four or five years old at the time. And he said – Who is your favourite? And one of the kids said “the red one”, the other said “the blue one” because of the shorts they wore. And the father said – “I like the black one”, because one of the fighters was black. And the kids turned to him and said – “But there is no black one?!”. So he was really surprised that they did not see that one of the boxers’ skin colour was different.   The man approached me at some event and told me that story and he said this is where he realized that skin colour was not important for them at all. So yes, children soak up what they hear at home. I myself was prejudiced against the Roma. I chose to write an essay about the Roma when I was at high school, because it was a hot issue. I come from a bit of a racist family and when I was small they would tell me  -If you are bad, we will call the gypsies and they will come and steal you –so I was really afraid of them.”

So what happened?

Photo: Filip Jandourek

“Because I needed to write the essay, my mother went to visit a Roma family in the vicinity, which seems very embarrassing now. But it was a good move on her part, she saved my life. She went there and said – My son is doing something about the Roma. Could he come here and see how you live? Like going to the zoo (laughs). So I went there. I was 15 or 16 at the time. They made dinner for me and played Roma music and told me stories about their culture. And I was really astonished. I had no clue that there were such interesting people living next to me – that you don’t have to go to an exotic country to find something so interesting. So I started to read about their history and culture and that’s how it took off.”

So now you are a defender of Roma rights. Did you manage to change your parent’s way of thinking?

“I think a bit. My mother now defends them against the rest of the family as well, even though she is a simple woman, no university education – she just finished primary school and took some evening courses while she had us kids. So she’s not actually an advocate- but if someone makes a comment – she makes one back. The rest of the family have not changed their opinions – but they are careful. They don’t speak the way they did anymore.”

You said that you yourself had experienced prejudice because you are gay. How did that change you?

Lukáš Houdek,  photo: Dominik Jůn

“It changed me a lot. As I said, it is very useful in my work. We write about many people from these communities and very often they have experience of abuse, discrimination, or even violence and that is what I experienced myself, so I can easily relate to their story. I know what to ask – because I know how I felt. So they feel the empathy and it is much easier for me to conduct these interviews. So it helped me with my work, and it also made me stronger. This may sound like a cliché, but it is true because I was also a victim of child abuse, sexual abuse and it all connected in a deadly combo during my teens when you start to realize things. You become aware of your sexual identity and then there is this sexual abuse, and you just connect it somehow in your head and you hate yourself.”

Was it hard coming out in this country?

“It was, yes. Actually, I was outed by someone else. I mean I did tell my parents.  But I also shared that story about the sexual abuse –which was by a man- with my best friend when I was around six or seven – and he spread it around. And people started to laugh at me and bully me –saying I was gay even before I realized it. So the information was out there even before I identified with my sexual orientation. So the hard part of coming out was with my family. It was not easy for my parents. I thought that they would know, for sure. But they didn’t. And my mom didn’t take it very well in the beginning. I mean, she didn’t throw me out of the house, but she tried to convince me to change. She said I can’t know since I had never had sex with a woman and so on. In the end it was OK, but it took some time for her to really accept it and not be ashamed of it.

Photo: Lukáš Houdek

"And that is why I always tell people who want to come out – or who criticize their parents for not taking it very well – that we had many years to realize it and accept it –because accepting it yourself is also a process – and your parents didn’t have that time. So you can’t expect to come to your parents and say “Mom, I’m gay” and that your mom will open a bottle of champagne and say “Well, that’s great! I’m so happy for you! Let’s celebrate.” No, they need the same time, the same process as you had. Moreover, it is not just about them. They are worried about us. They know it will be more difficult and they cannot imagine what our life will look like. Their concern for us is the main reason why they don’t take it very well, I think. But after some time, in most cases, parents accept it.”

You are helping to fight prejudice against the Roma here, against gays, but you are also interested in investigating racism in other countries – you made a documentary about prejudice against albinos in Ghana for which you received an award , and more recently you visited the Republic of South Africa to find out more about violence against white farmers there. What is behind that interest?

“Those stories normally come to me. I don’t find them or I don’t search them out. They come to me and when I have the possibility to explore something I love to do so. With the white farmers in South Africa it was a little bit different, because I was confronted for a very long time – because of what I do – with the view that we just care about blacks, or Roma, or refugees and we don’t care about white people when they are a target of violence or racism. They would tell me – You should go to the RSA to do something about the white genocide. Now, it is very hard to find out from here whether it is really happening or not. You have a lot of information about it on social media but very biased, I would say, and it is very hard to prove if they are right or wrong. So I listened to the “haters” (laughs) and saved a lot of money – because it is expensive – and went to South Africa to make a documentary series for Czech Radio about the situation with white farmers in the RSA.”

So what did you find out?

'Echoes of Apartheid',  photo: Lukáš Houdek

“I found that it is a very complex issue. I found that there is definitely no white-genocide. That is a problem we tend to have when reading such reports. We do not listen to the context. We tend to cherry-pick stuff that fits in with our opinion. It’s the same with violence against white farmers in the RSA. I would say it is very serious – I am really sorry for these people. I met many of them, people who were victims of very brutal violence. When you hear that 47 white farmers were killed last year alone –it is terrible and if you hear it in the Czech Republic where we do not have that many killings it certainly sounds like white genocide, you see the brutal pictures of how they were tortured and it all makes sense. But if you look closer at the situation, you will find that there were 21,000 murders in South Africa altogether and you get a slightly different picture. You see that other people were tortured as well, and that the violence rate is very high. It is not like here where people rob you and let you be, there they just kill you during a robbery –that’s very common.

"So everybody suffers from the widespread violence in South Africa and I tried to include lots of different points of view. I spent time with extremists from the far-right who are preparing for an apocalypse which they say is coming, I spent time with black extremists, with the victims of violence and with experts. And it is interesting that if you look into the statistics you can see that if you are a black person you are even more likely to be a victim of murder in South Africa, because the majority of people killed are blacks. But that does not get so much attention around the world because it does not fit in with the story that is shared on social media –that the white minority is under threat, or that white people around the world are under threat. So it is a very complex issue. In all fairness I would say that there is some racially-motivated violence against white farmers, in some cases for sure – even if experts say it is economic crime. It is true that some of the cases include very brutal torture – and you must ask yourself – why would you torture people so badly? Would you burn their face with an iron, if you just came to steal a cell phone?  These are questions that people need to ask themselves. But for sure there is no white genocide in South Africa.”

How did the Black Lives Movement touch you? There were demonstrations in support of BLM in Prague. Did you feel the need to raise your voice there?

Lukáš Houdek,  photo: David Vaughan

“I don’t take part in protests because of my work. As a government employee, I cannot. But I think it is very important that these demonstrations took place. And here they also highlighted the Roma issue. Because what happened here – and that was quite funny – is that many people shared photos of the BLM protest on Old Town Square on social media with the message We Stand with Black Americans and Black Lives Matter. And others countered –well, it is good that you stand with black Americans but what have you done for Roma lives in the Czech Republic? Are you not sharing these pics just because it is “cool” and because you want to show that you are standing on the “right side”? Would you rent an apartment to a Roma family or hire a Roma person? So that debate was interesting, and, frankly, I think that many of the people who posted those pictures would not rent an apartment to a Roma family. So I think this is a good opportunity for us to start this debate – What does “Black Lives Matter” mean in the Czech context?  That debate has started, but it is still not too loud, so we have to discuss it more, I think.”

Is the struggle to root out racism a never-ending quest?

“I think so, yes. We tend to protect our group; that is natural. But it depends how we deal with this. We tend to protect the group that we identify with and the question is whether we would be prepared to broaden it. I don’t think so, because I think it is important for us to have a smaller group that we identify with –it gives us a sense of identity, a sense of who we are.”

So what is the best we can hope for?

“We can hope for people to open their minds. I think it is happening, I think these discussions help people to see things, even though they are very aggressive sometimes. But then, if you show people a mirror they will not thank you – they will normally fight back. I speak from my own experience –if someone tells me I am wrong I try to defend myself and pretend everything is OK, but then I think about it a lot and I change my opinions a bit. So I think people’s opinions are gradually changing. Question is - if we are not going backwards –because if you look at Poland with its LGBT issues, Hungary and even other countries, it seems that suddenly we have stopped progressing and we are going backwards. So we’ll see what’s going to happen, because now people tend to protect their own boundaries more than ever before.”

If you want to hear Lukáš Houdek’s documentary series for Czech Radio on violence against white farmers in the Republic of South Africa go to: