Gay under Communism: Part 2

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek

Under Communism, being gay or lesbian was essentially taboo and many still preferred to live with the secret rather than come out. In this second part of a story begun on August 17, Jana Kociánová describes how her secret was eventually uncovered. How, an artistic environment in Prague allowed some room to be who she really was and how that forced her to be open about her sexuality although the era of so-called ‘normalisation’ was did not encourage those who stepped out of line.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek
Real freedom started after the fall of Communism. But many even then chose to keep their secrets because they felt friends and relatives would turn on them for living a lie for so long.

I asked her whether 1960s Czechoslovakia was slightly better for being gay or lesbian?

“Yes, I must say, before the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 came, the two years before, life felt more free, like we have hope for change. It was called by the politicians, ‘Socialism with a human face’. These two years, the Dubček time, we had a good time, our situation was much better until the moment Russia came.

“Then all hope and all life practically finished, as if they stole 20 years of my life. After, the conditions here were harder. You had to be even more careful and people were only themselves in private. Even when you were just sitting with friends in a restaurant, you knew that this and this man was from the STB [Communist secret police], listening.

“My telephone at home for instance, was tapped by police because I was going to Western countries with table tennis. I always heard there was someone listening.”

Afterwards you worked at the city hall, the Magistrat. What was it like there? Did you still have to be careful there all the time?

“Still more careful! But I had something in me from the young years, already. I told myself, when you study hard and you work hard, they can’t have any reason to say something against you. It should be okay.

"I was practically fired at once."

“It was okay, I was a popular sportswoman, I even won some competitions in TV, made some advertising for Prague city hall. I was a so called ‘social case’, it meant I had no parents. First of all, I worked hard, not just by 100 percent but by 150 percent. So they couldn’t do anything.

And the secret was hidden. But I had more and more difficulties with these so called ‘normal men’. They attacked me, wanted me, it was a problem to say, why not.”

Eventually, you were found out. There was one little moment when you dropped your guard and they found out. What happened then?

“Yes. This popular woman, an actress, it was one Friday evening and I was the last to go from work. And because we called each other during the day, I told her that I have big bags of food to carry home, she said that she will come by car and get me home. And so she came in front of the town hall, there was nobody else there.

“Unfortunately, this man, who was the deputy mayor of Prague, came out just at the moment we left the town hall and he had seen us. And among us, our kind of people, it was absolutely normal to kiss. So when he saw us, he came to work the next morning and said, ‘She doesn’t want to sleep with me and she kissed a woman.’”

"There was no secrets because I came from the town hall with this stamp on me."

This was at a work committee or the city hall party committee?

“No, our work committee didn’t want to let me go, they fought for me. But of course, the mayor of Prague had a bigger say, or his deputy mayor. I was practically fired at once. Fortunately I had a lot of friends. There was a dissident director of a very good architectural project, he was the man who had refused the Soviet Union’s help for building the [Prague] metro already. So he was also up-down, up-down and I spent another seven years working in his firm among normal people who already knew who I am to prevent all these remarks.”

So there was no secret?

“There was no secrets because I came from the town hall with this stamp on me. There was no problem anymore and they were very clever people, architects, engineers, not stupid politicians like in the town hall. When I look back now, I can’t understand that I could stand the 13 years in the town hall. I was never in the Communist Party, I was always in rebellion against it.

“I had a good time working with these clever people and a few years before the Velvet Revolution I came to the second biggest travel agency, Sportturist. Because I love working with people, these were the nicest years of my life. After the revolution I opened my own firm, my own travel agency. These years were also very beautiful.

Velvet Revolution,  photo: Peter Turnley,  Public Domain
“I would say for other people like me, it was important at the start of every new job to say, ‘I’m a lesbian’. When you say it at once you have a much simpler life. I had more than 20 years enough to lie or to pretend something. So nowadays I say to young people, please say it. It’s much better, much better.”

When the Velvet Revolution eventually came, how quickly did things change? Or did some things not change in your opinion? Or even changed for the worse?

“When I come back to this first week, when we all stood on Wenceslas Square, there were 300,000 people. We were still very scared. The whole week we were still afraid if it will be successful, if it will absolutely change with this president [Václav] Havel. So I must say really openly, we were still afraid. Of course that comes with being scared every day for so many years.

“So when it was done, the government and so on, everything was free like, overnight. Everything was really just free, everybody enjoyed everything. Everybody had the greatest dreams and hopes to do what you want to do. No STB anymore. You could, slowly, but more and more, say what you think. So it was a wonderful time.”

One thing though is that many people from the 60s and 70s weren’t honest and later they felt that they could not be honest because for so many years they had lived a lie as it were. Now they cannot admit the truth…

"There are quite a lot of older people who live alone and lonely and it’s very hard to find a partner or a friend."

"Yes, that’s a good question. I have a lot of friends of about my age, about 70, who until now don’t tell anybody that they are gay or lesbian. They still keep it secret. Sometimes they live like a [normal] couple but when for such an old man or woman the partner dies they are totally unhappy. They lost the other community after being all the time so hidden. And why were they so hidden? Because all the time they are still afraid to come out. From their past, other friends, colleagues from their work or even relatives would say ‘Aha, you lied to us your whole life. You knew who you were for many years and lied and so you are false.’ So there are quite a lot of older people who live alone and lonely and it’s very hard to find a partner or a friend."