Jan Seidl: The draft bill which would let gays and lesbians adopt their partner’s biological child will test the limits of people’s tolerance

Jan Seidl, photo: Kristýna Maková

The Prague Pride festival which is underway in the Czech capital this week provides an important platform for debate on the life of the LGBT community and issues that concern them. How has their life changed since the fall of communism and what are their hopes for the future? To find out that and more I talked to Jan Seidl, from the Prague Centre of Queer Memory and started by asking him to explain what purpose this recently established center serves.

Jan Seidl, photo: Kristýna Maková
“The purpose of our center is to act as a memory institution of the LGBT community, it serves several functions, it works as an archive, which means that we collect written historical sources from people, it serves as a library and as a very small museum which continually grows. In the first year of our activity we received quite a large amount of three-D objects from people that demonstrate the past of the LGBT community in the Czech Republic and we also conduct oral interviews with older LGBT people trying to collect and preserve their memories for the future.”

And what kind of stories do they tell? What was their life like in the communist era?

Illustrative photo: Nathan Rupert, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“It is all kinds of stories. Every story is individual, but basically as concerns the communist regime, one has to distinguish between the legal framework and the real everyday life of the LGBT community. Until 1961, the country’s laws, especially the penal code provided ground for criminal prosecution of homosexual acts, meaning gay sex. It was decriminalized in 1961 but the regime maintained some discriminatory provisions in the penal code which meant that until 1990 there was not complete equality in terms of what people could do in their private lives. So this legal framework was one thing, another thing was that the authorities – a wide range of authorities from the police to employers – could make arbitrary use of laws in acting on their prejudices. There are for instance stories of gay men who told us how they were discriminated at their workplace under the pretext that colleagues who had families had more right to take their holidays in the summer and not the autumn when nobody wanted to go on holiday. So this arbitrary use of what was the norm in society was quite characteristic for the period from the 1960s to the 1980s.”

And how has the life of the LGBT community changed since the fall of communism?

“I would say that the most obvious feature was the fact that very shortly after the Velvet Revolution this topic started to be discussed openly and quite broadly in the media.”

And they started coming out…

“Many older gays or lesbians could realize the full meaning of their identity only after the fall of communism.”

“Yes, this made it easier for people to come out and I would say that a lot of older people who were gays or lesbians could realize the full meaning of their identity only after the fall of communism. Before they considered themselves as heterosexuals, or they denied their true identity to themselves …”

So they married, had children…

“Yes, they married, had children and that changed after 1989. I would say that this discursive liberty in the media, in society was the most important change just after the revolution, together with the equalization of the provisions in the penal code. But going back to communism, I would say that the everyday life of LGBT people especially in the big cities like Prague, Brno and Bratislava could have been quite satisfying for people who managed to realize their identity, who managed to enter the community. I think LGBT people could have had quite a satisfactory way of life even before 1989…”

But many were afraid to….

Illustrative photo: Martin Dorazín
“Many were afraid, but of course there were those who were not afraid, even during the communist era and those, I would say courageous people –despite all the arbitrariness from the authorities – managed to lead quite satisfying lives as gays or lesbians. “

Do you think that the Czech public is tolerant towards the LGBT community –and what kind of tolerance is it?

“I think that it is, in principle. Of course, the limits of tolerance towards LGBT people are not precisely known but there are events that make it possible to test those limits.”

Such as?

“Such as the draft law on registered partnerships which was approved ten years ago and which was debated for eight long years before winning approval. So in my view this was a very important test of the ability of Czech society to respect LGBT people and give them some rights. And now there is another test on the horizon. ”

“Prague Pride creates an open space for the LGBT community to discuss topics they consider important.”

Now we have a law on registered partnerships and there is a draft bill which would give gays and lesbians the right to adopt their partner’s biological child – and that is causing plenty of friction…so is this a line that Czech society is not yet ready to cross?

“We will see, because the debate on this draft law started in parliament just before it broke up for the summer holidays –it will be taken up again when the lower house reconvenes and I am very curious about the turn the debate will take. Because the debate – and public reaction to it - will in my opinion show very clearly the present state of these limits.”

We heard some outrageous statements within this debate – for instance one MP suggested the law might lead to gays wanting to have sex with children. To what do you ascribe such shocking statements?

“I think that the statement by this lady is not indicative of the views of Czech politicians in general – I think, I hope it is an extreme and her own personal view and I was happy to hear a great many politicians from her own party but also from other parties distancing themselves from her statements. And I hope that the debate in the lower house in the autumn will be more calm. This is not to say that I expect every MP to be in favour of this proposal – of course there will be some opposition to it – but I would appreciate a calm and cultivated debate as a reflection of the state of our society.”

Is there adequate education on the subject in schools to fight these prejudices?

Illustrative photo: stephaniehaynes, CC BY-SA 2.0
“I am not sure. What I know is that our partner organization Proud – Platform for Equality, Acceptance and Diversity – offers secondary schools a series of lectures on LGBT QI people. And I think their lectures have a big impact on the students of those schools who ask for them, but I am not sure whether these issues are part of the general school curriculum.”

What about media coverage? Are these issues addressed on a regular basis or do they crop up once a year when the Prague Pride festival comes round?

“I think these topics are addressed on a regular basis. I am not a media expert, I am a historian, so I am just an ordinary recipient of media coverage and I think that the mainstream media generally do a good job, especially the public media.”

We should say that the Prague Pride Festival is underway this week. How has Prague Pride – which is now in its sixth year – contributed to improving the life of the LGBT community in the Czech Republic? What impact has it had?

Photo: Prague Pride
“I think that the most important impact of Prague Pride is to create an open space for the LGBT community to discuss topics. Before 2011, the first year of the festival, I can’t remember there being any broad intra-community debate on what our common interests are, what we want, who we are and so on. And I think that Prague Pride with its wide range of events every year provides such a platform for people in the community but also outside of the community to raise topics, to raise issues which they consider important. And what is quite symptomatic, this year it is not only Prague Pride that is taking place this week, but it is also the first year of an alternative festival called Alt Pride organized for LGBTQI people, but also straight people of course, who are not satisfied with certain aspects of Prague Pride. It aims to provide an alternative to Prague Pride and I think this plurality of communication platforms where issues can be raised and discussed is very good for our community.”

What aspects are they not satisfied with?

“The organizers of Alt Pride criticize –in their words – the tendency of Prague Pride to assign overdue importance to marketing, to PR strategies, to business strategies, in how they communicate the festival, in their choice of topics and so on. I would say that Alt Pride is more left- oriented. ”