Michal Pitoňák: Understanding diversity makes society more robust

Nearly two-fifths of people who identify as LGBTQ+ in Czechia have faced harassment or insults because of their orientation or identity over the past year. And seven out of ten people think insulting remarks from politicians are widespread. This according to a new study produced by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Queer Geography group. I asked one of the authors of the study, Michal Pitoňák, why these numbers are so high.

“They are part of phenomena that have been overlooked thus far. Issues and topics related to LGBTQ+ people are being overlooked. They not being paid enough attention to and people also internalise this.

Michal Pitoňák | Photo: Thomas McEnchroe,  Radio Prague International

“Most people think that discrimination is something that they are used to. That it is something that is happening in their everyday lives. They end up thinking that it’s ok, that it is part of everyday life.

“However, it also reveals how largely overlooked the problem is. Almost a half of the surveyed people are being discriminated against or have been discriminated against over the past five years.”

Could you give an example in your study of what people cited as discrimination?

“There are so many types of discrimination. For example, people are discriminated against when it comes to access to rent and housing.

“The moment they become visibly queer or trans, their potential landlord may tell them that they want someone else, or that they don’t want them to live there anymore.

“Attacks in the public space may be very common as well. That means that people are either being verbally assaulted, which may be hurtful and, indeed, may harm people in the long term because they then presume that they will be harassed again. They presume that they are being rejected. They expect it and they start feeling that there is more of a need for concealment.

“There are so many types of harassment. We could spend a whole weekend here talking about the types of assaults. There is sexual harassment specifically targeting women, trans women too, there are physical attacks that are very common against gay men and this is also reflective of how normalised physical harm and attacks against men in the public space are. The latter in contrast, for example, to how normalised sexual harassment is towards women.”

The number of respondents who said that they consider hate speech from politicians towards LGBT+ people widespread has also risen substantially over the past five years. What did you term as hate speech in your survey and why do you think it rose? Is it also a consequence of more people being aware of this problem and reporting on it?

“We have been using measures that were used before and we were very careful about using these measures in order to be able to track the development. Our study responds to the need for an international comparison, as well as to the study of trends over time, because the methodology thus far was so loose that we couldn’t have told you before that these trends were changing. Namely, because we used different methodology.

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“We used measures that were used by the Fundamental Rights Agency in 2012, then it was used by our public defender of rights in 2018 and now we are using the same measures again. We didn’t define what hate speech is and didn’t even use the term in there.

“We just asked whether people have heard insults from the side of politicians, whether they have heard some aversion, or discourse that is not affirmative but is very much against LGBQT+ people. This is something that people are of course more aware of, but it is also more common. It can actually be said that it legitimises those types of discrimination that we see rising, because people live in a society and if something is coming from those who are in power, like politicians, and if it feels ok that trans people are disgusting to someone.

“This was a statement by the president from two years ago, I believe, then this legitimises some sort of harm within the discourse that is coming from politicians and it is happening.”

The obvious thing that comes to mind is that we always hear that society is becoming more polarised and perhaps that is forcing politicians to be more edgy, so to say. Is this what is happening?

“Especially in other countries, such as in Poland, Hungary and Romania, or even in Croatia, Slovenia and in other countries within the region, politicians have tried to politicise LGBTQ+ issues. This is namely because the contemporary political debate and the contemporary ways in which people can be mobilised are no longer really working when it comes to typical political issues such as taxes and policymaking.

"It’s more about emotions, moral issues and they try to incite conflicts and find how one group can be polarised against another.

Photo: pontinsu,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“LGBTQ+ issues are not very much understood by the majority of people within those societies, such as in Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. This makes it easy to spread stereotypes that can polarise people so that you can allegedly protect your citizens by guarding the status-quo that you have created in your politics.

“However, thankfully, within our society there has been a lot of societal cultural education within past decades, so we are more resistant towards this type of politicisation than these other countries.”

If you were to compare the Czech Republic to the wider European Union on these questions of hate speech or assaults towards the relevant groups. Looking at the map provided in your study it seems to lie somewhere in the middle between countries of the post-Soviet bloc which seem to be less understanding towards this community and the West which seems to be more so. How far is the Czech Republic in terms of this divide?

“As a human geographer I always like questions related to regionalisation. We can of course easily simplify the picture and see the former Iron Curtain and see this kind of West vs East divide. However, I see it in a more complicated way. Within Central and Eastern Europe, which is just another construct that we introduce within regionalisation, we see it within topics of LGBTQ+ issues.

“We, Czechs, are more similar to German speaking countries, because we share some history and a political past as well, which makes us more similar in accepting these communities’ diversity within society.

“However, our political representation has a different taste than that of society. We can say that society is accepting and largely pro-LGBTQ+ issues, but the political representation differs very much on these issues from society.”

Political representation may change over time, perhaps it is also a generational issue. In any case, if we look specifically at society, are there any specific stances that surprise you when we compare them the overall regional comparison that we were talking about? I know, for example, that Czechs are quite open to gay marriage.

Photo: Ivan Samkov,  Pexels

“Czechs are open to gay marriage. They would oppose the sterilisation of trans people and I would say that they would be totally open to the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights that are on the table.

“However, as I said, politicians are not into that and this is also related to the low level of public participation in political advocacy. This is something that is related to the country’s socialist heritage – people tend to feel that they are free not to engage in politics anymore because up until 1989 they were forced to be filled with these Communist and socialist understandings of politics.

“Part of the freedom that was then achieved was not to be interested in politics. This is unfortunately one of the reasons behind why LGBTQ+ issues and rights are not so much in touch with what society wants. The politicians are more experts on taxes, certain reforms, but not on human rights and issues related to these soft societal topics.”

On the other hand I suppose one could say that this is probably unlikely to change given the ongoing situation where we see economic and security issues becoming more and more important. Are you worried that this may have a negative effect, or do you think that things will gradually change?

“I am an optimist in this regard because we have learned from the past that, for example, disinformation and misinformation are a threat to the whole of society. And so is prejudice based on irrationality or hate agenda.

“Society is more robust when it understands that diversity and inclusion is something that is strengthening that society not weakening it. This is something that we see. We see that many issues related to anti-LGBTQ+ agendas are issues that are geopolitically related to certain views and certain regions that fight the current EU, or Western, understanding of what freedom human rights and societal integration is about.

“I think that we are in a phase of learning that some of the issues that are new, that are not so well understood by the majority, are not issues that we are afraid of. Perhaps we do not fully understand them, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be afraid of those changes. It doesn’t mean that we have to understand everything immediately.

“Of course binary gender roles, sexuality, so many identities, it may feel difficult to navigate for a society that has been socialised to understand that there are simply heterosexual people, gays and lesbians, and now there are so many other identities.

“However, this sort of disorientation that people feel is something that is not threatening. I am an optimist. I think it can be part of a normal society because we do not understand everything and we don’t have to fear that which we don’t understand.”

What did your respondents from the relevant community say they would most like to change?

Illustrative photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

“People would mostly like to have more family rights. This is related to marriage equality. Sometimes, political debates look like one group wants registered partnership and the other wants marriage equality.

“However, when we look at the numbers. There is no discussion whatsoever on this issue, because LGBTQ+ people in our sample just want to have marriage equality and they want to have this acknowledged across the whole of the EU. They want to have the right to adopt either the child of their partner or have joint adoption access.

“They also want other rights, such as the right to undergo a gender transition, to be recognised regardless of whether you go and do not go through procedures that are equal to sterilisation.”