Prague Pride has ideal balance of activism and entertainment, says director Czeslaw Walek

Czeslaw Walek, photo: Lukáš Houdek / Prague Pride

The third Prague Pride has just got underway, with a week of events celebrating sexual minorities due to culminate in a huge parade through the city on Saturday. On the eve of the event, I spoke to its director Czeslaw Walek about a range of issues, including Prague Pride’s relations with the current and former Czech presidents. But as this year’s theme is coming out my first question was what Walek and other LGBT leaders can do to make that process easier for those who are still in the closet.

Czeslaw Walek, photo: Lukáš Houdek / Prague Pride
“To tell my personal story. To show them that, OK, it is difficult, you have to struggle, you have to struggle with yourself and then you have to struggle with your surroundings, but in the end it gets better.

“It’s much better to live as who you are, and not to hide who you really are. I think this is the only way we could help. Because you can’t force somebody to come out – you can only show that it’s better to come out.”

How was your own coming out?

“Difficult. Difficult. I’m actually a good example, because I come from 600 kilometres from Prague and I’m from the Polish minority, which is a very claustrophobic, closed community.

“So my inner fight lasted till I was 27, which was pretty long when you look at gays today – they come out when they are 18.

“Then when I said it to my mom, she said, OK, but don’t tell father. It took me another two years to actually talk to my father about it. When he found out it was before Christmas and he threw me out of the house. He took it very badly.

“Then somehow it got settled and they said, OK, but nobody here can know [laughs]. Of course, they are respected members of the Polish community there, and this would be a huge embarrassment.

“Then there was Pride, you know, and I didn’t know there was going to be such a fuss and that I would become the best known gay in a matter of weeks [laughs].

“Then obviously the whole community found out, and that was a coming out for them, or for my father, because my mum was no longer alive at that time.

Prague Pride 2012, photo: Kristýna Maková
“That was very difficult for him and we had a difficult time. For a year we didn’t really talk.

“And now I think it’s getting better. My partner is already accepted by him. They’ve met several times. But it’s a long process. Now I am 38, so it took 10 years till it settled down.

“But it’s worth it, because now I feel that he knows who I am and he is fine with it. And I know who I am and I’m fine with it.

Among your events [in Pride week] are some debates and I know you have guests coming who are out politicians from other countries. Are there no out Czech politicians?

“There is no openly gay or lesbian politicians in high ranking positions in Parliament or the Senate or the government, at this moment.

“One of our speakers is Gustav Slamečka, who actually didn’t come out himself but was forcefully outed by somebody else and he had to deal with it. And I think this is a good example from the Czech Republic, to show how the coming out process can be harsh.

“We have politicians from the US – we have a US congressman. We have a UK MP and a parliamentarian from the Netherlands. We also have a regional politician from Bavaria.

“We’ve really tried to make it a diverse group. The guy from the UK is from the Conservative Party. From Bavaria – it’s the most conservative region in Germany.

“We wanted to show our politicians, those who are not out, that you could be openly gay and you wouldn’t lose voters. I think, personally, quite the contrary – they would appreciate that you are honest with them.”

Prague Pride 2012, photo: Kristýna Maková
Pride culminates with the parade on Saturday. I read a previous interview with you in which you said before the first parade that you were afraid people would come naked. Are there any rules or guidelines for behaviour?

“There are no rules or guidelines. Every year I’m afraid… I’m sure there will be one time when somebody will actually take off their clothes.

“And we cannot censor people regarding how they should come, what they should wear, and what they should say. Because that would be against the whole idea of Pride.

“I am afraid of it, not because of those people, but I’m afraid the media would pick it up and it would be the only outcome of Pride – the naked ass of somebody on the front page of the newspapers. I wouldn’t know how to deal with that from the PR perspective.

“But I actually appreciate the fact that people take the parade as a fun event. They come there wearing colourful stuff and enjoy the city. I think this is the core idea behind the parade – for once to enjoy the city that belongs also to us.”

You have had to change the route this year because some groups who are opposed to you guys have booked some of the spots on your original route. Who are those people, and how do you perceive your opponents?

“First of all, we did change the route, but not only because of that. We had to change the place of the concert, of the end point of the parade. That was the principal reason why we changed the route.

“The fact that other groups blocked half of the city with their demonstrations complicated our organisation a little bit, but not so much.

Prague Pride 2012, photo: Kristýna Maková
“When it comes to those groups, it’s sad. Because those are very minor groups. They are either religious or…D.O.S.T [an anti-EU, anti-multiculturalism group who opposed a law against discrimination], I don’t even know what they are ultra-nationalist or populist. I can’t define them, but those two words, populist and nationalist, come into my head when I think about D.O.S.T.

“Those are very minor groups who usually don’t do anything during the whole year but then Pride comes and they want to get public attention. They use us to get it.

“But last year and the year before they had, I don’t know, 50 people. So I don’t really take them seriously. This is not a security threat for us.”

Do you regard President Miloš Zeman as an opponent of Pride? A few months ago he refused to appoint Martin C. Putna as professor because, he said, Mr. Putna had carried a provocative sign in a previous Pride parade.

“The way he dealt with Professor Putna is appalling. I think he misused Prague Pride to justify not inaugurating Professor Putna as a professor.

“In my personal opinion the reasons were in fact completely different, and not the fact that he was expressing his opinion at the Prague Pride.

“But I do personally think that he doesn’t have the same opinion as President Klaus had, and he’s not against Pride as such. Because last year we had him at our debate of presidential candidates about human rights and LGBT rights.

“Every year we send the president an invitation to our opening reception. Klaus never replied, but Zeman replied – with apologies, but he did reply.

“So I think if he was opposed to Prague Pride he would communicate with us totally differently.”

Václav Klaus, photo: Filip Jandourek
You mentioned President Klaus, Mr. Zeman’s predecessor. Is he genuinely anti-gay? Why was he coming out with statements saying he was against “homosexualism”, in which he kind of made being gay [or perhaps more accurately supporting gay rights] into an ideology. Where was all that coming from, do you think?

“I have no idea. You would have to ask him. But I think he is genuinely homophobic. Because it’s continuous. It’s not only about the statements that he made two years ago, but also last year he supported D.O.S.T and this year he put on his website a cartoon against LGBT adoptions.

“I’m sure if you talked to him he would say, listen, I am genuinely conservative and I’d like to keep the world order as it was.

“But as David Cameron said when he was defending the marriage equality act in the UK, because you are conservative you should preserve marriage, no matter who is marrying whom.

“This is conservative politics for me, so the stance that Klaus has is I think more homophobic than conservative.”

My final question is about Pride in general – how would you like to see it developing in future years?

“I think that we’ve found a nice balance between activism and entertainment. This is a huge advantage of Prague.

“Because when you go to Western countries it’s a pure entertainment and commercial and money generating event, without much of an activism or human rights aspect.

Czeslaw Walek (right), photo: Kristýna Maková
“On the other hand, when you go to the East it’s about pure activism and the fight for human rights.

“And we’ve found this nice balance and I hope that in the future we will keep this balance, because it’s very important.

“I don’t know how it will develop in the future. I am pretty sure that it will get more commercial, because the fact is you have to somehow earn money to organise it.

“But I still really hope that it will keep this balance between activism and entertainment. So people who are more interested in human rights issues and LGBT rights will still find it important to come to the Prague festival.”