Why did Czechoslovakia decriminalise homosexuality relatively early?

Czechoslovakia decriminalised homosexuality in 1961, earlier than many Western European countries. Why was it that the generally repressive Communist regime showed such tolerance? And what was like life for gay people under communism?

The Prague government was not a European champion in the legalization of homosexual relations. Countries such as France and Belgium preceded Czechoslovakia by a century.

Nevertheless, decriminalization in 1961 (it entered into force on January 1, 1962) came ahead of states like England, where gays could be sent to prison until 1967. West Germany introduced such legislation in 1968, Norway in 1972 and Scotland in 1981. It took Ireland and Russia until 1993 to do so.

Kateřina Lišková | Photo: Czech Television

How come Communist Czechoslovakia – a hardline state in many regards – was so liberal, relatively speaking?

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That’s a question for sociologist Kateřina Lišková, author of the book Sexual Liberation, Socialist Style.

“Thanks to sexologists. Sexological research on homosexuality was conducted here between 1950 and 1958. The focus was whether homosexuality was ‘curable’ or not. I'm only talking about male homosexuality – that's because it was criminal; female homosexuality was not regulated by any laws. So sexologists focused on men. After eight years of research, they concluded that they had not been able to cure a single patient. That included men who, for example, got married, but did not start to prefer women as sexual objects. So in 1958, Czechoslovak sexologists concluded that male homosexuality could not be cured. And if something can't be cured – that is, nothing can be done either by the person or by science – then it can't be criminal. That’s why they lobbied the state to have homosexuality dropped from a planned amendment to the penal code.”

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The Communist leadership regarded homosexuality as a scientific matter, rather than a legal one. When the experts said homosexuality did not constitute deviancy but was just one form of human sexuality, and recommended it be struck off the criminal code, that happened.

Incidentally, the previous law from 1950 defined the maximum penalty for sex between two men as one year in prison, a relatively light sentence in the international context.

Even after 1961, sexual intercourse between an adult male and a male under the age of 18 remained punishable. For heterosexual contact, the age of consent was 15 years.

Jaroslav Zvěřina | Photo: Czech Radio

Sexologist Jaroslav Zvěřina says that relations with youths often ended in punishment for gay adults in the form of “protective treatment”.

"As a young psychiatrist, I often dealt with the protective treatment of homosexuals. If a gay adult went out for a beer with a young man and then had sex, it was criminal. In fact, the boys would often denounce or blackmail them. As sexologists, we never wanted homosexuals to be punished for being homosexual."

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The only therapy Czechoslovak specialists provided to their homosexual patients was acceptance of their orientation. Conversion therapy was ruled out in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the 1980s memoirs of Czech gay men, we read that group therapy with psychologists was in fact an ideal place to meet partners, as lonely hearts ads and such like did not exist.

Decriminalization was undoubtedly a major step in improving the lives of gay people.

However, it was still a strictly heteronormative society. In short, whoever was "homo" was not considered normal.

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Sociologist Kateřina Lišková agrees that there were prejudices against gays in society:

“There was prejudice, but at the same time homosexuality was not discussed publicly, until, that is, the latter part of the 80s, when homosexuality began to be talked about in connection with HIV/AIDS.”

Nevertheless, gay men in Czechoslovakia had many options, suggests Kateřina Lišková.

Photo: Anna Košlerová,  Czech Radio

"There are studies that show that those men actually lived quite well at the time. Certainly in Prague, where there was a great degree of anonymity. Looking back, some men recalled that when the Metro was being built, public toilets began to appear there and were a perfect place for sex. There were cafes and clubs that were known to be gay friendly. Research has shown that if you can’t declare who you are out loud in society, you won't automatically have a bad life. The research of all my colleagues in Czechia confirms that gays and lesbians, especially during late socialism, did not complain much about their lives."

Coming out was far from common. Sometimes people were outed by the state authorities. For instance, if someone contracted a venereal disease, the public health agency reported it to their workplace (as part of measures against the spread of infection).

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What’s more, there was considerable social pressure to enter into marriage with a woman as it was almost impossible for a single man to be assigned a state apartment. The State Security was also interested in the sexual orientation of citizens, keeping "pink lists" that it used for blackmail.

Author: Libor Kukal
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