What the Czech Republic Tells Us.
One of the consistent features of the gay rights movement over the past five decades has been a belief in progress: Members of the gay community and their allies have insisted that, over time, attitudes about homosexuality will only change for the better. In part, this conviction is based on the power of moral suasion, but it also relies on sheer demographics: Younger people tend to be more supportive of gay rights. Even opponents of equality have conceded that the clock is ticking against them; as New York Times columnist and gay marriage opponent Ross Douthat recently said, “If I were putting money on the future of gay marriage, I would bet on it.”
A recent report published by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago seems to support this assumption. Surveying people in 31 countries periodically over 17 years on their attitudes toward homosexual behavior (“sexual relations between two adults of the same sex”), researchers recorded increased approval in 27 nations and a decrease of approval in only four. In some countries, like Norway and New Zealand, the increase in approval was dramatic. There is still a long way to go: According to the latest available data, majorities or pluralities in only 15 nations agree with the sentiment that homosexual behavior is “not wrong at all,” while majorities or pluralities in 20 believe homosexuality to be “always wrong.” Nevertheless, gay activists have trumpeted the poll as a positive development.
Yet there is one negative, and largely overlooked, finding: The Czech Republic was one of the countries where the number of citizens who disapprove of homosexual behavior has increased, and by 14 points. (The other countries are Russia, Latvia, and Cyprus, all of which are heavily influenced by the conservative Orthodox Church.) The fact that an increasing number of Czechs—people famous for their tolerance and liberalism, who brought the world the Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel, and the brothel that offers free sex in exchange for the intercourse be live-streamed on the internet—believe same-sex relations to be wrong is perplexing and worrying. If progress is stymied in the Czech Republic, could it be threatened in other, ostensibly “liberal” countries as well?
ACCORDING TO THE poll, while 34 percent of Czechs believed homosexual behavior was either “always wrong” or “almost always wrong” in 1994, that number jumped to 48 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, in 1994, nearly half of the population believed that homosexual behavior was either “wrong only sometimes” or “not wrong at all.” In 2008, that dropped to 40 percent.
What could explain these numbers? Disapproval of homosexuality tends to correspond with high religiosity, but it’s hard to find a more secular country in the world than the Czech Republic, which boasts one of the highest recorded rates of atheism. The most recent census here found that 60 percent of Czechs disavow any religious affiliation, and a study conducted earlier this year by Northwestern University found that, by 2050, that number will grow to 90 percent. Disapproval of homosexuality also tends to correspond with poor economic development, yet the Czech economy has grown impressively since the end of communism (the country does not use the euro and has largely avoided the current, continent-wide economic crisis).
Perhaps the most confounding aspect of this equation, however, is that the Czechs are famous (at times, infamous) for their libertine attitudes towards sex and relationships. Prague is often noted for the ubiquity of its sex shops, the brashness of touts hawking free passes to strip clubs in Wenceslas Square, and the general bawdiness of the British stag parties that infest its cobblestone streets every weekend. There’s also the not insignificant fact that the city is renowned as the gay porn capital of the world, and that, with legal prostitution, it is known in gay circles as the Bangkok of Central Europe. On the legal side of things, homosexuality has been decriminalized since 1961, gays are allowed to serve openly in the military, and registered partnerships, which provide most of the same benefits as marriage (though not the ability to adopt children), were established in 2006 and enjoy broad public support.
But scratch the country’s veneer, and things aren’t exactly what they seem to be. “I don’t think these numbers are really all that surprising because I don’t think Czech people are as liberal or accepting as they think they are,” Aleš Rumpel, a Czech gay activist recently told The Prague Post. “Czechs aren’t religious, so there aren’t a lot of aggressive, outspoken opponents, but the way people think is quite conservative and narrow-minded.” A recent national poll seems to confirm this observation, finding that a slight majority of Czechs said that having a gay neighbor would create an “issue.”
As Jacob Labendz, a Ph.D. candidate at the Washington University in St. Louis studying Czech history who has lived on and off in the country for the past decade, says,“[P]eople who write about the Czech Republic, and this includes Czechs themselves, often confuse a political culture of social libertarianism with open-mindedness and libertinism.” In other words, just because there is not an organized anti-gay movement in the country as there is in, say, Poland (where the Catholic Church is enormously influential and where disapproval of homosexuality remains high), does not necessarily indicate widespread approval.
A key reason for the country’s passive homophobia is likely its history, which has been one of relentless homogenization, fueled by an intolerant nationalism often overlooked by sympathetic Western observers who like to paint the Czech Republic as a gutsy little nation surrounded by more powerful neighbors (namely, Germany and the USSR). But this victimization narrative obscures many ugly aspects of Czech history, as recounted in historian Mary Heimann’sCzechoslovakia: The State That Failed. Heimann details a “petty Czech chauvinism” that, among other things, led to official government discrimination of minority Hungarian, Slovaks, Poles, and Ukrainians following the creation of the First Republic in 1918, and the forcible and violent expulsion of ethnic German citizens (a full quarter of the country’s then-population) following World War II. Today, as a recent poll shows, many of the country’s 94 percent of citizens who are ethnic Czech remain wary (or worse) of minorities, particularly Roma, of whom some three-fourths of ethnic Czechs express negative opinions. It’s not difficult, then, to gather that Czechs might harbor negative attitudes toward homosexuals, who, whether or not they’re ethnically Czech, still fall outside what Labendz refers to as “a cult of normalcy” that pervades the country.
Then, there is a secondary perception problem, which is that Prague, a highly cosmopolitan city, is representative of the rest of the country. In fact, only 1.5 million of the country’s 10 million citizens live there, and the Czech Republic has an urban-rural divide when it comes to liberal attitudes, just like many other countries. But even the hedonism of Prague is somewhat misunderstood. The reason for the gay porn industry’s strength, for instance, is largely a function of a laissez-faire approach to sex and relationships in general—which can also explain the divide between Czechs’ official and personal positions on homosexuality. The approach, influenced by 40 years of communist rule and a pervasive distrust in the exasperatingly corrupt contemporary political culture, can best be summed up as: We may not approve of your lifestyle, but we don’t think the government should discriminate against you.
BUT, IF THIS helps explain why Czechs are more conservative than most people assume, what explains the decline in their approval of gay behavior? What changed between 1994 and today? Here, politics again comes into play.
The higher approval in 1994 may have been a result of the invisibility of the gay community during the communist era, which had ended only a few years prior. “Homophobia actually doesn’t exist in this country,” gay activist Jiri Hromada told The Prague Post in 1993, because “for 40 years people had no information about homosexuals.” With the increasing visibility of gays since 1994, a backlash may have developed against a community that previously hadn’t even been on people’s radars.
Labendz also points out that the higher level of support may have been an attempt by Czechs to distance themselves from the communist regime of the immediate past, which they associated with oppression of minorities and retrograde social attitudes. According to Labendz, “publicly supporting their victim groups, homosexuals included, no longer offers the political cachet that it did in the nineties.”
What’s more, in the early 1990s, Czechs were eager to integrate into the European Union, and approval of homosexuality was a marker of Western European enlightenment. That pro-Europe sentiment, however, has since waned, largely due to the euro crisis and a general feeling, 20 years after the end of communism, that being a part of Western Europe is not all that it was cracked up to be. Although a member of the EU, the Czech Republic today is skeptical of the body. The country’s president and most popular politician, Vaclav Klaus, has long been a thorn in its side; in 2009, he was the last hold-out against signing the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. “The answer to the question ‘Why reject homosexuals?’ is another question: ‘What’s gayer than Europe?’” says Labendz. (Klaus, as it happens, recently criticized Prague’s first gay pride parade, to be held August 13, saying, “I do not feel pride in the event.”)
Given all this, the Czech Republic’s place in the NORC study poses important questions that apply to gay rights campaigns around the world. It complicates the belief that broad acceptance of homosexuality, while perhaps a long way off in the future, is inevitable. The lessons learned from the Czech Republic reinforce the reality that the battle for gay acceptance is far from over.