Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast

LGBTQ Rights and Equality - Czeslaw Walek

January 15, 2021 FulbrightD&I Season 1 Episode 5
LGBTQ Rights and Equality - Czeslaw Walek
Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
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Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
LGBTQ Rights and Equality - Czeslaw Walek
Jan 15, 2021 Season 1 Episode 5

In this episode, Czeslaw Walek, alumnus of the Czech Fulbright Commission, and EUR Diversity Coordinator Susanne Hamscha talk about LGBTQ equality, same-sex marriage in the Czech Republic, and  the LGBTQ rights movements in the US and in Europe. Czeslaw is the Chairman of Prague Pride and manager of Jsme Fér ("we are fair").

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Czeslaw Walek, alumnus of the Czech Fulbright Commission, and EUR Diversity Coordinator Susanne Hamscha talk about LGBTQ equality, same-sex marriage in the Czech Republic, and  the LGBTQ rights movements in the US and in Europe. Czeslaw is the Chairman of Prague Pride and manager of Jsme Fér ("we are fair").

Susanne Hamscha  0:05 
"Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?" This powerful statement about love is taken from James Baldwin's iconic novel Giovanni's Room. Baldwin's words resonated and continue to resonate with millions of people who feel like their emotions are invalid - invalid, simply because the gender of the person they love does not correspond to dominant heteronormative conceptions of love and desire. Sex and gender don't matter, Baldwin assures his readers, because love is love.

Welcome to a new episode of Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast. I'm Susanne Hamscha, the Diversity Coordinator for Fulbright in Europe and Eurasia.

Love is love. It sounds so simple and in reality, it is everything but. The social recognition of same sex relationships and the legal recognition of same sex marriages and civil unions is anything but a given. The protection of LGBTQI rights in general is a story of struggle, and a story of courage. A recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights shows that in many European countries, LGBTQI-identified individuals are at a higher risk of experiencing discrimination, harassment and violence than heterosexual people. It takes courage and determination to keep fighting for equal rights and recognition.

I'm very pleased to have someone with me today who tirelessly advocates for LGBTQIA rights and for human rights in general. Czeslaw Walek is the chairman of Prague Pride and manager of Jsme Fér, a coalition of nonprofit organizations that fight for marriage equality. He's also a former Deputy Minister for human rights in the Czech Republic, and an alum of the Czech Fulbright Commission. 

Czeslaw, thank you so much for being here today. Why don't you tell us something about yourself and about your work to get us started?

Czeslaw Walek  1:54  
Oh, thank you, Susanne, thank you for having me. It's a privilege and pleasure to be part of this podcast. And thank you for the lovely introduction, I think you summed it up perfectly. 

Just to give you a little bit of context: I am a Polish minority. Living in the Czech Republic, there is a small group 40-50,000 people in the North East Czech Republic, that is a Polish minority. And maybe because of this background, I was always sensitive towards our minority/majority relations, and how injust or unjust, our inequalities that minorities have to face in life, in society. And that was long before my coming out, which was fairly painful. Because living in minorities, it has its pros, but also cons. And that's why I think I focused on human rights since the beginning of my studies and then career. 

And then fast forward: When I was a deputy minister at the governmental office, I felt somewhat a debt towards the LGBT community, that I wasn't able to do enough from basically a position of power, when you think about it, to advance the position of LGBT people in the Czech Republic. And once I knew that I will be let go from the governmental office because of the elections, I decided to help first to Prague Pride organizers, thinking that I'll come back to the civil service. And here I am, 10 years after and I'm still with Prague Pride. 

And then one more milestone, I think, and we will be talking about it more later, is the Fulbright scholarship in San Francisco that was mindblowing and also a life-changing experience for me.

Susanne Hamscha  4:07  
I'm so glad to hear that.

Czeslaw Walek  4:09  
And also funny that you mentioned Baldwin's book because just recently, one Polish author, Tomasz Jedrowski published a book about male couples during the communist time in Poland. And he has a reference to the Baldwin books there, but the book is great. It's called Swimming In The Dark and I recommend everyone to actually read it.

Susanne Hamscha 4:30
Well, thanks that sounds interesting. I'll definitely get a copy. 
So we're here today to talk about LGBTQI rights and equality and it's important to look at LGBTQI equality from different angles, I believe, because the picture is more complex than one might think at first glance. We have 16 countries in Europe that legally recognize same-sex marriage. That's Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. 

And the public celebrations of each of those countries passing same-sex marriage has perhaps led to the assumption that we have made a lot of progress in terms of achieving equality. And if we're talking about equality and legal terms, then we certainly have taken big steps. But if we look at social acceptance and equality in the workplace, or among peers, for instance, then surveys and statistics tell us quite a different story. 

The 2020 survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which I already referenced in the intro, found that only 12% of respondents aged 18 to 24 are open about their sexuality. 61% of respondents always or often avoid even simple displays of affection - holding hands, for instance - in public. One in three, so 33%, always or often avoid certain places for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed. Now, of course, the acceptance of the LGBTQI community is higher in some countries than others. But we still have plenty of work to do across Europe, I think. 

How would you assess LGBTQI equality in Europe and in the Czech Republic, in particular? Do you also see a discrepancy between the legal progress we've made and the social acceptance of the LGBTQI community?

Czeslaw Walek  6:21  
Yes, so this is a very complex question, and we can, you know, we can stay forever talking about it. But to generalize it a little bit, I think Europe is split, when it comes to LGBT rights very evenly to West and East. And when I look at the situation in the Czech Republic, I always say that we are somewhat 20 years behind Western Europe when it comes to LGBT rights. But we are still quite forward, or maybe on top of the list from the post communist countries. So we are in the middle. You know, we were the first country among post-communist countries that adopted registered partnership law in 2006. We have anti-discrimination protection since 2008 of LGBT people in all grounds: work, employment, education, housing. Also, social acceptance is quite high, maybe higher than in some Western countries, as well. We have few cases of physical abuse, at least few reported cases of physical abuse. 

Having said that, it's not so shiny, happy as it seems. Since 2006, there was no single legal or policy act, that actually advanced the position of LGBT people in the Czech Republic. There is over half, 51%, of Czech LGBT people is hiding their different gender or sexual identity at the workplace. The majority of LGBT students, 94%, heard or came across abusive comments at schools, and 40% of those comments are coming from the teachers. 

And when you look at what is happening in my region in Central Europe, especially Poland and Hungary, then, of course, the atmosphere is worsening. You know, in Poland, the president of the country says that the LGBT people are not people, but it is ideology. In Hungary, they are changing the Constitution, saying that the marriage can be only between men and woman, and they don't recognize, legally recognize, transgender people. So it is really scary what is happening in my region. And sometimes, I hope that the Czech Republic could be the only bastion of hope for this region and for LGBT people in this region.

Susanne Hamscha
Czeslaw, can I ask you just for clarification, where you will draw the line between Eastern and Western Europe? Because geographically speaking, of course, Vienna, my hometown, is so much further east than Prague. But I guess most people would consider Austria to be part of Western Europe.

Czeslaw Walek
More than geographically, I think it's historically: post-communist countries and those countries that were democratic, are democratic for a longer period. It is connected also with freedoms that you had, that we didn't have for 40 years. And that's why I'm saying that, you know, it takes us...that we are 20 years behind, because with the civic activism started much later than you did.

Susanne Hamscha
Let's talk about your activist work. So you're the chairman of Prague Pride and manager of Jsme Fér, which advocates for marriage equality. Can you talk about the significance of both Prague Pride and Jsme Fér for the LGBTQI community in your country? And what would it mean for the Czech Republic to be the first post-communist country to actually pass same-sex marriage.

Czeslaw Walek
Yes, thank you for this question. So actually Prague Pride today, or this year, celebrates 10th anniversary. It's a strange year to celebrate, to be honest, we - at the beginning of the year - expected that it will be huge celebration. And it turned out that it's mainly online celebration. But this is a time where we are living in.

Nowadays Prague Pride is the biggest LGBT organization in the Czech Republic. But 10 years ago, when we started, we were one of the last European capitals that didn't have a Pride festival. And that's what was our original aim: to create the organization that would organize the Pride festival in Prague. And for five years, that was it, we were a bunch of volunteers that were organizing the festival. 

And then, and then a 14 year-old boy committed suicide and left letter saying that he doesn't want to live in such a homophobic society as the Czech society. And we were all shocked, because you know, living in Prague, is...you have a feeling that life for LGBT person is okay. And the older you get, you know, you have infrastructure, you have friends, and so on, but we suddenly realized that this is not for all LGBT people, especially for young LGBT people in the Czech Republic, so we created the counseling service - online counseling service - for LGBT people that are in crisis. 

And today, almost over 5000 people have turned to us, mainly young people. 17% percent of those cases are suicidal cases. And, and that's how we started to grow. And today we have, I think, 13 programs. We work with the businesses on LGBT workplace equality. We do support groups. and next year, we are opening the first Community Center, LGBT Community Center in Prague, and we are the motor behind the Jsme Fér coalition. 

When it comes to marriage equality, you know, since 2007, we tried to...there was a movement to amend the law on registered partnership, because law on registered partnership is...it was a huge achievement. It recognizes the same-sex couples. But when it comes to the rights, it's basically a skeleton compared to the marriage equality. And we were trying to do it, it was unsuccessful, and then we came together and we said, okay, what we really want is marriage equality, and we should be honest to society about it. And we started this initiative. And we also knew that we have to start a conversation with society: why the marriage equality, and that nothing will change for the rest of the society, it will just help the part of the Czech society that should be equal. 

67% of Czechs agree with marriage equality, there was no referendum about marriage equality, but we are going through the legislative process. Two years ago, the bill was proposed in the Parliament. But unfortunately, half of the Parliament is not really supporting the change, and they are blocking even the vote. So after two years of being and waiting for the vote, we still are waiting and the next year are another elections. And we hope that after those elections, we might be more successful with the new Parliament.

Susanne Hamscha
Can you talk about why this process is taking so long? Is there a particular reason for this?

Czeslaw Walek
Politicians are more conservative than society, they are afraid - they're afraid, especially from conservative parties that they will get a payoff in the elections, although we are showing them the public opinion surveys, we are showing them their electorate surveys. It doesn't change them, they are...they don't trust us. So this is one thing.

Second, they think that they will not gain anything from it politically, that they will vote for it, but there is very few votes they will gain. So I think those two are...and there is a pretty, you know, there is a pretty big conservative group in the Parliament within different parties. And there is one, only one party in our Parliament that is actually a big promoter of marriage equality. But there are three parties or four parties that are big opponents of the marriage equality. So that's why I'm saying that the maybe next elections will help us.

Susanne Hamscha  14:53  
I'd like to switch gears a little bit and talk about your Fulbright experience in the US. So you were in San Francisco on your Fulbright, as you already mentioned, and you worked on a project on LGBTQ workplace equality, which was titled "Tackling the Glass Closet in the Czech Republic." What did you learn about LGBTQ equality in the US that informed or maybe also inspired your work in the Czech Republic? How is LGBTQ equality discussed in the Bay Area, in contrast to Prague? And yeah, what did you take back to Prague with you from your time in San Francisco?

Czeslaw Walek  15:33  
Yeah, you know, I...it's hard to explain. Because it's just heaven to come to San Francisco, and you feel like you are finally at home, you know. It's...sometimes I'm describing it that finally I felt that I belong in the city, so only the environment of the city living there. We actually were lucky enough to find the apartment in Castro. So it just felt that we belong and that the city is actually an LGBT city. And so that's the first change. 

The second change is that, of course, in Bay Area and in San Francisco, the rights of LGBT people are, you know, somewhere totally else. So that was a huge inspiration for me in every step what I saw: the local activism, the way how people are together that way, how businesses are together, you know, helping each other and so on. So every... well, basically, I was learning every day, something new and I brought a lot back to Prague.

I was, yeah, I was more or less burned out after those five years of organizing the festival. And the Fulbright came in right moment, when I actually took a breath, to get inspiration. And when I came back, I was full of energy. And then when I came back, we started the marriage equality campaign. And also, because my main purpose was LGBT workplace equality, we worked with companies already for some time. But I also felt that, you know, we are stuck right now, at that moment, we don't know how to move forward. And then I spent one year with a great organization, Out and Equal, that works with this topic, globally. And I learned so much how to advice to the companies, how to work with them, how to bring them new services, that the life of LGBT people within the companies, within this safe space of employment of a workplace can actually improve.

And since I came back, we created the, you know, the scheme of memberships, and we right now have 30 companies that are our members, just I think next week, the biggest Czech company is joining us as well, this Skoda Auto, which is German, but we still consider Skoda to be Czech car. So yeah, so I think that it's really helped a lot in shaping my future life, the agenda of the organization and what we are doing.

Susanne Hamscha  18:18  
So I don't know about you, but to me, it feels very much like the LGBTQI rights movement is very much a transatlantic movement or transatlantic dialogue, if you will, between the LGBTQI communities in the US and in Europe. In the US, we have Stonewall as a historical moment, a turning point in the rights movement. We have Castro and San Francisco, which you already talked about, as one of the truly iconic places. Harvey Milk is an iconic figure, as the first openly gay elected official in the history of California. And, you know, Pride festivals in Europe are very much in the spirit of the New York Pride which commemorates Stonewall. So the LGBTQI communities here are clearly taking inspiration, taking cues from the US in that respect. And I'm wondering if that is because we are lacking similarly historical moments or iconic places and iconic personalities in Europe, right. Or do we have a Castro? Do we have a Harvey Milk? Do we have a Stonewall? So I'm just wondering what your take on this is? How do you see the dialogue between LGBTQI communities on both sides of the Atlantic?

Czeslaw Walek  19:43  
I think it's a mutual inspiration. When you look at the facts in Europe, let's look at Czech Czech Republic. We were one of the first countries that actually decriminalized homosexuality, whereas in the US, it took a Supreme Court decision in 2003. Netherlands is the first country that enacted marriage equality in 2001. And it took another 15 years for US to win this. Denmark, for example, took away transgender from the list of mental disorders in 2006. It still didn't happen in US. EU just adopted the LGBT strategy. 

So I think there are milestones in Europe that Americans are kind of like learning from Europe. And then when it comes to civic activism, yes, I do admit that when it comes to civic activists, the US is much more active, maybe, because the oppression of LGBT people was much harder in US in the 50s and 60s. The Stonewall Riots happened because it was riots, you know, against the police, police violence. And in Europe, it was much more settled in this sense. But...and we learned civic activism from US activists, definitely.

Susanne Hamscha  21:09  
Well, thank you so much, Czeslaw, for this conversation, I have so many more questions, but we are running out of time. So I'd like to ask you one more question if I may. Once marriage equality has been passed in the Czech Republic, what do you think is the next glass closet that needs to be broken?

Czeslaw Walek  21:27  
If - and once - the marriage equality is passed in the Czech Republic that will be a huge hope for this region, I believe, which this region needs, LGBT people in this region needs. But this is not the end, the acceptance of people must change, our acceptance of LGBTQ must change. You mentioned the acceptance of two men kissing on the streets in Europe is very low. In the Czech Republic is 1%! 1% of the population accepts two men kissing on the streets! Unless we have at least 60% we won't stop, you know.

Susanne Hamscha  22:03  
Thank you again, and I really appreciate your time.

Czeslaw Walek  22:06  
Well, thank you for having me.

Susanne Hamscha  22:07  
Too many LGBTQI people continue to live in the shadows, afraid of being the victims of discrimination or even violence. Even though some countries have advanced LGBTQI rights, many people are still left very vulnerable in the societies they live in. We also need to consider the marginalized individuals within this marginalized community. Trans and intersex people face an uphill battle that is particularly steep in terms of both legal recognition and social acceptance. 

A map of same sex marriage rights across Europe reveals a stark division that almost replicates the Cold War iron curtain. Most Western European countries have legislation in place. No former communist state does. The same-sex marriage bill would be a historical moment for the Czech Republic, but also for Europe at large. If the bill gets passed, it would tear down Europe's rainbow curtain. 

This was another episode of fullbright forward a diversity podcast. Thank you for listening. Please join us again next time.