April 19, 2014
by Carla Barrett
Professor Mark Cornwall explores LGBT life in the Czech Republic.
I lived in Prague for six months in 1989 in the dying days of the hardline Czech Communist regime (when Vietnam and Romania were the regime’s only real allies!). One had to search very hard for any LGBT venues or open gay culture of any kind. This, despite the fact that male and female homosexuality had been legalized in Czechoslovakia in 1961. Perhaps the most famous gay club was the T-Club near Wenceslas square. It was hard to find and pretty unwelcoming. You went down some steep steps and up against an iron gate which had to be unlocked and then locked again by a grumpy doorman. Inside was a small dance floor and bar where a preferred drink seemed to be red wine and coke; western music blared out. It was always said that the club was watched by the secret police, and certainly it was a state-run enterprise. If you want to get a feel of the place now, there is quite an accurate description in the new novel, Necessary Errors, by the American writer Caleb Crain (although readers may wince a bit at the naïve American abroad in Europe). Elsewhere in Communist Prague, one needed a special gaydar to find any LGBT culture: it only took off publicly after the Velvet Revolution.
And now? Well, a quarter of century later, Prague is flourishing and feeling quite at ease with its gay culture. There are a whole range of venues including, apart from the standard pubs and clubs, a very relaxing ‘cultural centre’ called the Q Café near the National Theatre. There you can even find a gay library. For the history of Czech homosexuality is only just being written: three books came out in the last two years, exploring LGBT culture, literature and history. Perhaps there is too much focus on men, too little on women, but things are certainly changing and veering away from gender stereotypes. It is a far cry from the rent boys and secret bars of 1989. Now too, it is possible to go on a tour of gay historic Prague with a leading queer historian, so a ‘gay historic space’ is being reclaimed and made part of a broader public memory. And if Czech gays and lesbians do not have gay marriage, they do have civil partnerships and gay adoption rights. For a culture which has often sometimes seemed a bit too hetero (see the novels of Milan Kundera), one can say that Queer Prague is slowly emerging. Make sure you visit it.