The Rainbow Capital: Prague’s LGBTQ+ History

The Rainbow Capital
Prague’s LGBTQ+ History

by Karel Vladyka

 

In August last year, an estimated 40,000 LGBTQ+ people and allies marched through the centre of Prague in the city’s eighth Pride parade, cementing its position as one of the gay capitals of Europe. The local queer nightlife and cultural scene have bloomed rapidly since the fall of communism in 1989, attracting many queer youths to the country’s capital, with gay bars, cafés, and clubs popping up, and annual queer movie festivals, Pride, and other cultural events taking place. 

This year, cities around the world are preparing for their biggest Pride festivals yet, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, the birthplace of the gay liberation movement and of what we know today as Pride. In June 1969, a group of marginalised people, led by drag queens and transgender women of colour, fought back against police raiding the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. This sparked a political and cultural movement that soon rippled through the Western world. 

Here in the Czech Republic, it wasn’t until the end of the oppressive regime 30 years ago that real political progress could begin. Homosexuality had been decriminalized in 1961, but during most of the communist era, it was hardly safe for anyone to be openly gay, as it put them at risk of losing their jobs or worse. The first comprehensive anti-discrimination law including LGBTQ+ people wasn’t passed until 2009. So what wasqueer life like in past centuries?

The first reliable source mentioning the “sin and sodomy” of two men lying with each other dates from 1380, but the first sources we have about homosexuals as a group of people come from the end of the nineteenth century – when it comes to the lives, traditions, and meeting tactics of our medieval queer brothers and sisters, all we have to go by are legends and speculations. For example, it has been said that Saint Wenceslas, the tenth-century Duke of Bohemia, liked to “invite men over after dusk.” But that might just have been badmouthing from his opponents, who probably found his soft and peaceful nature too queer, unfit for a ruler. 

Photo from Soho Revue, Sam Club

 

Secret Places

One of the keys to any city’s LGBTQ+ history lies in the places where same-sex lovers could meet and socialise, whether it be cruising spots for quick intimacy or inconspicuous cafés and private apartments where shared ideas and a sense of community could flourish. According to Queer Prague, an excellent guide to the capital’s queer history, probably the oldest cruising spot in Prague could be found around Náměstí Republiky (Republic Square) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Back then, this area was called Josefské náměstí (Joseph Square). In 1902, a police commissar told the press that urnings (the German word for homosexuals) meet at the square, indulging in “passionate perversions.” The year 1902 turned out to be crucial for the local gay subculture, as the murder of one Gustav Wolf, often seen at precisely that cruising spot, had been widely written about in connection to his sexuality, bringing the gay subculture and the dangers of living openly into public consciousness. 

Club Batex, in the building next to Kotva at Náměstí Republiky,  became a quintessential cultural space for the queer community during the First Republic. Built in 1928-1929, it was soon known as a place of legendary parties and masquerade balls. Pictures from a 1932 ball in the magazine Hlas document some of the opulent, gender-bending outfits worn by guests. On 30 January 1932, 150 people met in the club to discuss gay rights and political progress, making it the largest documented meeting of the LGBTQ+ community during the First Republic.

Hotel Evropa, situated in the middle of Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square), was another significant meeting location for most of the twentieth century, with the first written sources dating from the early thirties. The café and lobby of the hotel were frequented by both gay men and women. It even had its own hierarchy, as Franz Schindler writes in Miluji tvory svého pohlaví (I Love the Creatures of My Sex) – “Downstairs, the homosexuals would sit mixing with others. The mezzanine, however, was purely gay territory – they would simply take up the whole space.” By the eighties, Bar Rostov, situated at the corner or Václavské náměstí and Jindřišská Street, became the hotspot for younger homosexuals, with Evropa starting to attract an almost exclusively older clientele. 

 

Pioneering Progress

LGBTQ+ artists, activists, and organisations constitute arguably the most important part of our shared progress and history. The first official Czech LGBT organization, Lambda, was formed soon after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It was soon followed by others – SOHO (Association of Homosexual Citizens’ Organisations) became the most prominent, merging different activist groups together. Actor Jiří Hromada took the lead, becoming one of the first famous Czech personalities to come out publicly and stand up for gay rights. 

During the nineties, some of the main focus points of the movement were the HIV crisis and the hardships of coming out. The focus soon shifted to gay marriage, more precisely registered partnerships – after several unsuccessful attempts, the registered partnership legislation bill was passed in 2006, although it notably excludes adoption rights, joint taxes, or the word “marriage” itself. In recent years, the call for marriage equality has gained intensity, with organisations like Jsme fér lobbying and amassing thousands of signatures for the cause. According to Jsme fér, 61% of Czechs support same-sex marriage, with 73% support among people under 29.

Another group worth mentioning is STUD, started in Brno in 1996, which later founded the annual Mezipatra Queer Film Festival – now an important staple of Czech queer culture, held every November in Prague, Brno, and other regions. At the turn of the millennium, Code 004 and Lesba.cz became pioneers in creating online spaces for the Czech gay community, spaces without which it’s hard to imagine the landscape of dating and navigating the world as an LGBTQ+ person today. 

Transparent was founded in 2015, and it became an important organisation focusing solely on the rights and acceptance of transgender people, which had for too long been overlooked. Thanks to the global shift in the conversation to transgender rights and acceptance, perceptions are slowly changing for the better, but transgender people in this country are still required to undergo gender reassignment surgery in order to legally change their gender.

 

Queer Future

The fight for equality and acceptance is not over, but the majority attitude towards LGBTQ+ people seems to be more positive than ever, especially in the city. The increasingly globalized world has also made it easier for minorities to form communities in the proper sense of the word, with an online presence making it easier to meet, socialise, and organise change. Riding the mainstream success of drag, brought on most notably by hit television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Prague has also seen a boom of new drag queens in the past few years, adding to the city’s queer cultural landscape.

We can only hope that attitudes and laws will continue to change, leading towards full equality for people of all genders and sexualities. And while there is always more progress to be made, there is one thing we can all aspire to do to help create the world we want to live in – to be ourselves and love unapologetically.

Oko! Magazine would like to thank Jan Seidl for assisting with the writing of this article and for allowing us to take information and inspiration from his book, Queer Prague.

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