A Czech Exception? LGBTI Push For Progress In Central Europe
Attitudes are shifting in countries with both a communist past and strong Christian roots.
PRAGUE — It's no secret that Central Europe isn't the world's best place for LGBTI people. The odious anti-gay rhetoric of Polish President Andrzej Duda recently made international headlines, along with the country's introduction of "LGBT-free zones." In Hungary, Viktor Orbán's government used its power of decree during the coronavirus pandemic to make it impossible for people to change their legal gender, passing a bill replacing "gender" in the civil registry with "sex at birth." Meanwhile, Slovakia's Constitution explicitly limits marriage to opposite-sex couples, while a Eurobarometer survey five years ago found that only 24% of Slovaks support same-sex marriage.
Still, the region is not a monolith and times continue to evolve, which makes the situation for LGBTI in the Czech Republic worth particular attention.
Many Czech politicians and public figures speak strongly in support of the LGBTI community, most prominently supporting Prague Pride, which attracted 30,000 participants in 2019 (Prague City Hall flew a rainbow flag for the duration of Pride week). Major corporations are increasingly expressing their support for LGBTI rights, both internally and externally. In short, public opinion on the big questions of gay rights appears to only be heading in one direction.
Still, in the recently published ILGA Rainbow 2020 report rating every European nation on legislation supporting LGBTI people, the Czech Republic's alarmingly low score – 26 out of 100 – puts it below Hungary and Slovakia, and only slightly above even more conservative Poland.
Yet despite the poor ranking, real differences exist between the Czech Republic and its highly religious Central European neighbors. An absence of societal or political factors making religion a major influence among younger demographics has allowed a liberal attitude to assume dominance. Czechs derive almost as much amusement in describing their title as "the most atheist country in the world" as they take pride in their role as "the most beer-drinking country in the world".
Central Europe isn't the world's best place for LGBTI people.
It is a long way from Poland, where Catholicism has long stood as a symbolic bind based on the historical role it played during occupation by Prussia and Russia in the 19th century. This perception extended into the communist era of the second half of the 20th century. The Church does not carry the same symbolic significance among Czechs, despite their shared experience of 20th-century communism. In Hungary, religion is being mobilised by Viktor Orbán's government as part of a nationalist agenda emphasizing devotion to the homeland.
So what explains the Czech Republic's low score in the Rainbow rankings? The answer may be mostly generational. If religious belief lingers as a strong influence in Czech society, it is primarily among people over the age of 60. Studies have shown a major division between the old and the young when asked about belief in God. And even elderly people who don't believe in God lived a large portion of their lives under a communist regime which abhorred homosexuality for cultural reasons: Gay people were fired from their jobs, kicked out of school, or beaten by the police.
Protest against hatred against LGBTQ+ people in Warsaw, Poland — Photo: Hubert Mathis/ZUMA
Today, while traditional attitudes may be receding, they are still a vote winner or loser. It seems to be the political risk of explicitly pro-LGBTI legislation that is hindering its passage through the Czech Parliament.
Legalization of gay marriage is a case in point. The Czech Republic's liberal attitudes extend to widespread support for same-sex marriage, but legislation tabled by the government in June 2018 has remained stalled, with Prime Minister Andrej Babiš"s government relying on older voters outside the liberal environs of Prague.
Still, given the weight of public opinion in favor of gay marriage, it seems reasonable to assume that this legislation — and more on other key issues, such as the banning of conversion therapy and the legalization of joint adoption for LGBTI couples — will inevitably arrive.
LGBTI rights campaigners argue that they've waited long enough, and the Rainbow report calls for uncompromising and swift action.. The Czech Republic either implements pro-LGBTI legislation now, or it remains a hostile, homophobic and transphobic nation.
Ultimately, most Czechs agree that it isn't whether change will come, but how and how fast. When it does, you can be sure its neighbors will notice.