V. Sokolová: Queer Encounters with Communist Power

Queer Encounters with Communist Power. Non-Heterosexual Lives and the State in Czechoslovakia, 1948–1989

Sokolová, Věra
Anzahl Seiten
250 S.
$ 20.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Catherine Baker, Faculty of Arts, Cultures and Education, University of Hull

Based on archival research and life narratives from a ground-breaking collection of interviews with queer Czechs who grew up under communism, Věra Sokolová’s Queer Encounters with Communist Power sought to discover how state ideology and public discourse shaped queer Czechs’ everyday lives. Her findings break with two key directions she discerns in the field of Czech sexuality studies. One of the field’s prevailing arguments so far is the idea that sexologists largely produced the “deviant” homosexual as a category through medical discourse; the other is a separation between history of sexuality and gender history, which may date back to the damaging consequences of a 1990s media backlash against feminism and homosexuality on Czech feminist and queer scholarship. As an implicit contribution to studies of other communist societies and indeed beyond, meanwhile, the book persuasively illustrates how much diversity in fact existed within the monolithic state-applied category of “homosexual”, and demonstrates that that category comes nowhere close to encompassing the lived experiences of those whose desires did not follow a heteronormative track.

At its core are 54 life narratives covering 1948–89, including oral history interviews conducted by Sokolová and others associated with the Centrum queer paměti (Centre of Queer Memory, CQP), plus fifteen written trans autobiographical narratives from the private archive of the sexologist Hana Fifková. This evidence base juxtaposes two different moments in public knowledge production about sexuality and gender nonconformity in the Czech lands: the era when the communist state monopolised such power, versus the moment of autonomy with which today’s queer community can record its own memory (CQP was founded in 2015 by activists and scholars including noted historians Jan Seidl and Anna Hájková).

The book initially considers professional discourse, then focuses on non-heterosexual lives through life narratives. Its first topic is communist Czechoslovak sexology itself. This is shown to have differed significantly from its Soviet counterpart, which viewed homosexuality as a temporary condition that could and should be cured. Czechoslovak sexologists, in dialogue with anglophone and German-language scholarship rather than Soviet literature, interpreted homosexuality as a lifelong condition that should be therapeutically managed rather than criminalised. Their ideas played a large part in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1961.

Sokolová argues that sexologists in the ČSSR used their institutional positions and public-sphere access to create small but significant space for their non-heterosexual patients to live more dignified lives; an open secret between sexologists and patients was that queer men in particular often attended clinics to meet partners there. A powerful figure in charting this course was the director of Prague’s Sexological Institute, Josef Hynie, who had studied with Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin and first served as director in 1934. Sokolová characterises Hynie’s approach as “progressive (for its times)” (p. 71), towards “transsexuality” as well as homosexuality, and in the late 1960s his interventions drew on Hirschfeld to recommend similar bureaucratic accommodations to those his mentor advocated in Weimar Germany. Thanks to Hynie and others, Czechoslovakia would become among the first countries to perform regular, state-subsidised gender reassignment surgery.

Admittedly, as Sokolová acknowledges, Czechoslovak sexologists’ discourses on gender variance were “heteronormative”, “gender-blind” and “essentializing” (p. 85), and their insistence on mandatory sterilization for successful social integration of trans people has carried over into contemporary Czech gender recognition law, reaffirmed by the Czech Constitutional Court this very year. Nevertheless, they were prepared to accept that sexual and gender diversity could exist in communist societies, in contrast to their Soviet, Bulgarian and Romanian counterparts (whose advice motivated more repressive policies in those countries). As such, Czechoslovak sexologists allowed non-heterosexual Czechoslovakians (relatively) more choices in leading their intimate lives. The security services were less permissive, and enforced the post-1961 law against sexual acts causing “public indignation” arbitrarily enough that queer people were constantly vulnerable to their harassment. Even that gap between the practices of sexologists and the security services, Sokolová argues, illustrates that power under communism was disunified rather than monolithic.

These early chapters are largely based on contemporaneous professional journals. The later, oral-history-based chapters represent methodologically even deeper contributions to understanding queer lives in settings where contemporary labels for sexual and gender-variant identities did not exist and where authoritarian states suppressed people’s autonomy to declare identities which did not fit into the state’s ideological framework. The first such contribution is a focus on the formation of non-heterosexual subjectivities among queer youth. This has been remarkably understudied within the history of sexuality, and indeed the history of childhood. Another aspect of queer life well highlighted by oral history is non-heterosexual people’s creativity and agency displayed in coping with state socialist power over the individual and the family unit. This issue is tackled by Sokolová with the same sensitivity towards the stakes of (in)visibility that Francesca Stella brought to researching lesbian lives in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.[1] Especially valuable are the book’s insights into the everyday lives of non-heterosexual women, who, as Sokolová argues, have often been neglected by historians of Czech sexuality and gender.

As is evident in the sources, queer narrators had routinely entered apparently-heterosexual marriages, to stave off public suspicion and to ease daily life in a system that privileged the married heterosexual couple. Yet, they later related, this strategy of marital adaptation was more than being passive submission to the power of a heteronormative state. Almost all kept up relationships with other queer married people; often they knowingly married a queer spouse, for mutual cover. Some narrators did not fit the “hetero-homo duality” (p. 82) anyway, either because their desires were for more than one gender (Sokolová does not use the word “bisexual”), and/or because their own gender was more fluid than the way in which they were legible to the state.

Many other queer practices emerge through the narratives, and sexuality was not even always the most salient identity for some narrators. One woman felt that religion, more than sexuality, had determined her life course under communist atheism. Another, known to the state as a woman but privately self-declared as “transsexual from year zero” (p. 13), frequently experienced secret-police harassment but attributed this to sympathizing with the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 rather than sexuality.

The latter narrator was not alone in feeling sexual difference and gender variance as much more intertwined than the conventional separation of “homosexuality” and “transsexuality” would suggest. Indeed, sexual history and trans history are thoroughly entangled in this study, rather than being kept artificially separate. The same goes for lesbian history and trans history, to which many narratives belong equally. North American queer theorists such as Eve Sedgwick, Jack Halberstam and Pat Califia might not have theorised “queer” as a concept that refused to be contained by any one sexual or gendered category in order to explain communist Czechoslovakia, but Sokolová convincingly applies their ideas as an active and thoughtful translation to explain an uncategorisability that emerges through the narratives themselves.

Where the book’s perspective on the gendered dynamics of queerness in Czechoslovakia becomes more limited is in relating this to ethnicity and the racialisation of the Roma, even though Sokolová has written on communist discourses towards Roma before.[2] The book does acknowledge how queer of colour critique has expanded queer studies and how attention to sexuality has enhanced histories of the US South. In the book’s home context, however, the marginalisation of non-heterosexuals and the marginalisation of Roma are treated as parallel processes rather than interconnected. Queer Roma or their possible existence, are, as Lucie Fremlová has argued in her 2021 book, invisible.[3] There may have been no such voices in the narratives, but the analysis could still have questioned how the sense of majoritarian identity built up in white Czechs (and Slovaks) through the racialisation of Roma interacted with identities that caused more dissonance in narrators’ subjectivities.

Nevertheless, this richly-textured study of how people who understood they were not heterosexual interacted with the state in communist Czechoslovakia encourages its readers to think differently about the formation of queer subjectivities under state socialism, the meanings of marriage and family in non-heterosexual lives, and the nature of communist state power itself.

[1] Francesca Stella, Lesbian Lives in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Post/Socialism and Gendered Sexualities, Basingstoke 2005.
[2] Vera Sokolová, Cultural Politics of Ethnicity: Discourses on Roma in Communist Czechoslovakia, Stuttgart 2012.
[3] Lucie Fremlová, Queer Roma, London i.a. 2021.

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