Under Communism, being gay or lesbian was essentially taboo. Homosexuality was de-criminalized in the former Czechoslovakia from 1962, a lot earlier than in many west European countries, but attitudes did not change as a result.
Jana Kociánová, born in 1948, had to keep the fact that she was a lesbian secret throughout her schooldays and through much of her work life. She was eventually found out and sacked from her post at Prague City Hall. But in some sense that was a boon because she did not have to keep the secret any more.
In this first of a two part series, we talk to Jana Kocianová about her secret life and times. The first question was whether the de-criminalisation of homosexuality actually made any difference
“For a long time I didn’t know if it was already de-criminalised. It doesn’t change anything because you are different, a gay, a lesbian. In the society we had here, in totality, you had to keep it as a secret. You had to hide yourself. There was the danger that you couldn’t study or you could lose a job later on, any kind of discrimination. It was really the most horrible feeling for me, to live in a lie. I hate lies. And I had to pretend that I’m just normal, it was very stressful. Then I told myself, I must hide it somewhere, somehow, like in sport. When you are a sportsman, you can walk like a man for example. Secondly, it was the only way to go abroad, to come to the West.”
You played table tennis for Czechoslovakia?
“Yes, I loved above all tennis but I come from a very poor family, so table tennis was the choice. At fifteen, sixteen years old I was already in the Czechoslovak representation. We went to Austria, for example, and other places. Germany, Belgium and so on. The nice thing was that it was something like reciprocity. We went to a foreign club or a tournament and then the team from there came to Prague.
"I always had to play this game, that I am normal."
“Of course, our shock was that abroad, the shop windows were full of any kind of shoes, or clothes. In our country, when you wanted to have a washing machine or even a TV, you couldn’t just ask where to buy it. You couldn’t buy it. You had to ask yourself which friend has the opportunity to get it. It meant something like corruption of course.”
The atmosphere abroad, was it much more liberal? You were still in the team, you had to keep your secret, but did you think that the atmosphere in Western Europe was more liberal or not?
“I can’t say so. Even when I mentioned Austria, people there are very puritanical. Then West Germany, I had a friend there, as well as in Austria. She was working at a school and she also had to keep a secret, that she was a lesbian. These years, the 60s, the 70s, there was practically no difference.
“On the other hand I couldn’t be open anywhere, not even in my team, I always had to play this game, that I am normal. And only then it was more stupid and sad and bad because as I was between 20 and 30 years old, all colleagues were asking me, ‘Why are you not married?’ Why don’t you have children? You are not so old and ugly that you couldn’t find a man.’ I could find a man, enough of them. It was very unpleasant, these questions as well.”
Was there anyone you could talk to at all?
"They had a list of who is gay and they put pressure on those boys and men for cooperation."
“Yes, fortunately, I met a friend, not a girlfriend. An older woman, a very popular actress, who brought me in the milieu of these artists, such as theatre directors, film directors, actors, painters. And in this milieu it was much easier to be gay. They were beginning with ballet. There was nobody who would say, I don’t like. I felt safe in this community. The more uncomfortable it was then to come to a job the next morning and be ‘a lady’ again.”
Was there any place you could go to? There were some gay bars, they did exist in the 60s?
“Yes, you are right, I must correct myself. In Eastern Germany, there were at that time, in the 70s, some gay clubs. I met some friends there and we could go to a disco, for dancing and there was no problem to dance with a girl. It was much better in Deutsche Democratic Republic (DDR).”
“Exactly three, I can’t remember the names of them all. But you had to have a gay friend. Otherwise you couldn’t enter such a bar. But it was nice down there.”
What was the attitude of the police. Did they keep a list of people who were gay?
“You know the word KGB, in our country STB. They had a list of who is gay and they put pressure on those boys and men for cooperation, otherwise they could get fired or thrown out of a high school. The police even beat them.
“I had a friend, a gay boy, who was very, very handsome, blonde hair, very beautiful, and once he came all bloody to our party. He only walked on the street and the police came and beat him without any reason. It was a terrible time.“
Were there court cases? It was decriminalised, so the police just abused their power.
"They often stayed in a police cell for 24 or 48 hours, that was normal."
“They simply said, you are abusing public morality. None of us gays or lesbians could just go hand in hand or even kiss each other. But this friend of mine was only walking, looking like a gay, they mostly wore black clothes, also his blond hair. But a reason for many others was abusing public morality. It meant, you are different, you must go to prison.”
Were some of them sent to prison?
“Not to prison, but they had problems. They often stayed in a police cell for 24 or 48 hours, that was normal.”