CZECH REPUBLIC: LGBTI activists advocate for couple reunification

Read our interview with Czeslaw Walek and Filip Milde, We are fair from We Are Fair, one of the seven laureates from the Civic Pride Awards of 2020.

The We are fair initiative is a Czech coalition of six non-profits that advocates for a marriage equality bill in the country. During the COVID-19, the initiative raised funding for two of the most affected groups in society – single parents and artists – and for students sewing masks. The also advocated to allow non-married couples across borders to be reunited. 

Can you tell us about the We are fair initiative? When was it founded, who are its members and goals?  

Czeslaw Walek: The We are fair initiative is a coalition of six non-profits that came together with one single goal: to pass the marriage equality bill in our country. The initiative formally started in April 2017, and it is a mixture of public awareness campaigns and public advocacy. We work a lot with the public to explain why we believe that marriage equality is simply fair. We work across the country; we travel a lot for discussions and debates. We also work with decision-makers, mostly with Members of Parliament because they are the ones that will eventually make the decision, but also with civil servants. We gather as much support as possible. We work with the business sector; I believe more than 70 businesses put their logo on our initiative supporting marriage equality. We also have around 60 mayors who signed a pledge for marriage equality. We work with believers, people that are religious and are supporting marriage equality, giving the religious argument for marriage equality. We work with other non-profits that are not specifically LGBTI but that support marriage equality, with youth groups. One of our biggest activity was collecting physical signature for a petition on marriage equality and, in five months, we gathered over 70 000 signatures, which for the Czech Republic is a huge number because we are a fairly small country. This shows that there is huge public support. The data from a public opinion poll from 2019 show that 67% of the Czechs supports marriage equality. 

Legally, from 2006, we have a law on registered partnerships which is not the same as marriage equality; there is quite a huge number of differences between rights and obligations. Since 2009, we have an anti-discrimination law that protects us from discrimination. When we talk about the situation for Czech LGBTI, there are not many physical attacks, but there are quite a few verbal abuses. But 91% of those are not reported by LGBTI people because they are afraid the police will not investigate them, or they believe they are not important enough. When you look at the region, I would say that the Czech Republic is still a beacon of hope for LGBTI people, if you compare with what is happening in Poland or Hungary. Having said that, our politicians are pretty inactive when it comes to enacting laws or policies that would improve the quality of life for LGBTI people. Since the registered partnerships law, not much has happened in terms of public policies. That is why when you look at the ILGA Europe rainbow map, the Czech Republic scores pretty low.  

How is it to be an LGBTI activist in the country? Do you face any specific challenge, or do you tend to feel safe? 

Czeslaw: Of course, there are some challenges. We always have to be aware that you could become the target of some attacks either online or offline, especially around the Prague Pride festival, when the media are writing a lot about us. But I would say that, generally we feel safe. Activists, in general, are in a dangerous position, and we see that people acting for women’s or migrants‘ rights are often attacked on social media or by email. From times to times that happens to LGBTI activists as well. But I would say that still, the majority of us feels safe. 

Filip Milde: there is a small conservative organisations scene. They are new organisations been established, but they are learning fast, even from us. They are changing the words they are using when campaigning. But it is very different from Slovakia, Hungary, Poland… where those organisations have a really strong impact. Here, the general media and the public started to label them as ‘extremists’, so it is a very different landscape. Although there a few Parties in the Parliament supporting them. The situation in the Parliament is more conservative than the reality in the society, where 67% of the Czech population supports marriage equality 

How has the pandemic impacted the LGBTI community in the country? 

Czeslaw: I would say that when it comes to the LGBTI community, it impacted us quite tremendously, similarly to other countries. First, let’s talk about mental health: we provide a peer mentoring crisis prevention portal, and we could see that there was an increase in the number of our clients during the pandemic. Young people mainly contacted us: they were suddenly closed with families that are often not sympathetic to their situation. They are either homophobic or transphobic and do not accept different sexual orientations or gender identities; they do not want to talk about it. For those kids, it was very stressful; they had to face the coming out issue much more than in normal circumstances when they could be themselves in their other circles. Here those other circles disappeared. We did some quick survey on Facebook to learn what people were missing, and the first thing was being in touch with their friends.  

The other thing is people with HIV because their immune system is in danger, but also because the organisation that provides them with free tests had to close down. During the lockdown, there was no testing, and there is fear that this will increase the spreading of HIV.  

There were also challenges in the decision-making of the Government. Of course, the Government was making decisions on a daily basis and was not thinking of every minority. They were making decisions thinking that they would apply to all, but it was not the case. For example, when the Government slowly opened the borders, they opened them only to family members and married couples, they did not think of registered partners or partners that live together but are not institutionally together. We were pointing out those things, and the Minister of Interior corrected it.  

How was the work of the organisation affected?  

Czeslaw: The work of the organisation was affected quite a bit. When the pandemic broke out, the only discussion that was happening concerned the pandemic; nothing else was going on. The first vote in Parliament on the marriage equality bill that we hoped would happen in March, was postponed to – probably – the fall.  

Our work was also affected by the fear of losing some of the funding – which we did actually. „We are fair“ coalition is informal, and the administration and organisation are going through the Prague Pride organisation. So, I would rather talk about their funding. Part of it comes from public grants, mainly from the European Commission and the city of Prague. 1/3 comes from corporations and the rest from individual donations or from activities. For example, during the Prague Pride festival, we do some activities that generate income. What was affected was the last part: because we cannot organise the festival physically, we lost some of the funding from there. That is a big blow. We lost some funding from corporations that were linked to the festival, and then we lost some individual donations. When it comes to public funding, everything was already signed, so they did not take it back. But the question is what will happen next year when the economic crisis will hit. There is a risk that the states will reshuffle EU funds based on their needs. In the Czech Republic, this will mean that they will be cutting some of the grants that we would be applying to. So, we start to count less on public funding. 

We also had to postpone some events and to create a pandemic group that was meeting every week to prepare some crisis scenario for our organisation. At the beginning we did not know how long it was going to last so, I have to say, the first months were pretty stressful. But we dealt with it – I think- pretty well. We created three or four crisis scenarios, and we followed them.  

What initiatives did the organisation carry out to support people during the pandemic? 

Czeslaw: We have been running many different initiatives. First, we did some legal counselling. Our lawyer prepared some documents where she explained how LGBT people, especially rainbow families, could be affected by the governmental decisions, especially around the lockdown. She also ran some Facebook live streaming answering questions. Throughout the lockdown, we had an email address where people could ask us questions about legal issues.  

Philip: When the country went in lockdown, we immediately understood that probably marriage equality was not going to be the main priority for the society and so we had to act differently. We offered all our social media and all our database of addresses – tens of thousands of addresses: people could reach us if they needed help or if they could provide support or services. We did this already the day after the lockdown. We offered help not only to LGBTI people but to anybody who wanted to use our support. The second step was providing support to organisations and people that were affected the most. We create a fundraiser event, a broadcast of an online theatre play called “Homo40”. It was very successful: we collected almost 3000 euros, which is amazing considering that people were really concerned about money and it was very difficult. All the funding collected during the streaming for two weeks was donated to three affected groups: actors, single parents, and students. Concerning the last group, we cooperated with a group of medical students who launched an initiative of sewing masks. As an organisation, we helped them to spread the word about their activity, to use social media better and with the graphic design of their project. We also helped to enlarge the group of people volunteering to sew masks and deliver them to people in need: the elderly, the hospitals… This was the third group to which the resources from fundraising went. We continued helping people for almost two months: from March to end of April, besides helping couples and lobbying to include more categories in the law, to allow couples separated to cross borders.  

Can you tell more about this initiative? 

Czeslaw: There were several ways in which we tackled this issue. Our advocacy officer wrote a blog post to explain this issue. The blog post was shared on social media by politicians, and this started a chain reaction. Then we called on the registered partners affected to contact us and share their stories. We wrote several articles to share these stories. These stories were picked up by the mainstream media; they appeared on the most-read tabloid I think it was a combination of our community engagement with our followers and our advocacy and media outreach.  

Filip: On the contrary, I think it is interesting to notice that those organisations that stand to keep the family between man and woman were not very active during the pandemic if not to advocate against trans’ rights. On social media, people were commenting how they should be ashamed for this. Even their supporters said that this is not what they should have been doing at that time.  

Is the initiative organised also transnationally in Europe? If yes, how? 

Czeslaw: “We are fair” is a solely national initiative: we lobby to change the law in the Czech Republic. However, we are in touch with other initiatives of this kind, and we share the experiences and lessons, especially in the area of communication and messaging. When it comes to COVID-19 crisis, again, those initiatives were solely domestic. We did not cooperate with others transnationally, but we were in communication with organisations in other countries. There were tons of webinars organised to share experiences and knowledge.   

Do you think that the European Union can be an ally in your struggle? In what way? 

Czeslaw: I was personally on a webinar with Commissioner Reynders and vice-President Jourova, where we discussed the situation of LGBTI people in COVID-19 times. One thing we identified across the region (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia…) is fear of scapegoating by populist politicians (but not only) as the economic crisis is coming and people will be angry. You can see it already in Hungary and Poland. What the EU should do is pushing for proper legislation on hate speech and hate crime.  

What lessons can be learned from this initiative that can potentially inform a post-COVID-19 institutional and societal response? 

Czeslaw: The lesson I take away from COVID-19 is that despite the initial nervousness and confusion, we all came together and started discussing how to help not LGBTI people but all people in need, and that is what we did. That was great, and I am happy that we all agreed with this approach. 

FilipWe cooperated with groups and organisations that we never cooperated with before, and this enriched us with new connections, experiences and inputs. We were also able to reach new audiences.  The situation showed what is most important for people: to be together, to be with the people we love, that there is no real difference between us and people who can go and marry tomorrow if they decide so. This is a big lesson learned for the public, I think. 

Czeslaw: Yes, I think that we all learned that in those times of crisis, governments do not think about everyone. They think about this general population, what they understand as ‘normal’ and whoever comes a little bit away from this normal is just left behind. Of course, they had to make decisions in a matter of hours; they had to think about the entire nation. But this shows how important it is to be part of this big structured protection system – which in this case is marriage – because, in times of crisis, the Government does not think about you.  It gave us more arguments and urgency to push for marriage equality. I just hope that this situation will not mean a further delay in the adoption of the marriage equality bill.  

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