Despite being to only one screening on my first day of this festival, it was a big one. Before telling you all about the project and meeting the brilliant Mark Gatiss I want to warn you, not for spoilers, but for length and depth of this article. Mr. Gatiss flew from England with the project very close to my heart and I would love to take this opportunity to dive a little bit deeper into the subject. But since I am so generous, I shall do this in two parts, and you can leave at any given time, but I’ll be very happy if you’ll stay.
Let’s get to it then. The project Mr. Gatiss brought has to do with gay rights and their development in the UK and Ireland in the last 100 years. BBC has commissioned an eight-episode series which has a very special approach.
The project is called Queers and you all need to see it.
We had one enormous advantage, we’ve seen it in the Cinema on the big screen and in the company of Mr. Gatiss himself. Which saved the very beginning when out of the audience we heard: “No, we have to stop. Nobody listen to this.”
In order to explain I have to introduce you closer to the project itself. Queers is a set of eight monologues, yes, monologues, each taken from the certain period of time in last 99 years of British history and its approach to gay rights and decriminalization of homosexual acts.
In the end, the episodes were not broadcasted in the chronological order and even at this screening premiere we’ve seen an order of episodes even Mr. Gatiss hasn’t seen before, hence the stopping act – subtitles got mixed up.
The monologues are a form of art that is fascinating to me. After the screening I asked Mark Gatiss about his approach to it:
“Well, it’s easier and cheaper. But of course, you have to get it right, for every bit of emotion to work. But mainly BBC loved it because it’s a lot cheaper”.
But here’s the thing, seeing it on the big cinema screen gave it a different atmosphere than the one you’d have at home. There is no escaping. Every line is sent to you like a bolt, every eye contact from an actor (or actress) is aimed right at you and you are taking it all in while listening to these stories, inspired by real events. You listen to that injustice, to those very personal and intimate feelings but also the humor and the pain. And its all in there in both the writing and the performances that were given and crafted under the guidance of the director and curator Mark Gatiss.
There were many fascinating and amazing stories, which I won’t talk about because knowing the outline of them would spoil it for you. But I need to mention my favorite moment. Its a moment that completely, now excuse the language, fucked me up.
And I don’t get to that state very easily.
The first episode we’ve seen was absolutely brilliant and performed by equally brilliant actor Alan Cumming. This episode was set in 2016 (with a little possible hint on the horrible Pulse shooting that happened in Florida – hence the 99 years of history, not 100).
Anyway, in the story, there is finally a gay wedding for Alan’s character and he is getting ready. Among the story, he mentions the one and only Oscar Wilde. This story mentions him lightheartedly, humorously and that is how you take it in. You laugh because it’s true. Oscar Wilde should not miss at a gay wedding. Your heart is at ease at this time, until you get more emotional as the story goes, but that’s for you to find out.
Roundup, we come to the last story performed by the amazing Ben Whishaw. This time its a story written by Mark Gatiss and the setting takes us to the time of the Great War. We are on a train platform and we listen to the story of a powerful encounter. Soon we find out we meet, in our imagination, Mr. Wilde again. This time though roughened up, humiliated even broken. This takes us to the time he was arrested. And suddenly you feel the length to which a story and its understanding can go just as the culture, the country and the humanity moves on.
The stories of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing are the stories that still break my heart and they will never stop doing so. But in a way, seeing it in that cinema and remembering laughing at the first account of the Oscar Wilde story you almost feel guilty. Because it reminds you of the sheer tragedy and injustice that gays, not only in England but all over the world, had always been dragged through. And even more so, it reminds you, that this fight is far from over. I don’t think there should be any different continuity of the episodes than the one I’ve seen only yesterday.
Of course, at the same time as the stories cover the famous changes in the law and influential moments for gay rights in the UK, it also got me thinking about the way these rights developed in the Czech Republic, or before that in Czechoslovakia and the Czech monarchy. Now, I knew a big part of this, since I am a part of the community but the comparison I think particularly between these two countries felt interesting to me.
And so, this is the part when I tell you. Go watch the Queers, it’s it both heartwarming and tragic, but also funny and romantic. The performance from actors like the mentioned above Alan Cumming and Ben Whishaw, but also from charming Ian Gelder, lighthearted yet deep performance from Russell Tovey, to the brilliant ladies Rebecca Front and Gemma Whelan, to the story of discrimination and passion performed by amazing Kadiff Kirwan up to the innocent yet passionate Fionn Whitehead. All these performances along with a spot on writing and directing make this a special project worth your time. No need to be afraid, the episodes are some 20 minutes long. Just go for it.
GAY RIGHTS FOR BRITISH VERSUS CZECH PEOPLE
by Mary Komenda
Now, if you indulge me for few more moments, I’d love to introduce you to the absolute ridiculous truth of gay rights development. I cannot state the word “ridiculous” hard enough. You see, these laws were part of a sodomy act. Now when we say sodomy, we usually imagine deep dark history, and in a way we are right. The sodomy law in Britain is very old, comes from the time of, you guessed it, Henry VIII. but the important note here is until when it was in effect. My dear readers, this preposterous law, which is easier to understand regarding the times when it was first written, in a Europe, that was heavily controlled by religion. But can it be understood in the times to which it survived? Sadly, the answer is still yes. This law was called “The Buggery Act” and in the legal texts and their application, it survived until 1828 when in England the “Offences Against the Person Act 1828” became active. Beggs to remind you, that the
18th-century England was hardly the middle ages, quite the opposite, those were the days of early modern Britain, but of course, not modern enough to face the gays.
Moving on, even though the preposterous Buggery Act was canceled by this law, for committing a homosexual act, you could still be hanged. This didn’t change until the year 1861 when the updated law was published under the original name of
“The Offenses Against the Person Act 1861”. This law stopped the death penalty but not the criminalization, the humiliation, and prosecution. Not by far.
Quite the opposite. In the year 1885, the law (which previously acted upon sex acts) is now extended to any homosexual activity. Here we come back the heartbreaking story of one of my (and the worlds) favorite writers Oscar Wilde. This new act led to his imprisonment and hard labor sentence for two years, only ten years after this law was passed.
Now, things must soon certainly change. They did, but decades later. It was only after the tragic suicide of the brilliant Alan Turing and more imprisonments in the high social circles (like Edward Montagu) that under pressure the government started to act. The act was aimed more to calm down the waters and it took years until the actual law changed, but it was a start. That brings us to the most famous and important pieces of legislation (read analysis) in the UK history – the Wolfenden Report. This report was a result analysis from a Wolfenden committee established in 1954.
It took three more years until the results were published (and supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which was very important) and said:
“Homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offense”.
Wolfenden Report | 1954
But this was only a beginning of a long marathon. It wasn’t until 1965 when the topic was brought up in the parliament. And it took two more years for them to get it through readings and royal approval. The year this act passed was 1967.
It was a battle won, but the war rages on. It was a victory, but a bittersweet one. A lot fewer punishments could be handed out and not as humiliating and horrible (like the hormonal treatments) but there still existed “general prohibitions”. But by this time, people were fighting back a lot more openly. There were many movements fighting for the rights of the gays, for the rights to be themselves, love who they want and desire, but also for rights of those already prosecuted. People below 21 were still considered criminals, until the year 2004, when finally (after many attempts in the 90’s) the law was changed again.
Modern history brought even bigger and greater pressure on the government. Times were changing, people were more open and the talks were more public. And so, in 2005 Civil partnerships became possible in the UK, a few years later in 2014 comes the same-sex marriage or how I like to shockingly call it, a marriage.
There is one law that came insanely late though. I have admired Alan Turing since I was a child. My father didn’t tell me many stories but the few he told me, stuck with me to this day. The way Alan Turing was treated, a war hero, a man with a keen scientific mind and sharp intelligence a man, that was crucial for ending of WWII, was abominable. It led to his humiliation and suicide in the year 1954. Think about how many were prosecuted over the years of UK gay rights history. One would think they were rid of these charges lot earlier. And yet again you would be wrong. In 2017 an act of law known as the Alan Turing law became active. This law is a pardon to all men who were prosecuted for charges based on the homosexual act policy.
That was the United Kingdom. Back in the day when all this began to be cataloged and more noticeable, we find ourselves in the Middle Ages and even in the early modern times.
It is sad to say that these, across Europe, and I do blame the religion (I mean look back to Ancient Rome, to Ancient Greece or Egypt) this was perceived in a pretty much similar way.
“Someone, I tell you, in another time will remember us.”
Sappho | 630 – c. 570 BC
So, in regards to my country, we now talk of a Monarchy. Not many of you probably know the history of the Czech people, it’s a lot more than the Czech Republic. We go centuries back. We gave you more than just a perfect beer and sugar cubes (yes, we did that). And when it came to homosexuality and its persecution, were we any better? No.
It is very difficult to establish when for a first-time homosexual act was deemed as a criminal act in the Czech history. One of the first written codes of law comes from the 14th Century (these were personal lawbooks, there were laws established a lot earlier particularly a mention of cruel punishments from times of Czech king Charles IV. Holy Roman Emperor a man of great stature and many rules. There is said to be a publication from 1353. And so at this time, sodomy is established as the most devious of acts and is punishable by death (by burning as opposed to hanging in the UK history – we did that a lot, sadly).
Another documented mention comes from 1579 when Pavel Kristián from Koldín finished the lawbook known as Koldínův Zákoník (Koldíns Lawbook). It wasn’t stated clearly in the book but it established the acts of sodomy and their punishments, and homosexuality was considered sodomy as we mentioned before. So at the same time as England had Henry VIII. the Czech monarchy was led by a man known as Rudolf II., also known to us as the mad king (but at the same time, as it happens, we prospered) its an ongoing irony. From these times, there are criminal records about executions of men for homosexual acts (the famous story is of a teacher called Sixtus who was executed in 1590).
So, the early days are very much the same as in England, as they are in most places of the middle Age Europe.
Where we differ from the United Kindom in regards to this topic is at the “tryouts” to decriminalize homosexual acts early on within the Parliament itself. First mentions of this movement in Czech lands come from 1863, this was the first time an updated version of the criminal acts law is presented by the head of the Ministry of Justice (Anton von Hye), unsuccessfully. The second time comes only a few years later in 1874, yet again unsuccessful. And so, the Czech people decided to take a different road – the road of science, alongside Austrian and German scientists (as we still were the Austrian-Hungary Kingdom by that time).
Over the next, sadly, century, many renown Czech scientists worked on a way to prove that homosexuality is indeed not a disease and cannot be treated as such. The early 20th century was the most successful one in the modern day Czech history. We no longer had Czech monarchs and we were not going to be ruled by the Austrians, and so, we created a republic, First republic we call it even now but mostly known as Czechoslovakia.
We were on top of the science, medicine, art and even warfare industry. And so, Czech doctors, professors, and psychologists worked on proving that homosexuality is not a crime and should not be punishable.
Up until now, there were over 5 attempts to change our legislation, all were swept under the rug. At the year 1908, the lawyers joined the fight, in the “Deník” (The Diary) famous newspapers existing to this day there is a famous and important article quoting the German doctor Loewenfeld who states:
“Homosexuality in most cases is a psychological deviation from the normal state of mind which cannot be considered for disease state but the degenerated and as such is not eligible to lower the rights of the citizens.”
Teoretical Magazine for questions of State and Law | 1908
In 1925 there were even whole conventions (in Brno, South Moravia) of lawyers and doctors fighting for the need to change the Czech constitution, need to give gays the rights they deserve. One of the most important voice belonged to JuDr. Čeřovský who never stopped fighting for gay rights. In one of his many statements he says:
“The inborn perversion of genitals is apparent in the sexual affection of persons of same sex to each other in otherwise normal physical and mental construction. It is perversion that is inborn therefore is not intentional, educated or lasting. It is a result of a deep internal foundational constitution, some mysterious natural whim. Hommosexuality in both men and women is therefore a native affection.”
František Čeřovský | Teoretical Magazine for questions of State and Law, 1919
The gay community and lesbian community in the modern Czech history was always quite large. And so, in 1932 the magazine called “Hlas Sexuální Menšiny” (The Voice of Sexual Minority) was created. Now the fighting for Czech gay rights was full on.
Sadly, soon after, comes a very dark chapter that puts all these efforts to sleep.
Czech lands are handed over to Hitler in the Munich disaster (formally known as the Munich Agreement) where England, France, Italy, and Germany handed our territory to Hitler. Nazis being what they were and are, sent homosexuals to the concentration camps and to their deaths. In the early years of war, homosexuals were subjected to medical experiments and torture. During the time of war, we had one of the most famous underground networks in the world, the same that was trying to keep the magazine alive and the fight alive, but it could not be done and the network moved onto the war operations, such as the Anthropoid mission among many others. And so, gay rights became less important next to the fight that has come, the sheer survival.
As the war ended and many thought, we’d have freedom, no such luck. Here comes the communism. Again being left to, this time Stalin, by the English, the Frech, and the Americans. Like hot potatoes, you need for our weapons, our soldiers, and our industry, each destroyed by these acts of political dominance of the few destroying lives of millions. It is important to mention because all of this established our future and decades of oppression.
Back to the gay rights. Communism was everything but just and fair. But, we never stopped fighting and so in the February 1948, there is the 1948 Czechoslovak coup d’état, the victorious February, fighting for the rights, making it possible to make a change. It was a short time of justice for Czech people a justice that was soon ended. Communism worked its way to the new Criminal Code published in 1950 which sunk Czech people back to depths of communism this time, for almost four decades.
Unlike in the UK where lesbians were not prosecuted by the law, here, we didn’t have such luxury. The new law changed in many ways, but the prosecution was clear. Just as in England, up to 2 years in prison. See, the difference is the Communism that was thrown at us. Were it not for this and the war, there would be a different road, but history is not series of What Ifs, history are facts. One these facts are also the so-called treatments homosexuals of both genders were subjected to.
Later comes another added subject, like in the UK, apart from sex the offensive morality act was added, therefore any act of homosexual activity in case of men and women was a criminal act. Those were not heavily prosecuted but could result in very high fines (equals millions in today’s economy) and up to 14 days in prison.
The doctors and lawyers never gave up. One publication and lecture after another they fought with science. Until the change in 1962. The new version of Criminal Code published and approved by Senate and parliament finally decriminalized homosexual acts. Many doctors were of course against and the people were torn in two camps. But, the law changed. Just as in England even here, minors are still considered criminals (for the Czech Republic it has always been 18 instead of British 21). Public sexual acts are still considered as criminal acts.
All these laws concerning homosexual acts are known as § 244. This paragraph existed for decades and was excluded from the Criminal Code in the year 1990 when the amendment was released. This time, all homosexual acts are legal (except sex with a person younger than 15 years) which was a huge change. Why was this possible? We were free again. Only year after the Velvet Revolution (1989) when the communism fell and democracy was established, gay rights advanced.
In 1999 the act of “Protection against work discrimination” was passed although often ignored. This was a paragraph dealing with hate and discrimination in the army and workplace based on sexual orientation.
In 2001 more changes come the gay way. The possibility to live together with benefits such as inheritance possibility or rights to health information or prison visitations. This is before the civil partnership and therefore it was an important step.
Here is a sidenote. Civil partnership amendment was approved by parliament four times but each time was denied by the asshole we had for a president, Václav Klaus. The thing about the Czech presidency is, he can only do it a certain amount of time and so in 2006 Parliament approved it and we could legally have the same-sex PARTNERSHIP.
Here is the thing, same-sex marriage does not exist in the Czech legislation. It is not the same thing as a partnership, a different kind of laws apply. And to this day, Czech people can only have the civil partnership, not the marriage. And so, even though we started with the advance in our previous culture and approach, we are now miles behind. If I met a girl and we fell in love and all I wanted was to give her a church wedding and be “married” we’d still have to leave this country. And that is ultimately shameful and painful to our whole community and the centuries of the fight. And that is why the Queers by Mark Gatiss are so fundamentally important to me.
In the end, both UK and Czech rights came decades after Turkey in 1858 or within Europe in Poland (1932) or Iceland in 1940, to name a few.
If you got all the way here, I applaud you and thank you. Really, thank you 🙂
© Photos: Febiofest.cz; Wikipedia.Org; bbcamerica.com
Please excuse any grammar mistakes you may find. The article is currently being proofed but I was little too excited and posted it right away.