My husband Christian and I, married on July 30 of this year, decided to spend our honeymoon in Prague. Prague (Praha in Czech) means threshold, and while that metaphor seemed an apt one for us, it also took on new meaning for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people of the city, as they were about to embark on their very first official Pride celebration.
Having heard about the festivities a few days into our trip, we learned that the Czech Republic is the last EU country whose capital has not had a Pride event. Three years earlier, protesters in Brno, another Czech city, had attacked participants. After years of Toronto Pride, it was exciting and unnerving to be in a place that was experiencing its first. We had no idea what to expect. Would there be hundreds or thousands of people? Would those who felt the same as an aide to the president of the Republic, Vaclav Klaus, when he spoke out against the city’s mayor for supporting a festival of “deviant fellow citizens,” tolerate its presence? There was enough advice on how to deal with anti-Pride protesters in the Prague Pride 2011 Guide to have us a little worried. The tag line for the celebration — Festival of Tolerance — while awkward sounding, was obviously appropriate.
On Wednesday night, we attended Friends Bar for the welcome festival. Here we met Richard and Craig, two American newlyweds nursing the Czech national drink: beer. As we heard their story of marrying in Paris in April, the bar filled up with a mix of men and women as rainbow-coloured balloons were batted about the dancefloor. The mood was definitely high, with the normally introverted Czech mentality swinging decidedly toward extroversion.
The following day, we met up with our American friends at Q Café. The intimate space meant sharing tables; this is where we met Josef, a local, and Tomas, a tourist from Copenhagen. A police officer appeared outside the café, and Tomas explained it had been vandalized the night before. I spotted a cracked window behind Josef’s head and asked him about his views on Prague’s first Pride. He said nonchalantly, “You don’t have to worry, but it won’t be boring.” Not exactly comforting words.
Saturday was the day of the parade. We met with Richard, Craig and Tomas at the foot of Legii Bridge, where the final leg of the parade was to pass before ending with celebrations on Strelecky Island. On the walk over, Tomas shared that he had spotted a group of skinheads shouting obscenities. As an employee of the Danish State department who travelled extensively, he said he’d visited many countries where gay rights were non-existent, but seeing the group of skinheads was the first time he’d felt hated.
The police presence was strong, and they obviously supported the Pride organizers. Even with Tomas’s unfortunate experience, I felt relatively safe. A nearby van offloaded officers dressed in riot gear as the parade could be seen making its way toward the bridge. Shortly before the marchers’ arrival, there was a puff of smoke from the direction of the island. The smell of burning rubber filled the air around us; later, we read reports that two people had been arrested for throwing smoke bombs. Rainbow arches made of balloons led masses of people down Národní St, while the sound of dance beats, drums and whistles bounced off the facades of baroque and neoclassical buildings that formed the parade’s backdrop.
Finally, the parade reached us. While most of the signage was in Czech, there was some English (“I love my lesbian daughter”), with the ubiquitous rainbow flags needing no translation. Some Christian Democrat protesters marched silently past on the sidewalk. A Czech woman translated that their signs advertised they could cure homosexuals with Christianity. Drag queens strutted by, as did people sporting masks of the president, blatantly mocking him. We had expected hundreds, but there were thousands. Free of commercialism and light on ornamentation, the parade had the simple but powerful feeling that this was about the Czech gay community claiming their space.
Later that evening we attended the After Festival Party at Friends. There was a genuine feeling of happiness in the air, that a milestone had been passed. My husband and I, having gone through our own personal milestone, had the good fortune to witness the newest annual addition to Prague’s beautiful streetscape: its first Pride celebration, 5,000 strong. May its numbers grow.