Over the past week and a half, I’ve had the honor and privilege of traveling to several Eastern European countries to meet with people who are involved in religiously-themed queer protest art. They have generously made time to meet with me, shared meals and insights, introduced me to their friends and collaborators, showed me around their cities, and generally helped me to understand the cultural, political, and religious contexts of their work. Although this trip is part of a larger project, a follow-up to Queer Nuns and an initial foray into sorting out the focus of my next book project, here I offer a bit of an academic travelogue in order to share some of what I’m learning and to bring more attention to the exciting work these folks are doing. There are four post(card)s, one for each city in which I conducted research: Bucharest, Romania; Odessa, Ukraine; Prague, Czech Republic; and Poznań, Poland.
The differences between Prague and the previous two cities I’d visited were clearly evident even on the drive from the airport. First of all, here it had been a viable option for me to take public transit from the airport; I’d chosen not to do so because it would have required several transfers or a fairly lengthy walk with a suitcase over cobbled sidewalks, and I was coming in a bit late and meeting someone. Second, while the region around most airports is generally either industrial or economically depressed, in Prague the drive took us quite quickly into areas with well-maintained buildings and recently-mown parks. In the daylight, I was awed by both the historic beauty of the city and the extent of the renovations in the areas where I traveled. Graceful eighteenth-century apartment buildings that reminded me of Paris were impeccably stuccoed and painted in the colorful pastels I’ve seen in paintings from the era. Trams and trains rolled by regularly, and the cars in the street were mostly mid-range to high-end models in good repair. As I walked to the old town to look around (I can’t resist touring old religious buildings, and Prague has some beautiful ones), I noticed the signs of a significant amount of international investment, ranging from office buildings of international companies to signs advertising those companies’ goods and services as easily accessible in Prague. And on an individual level, millions of people each year are “investing” in the city; its tourist industry appears to be booming. In the old town the throngs of tourists make it hard to even move in some of the narrower streets. Souvenir shops and restaurants line the bottom floors of the dignified old buildings, and as a sign that Prague has truly made it as a tourist destination there are a wax museum and any number of human statues in the main square by the old town hall.
So, at least in the areas in which I traveled, Prague has recovered much more quickly and completely from the devastations of the world wars and the Eastern European communist era than has Bucharest or Odessa. But such recovery comes at a price. When I arrived at my privately-rented apartment (no hotel in Prague because I was in serious need of a washing machine), I was greeted by a tenant’s guide that introduced the neighborhood this way: “It is an old workers’ class district which is experiencing its careful resurrection to become a popular new area.” In other words, it’s gentrifying. Or being gentrified – the buildings with crumbling stucco, faded paint, and scaffolds all around for the workers who are bringing them more into line with their neighbors bear the names of investment companies. These are hardly local people getting back on their feet and improving the neighborhood. As one spray-painted commentary put it, pointedly in English, “Your luxury is our misery.” Indeed, even though the apartment I rented was a small studio, it had hardwood floors and IKEA furnishings and was accessed through a carefully manicured interior garden courtyard on the second story. I, an academic from the U.S., rented the apartment through AirBnB from people who are, or at least appeared online to be, English-speaking millennial Czechs, in a neighborhood where luxury apartments jostle with tourist hotels, trendy restaurants, bars, and hair salons, and Tesco Express is the closest grocery store recommended by the hosts even though there are two smaller corner markets nearby.
Gentrification was the first descriptor Tereza offered when I showed her on the map where I was staying. She and Michael are currently the most active members of the Czech Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. HIV/AIDS activists and queer activists as well as friends, they’re drawn to the Sisters because of the order’s history of involvement in both of these causes. Aside from the bars, they told me, which serve mostly very young men and seem to have no larger function than as sites for finding alcohol and hook-ups, there isn’t much of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual community in Prague. In their view, the organizations that do exist take on very specific political causes, leaving them little reason for existence once the cause is finally won or defeated and burning out the group members in the process. Trans folks, they say, seem to have done a better job of organizing in the city, to the extent that there may be a dozen or more committed activists who gather regularly to work on a range of concerns that affect trans people. It seemed clear to me that Tereza and Michael would like to see the Sisters serve a parallel purpose, addressing a variety of issues of concern to various or all constituents of LGBTQ communities in Prague and perhaps more broadly in the Czech Republic as well. Given the order’s roots in this kind of integrated – today we might say intersectional – activism, there is certainly the potential for such a development.
Prague is an interesting location for the Sisters. More than once serving as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, the city has very deep Catholic roots that seem to have been all but shorn off during the communist period. Whereas Romania, for instance, responded to the fall of Ceausescu by becoming, on the whole, intensely religious, Prague did not. It went through other forms of reaction to the subsequent political and economic instability, including the rise of neo-Nazis who visited severe violence on anyone the Third Reich had considered to be its enemies. Michael was one of their victims; at one point in the 1990s a group of skinheads threatened him with a gun held to his head, and in another incident during the same time period he was brutally kicked. Religion, though, has not – or not yet – returned in force. So far, then, what little opposition there has been to the Sisters has come not through their association with nuns but through their association with drag queens and, by connection, with gay men.
This perception of the order as being composed entirely of gay men has had different consequences for the two active members of the Czech Sisters. Michael, with his history of brutal treatment by skinheads, worries about safety if he manifests out on the streets in public, even though the neo-Nazi threat seems to have become much less significant over the last decade. Tereza, on the other hand, like many women, initially had no idea that she could even become a member of the order, nor did she know what to do at first with the high-femme drag that most Sisters wear. She’s safer out on the streets than Michael is, again like many female-bodied people who are Sisters, because once observers hear the pitch of her voice and conclude that she’s a woman, their interpretation of what they see before them changes. No longer are they seeing a gay drag queen, maybe impersonating a nun; now they’re seeing a woman wearing a funny costume. While there are Sisters in highly secular cultures, such as the several active houses in France, it seems that Prague may be equally or even more actively atheist: according to a Pew study released earlier this year, only 29 percent of Czechs believe in God. In Romania, by contract, that number is 95 percent; in Ukraine and Poland, it’s 86 percent (see, for instance, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/05/10/religious-belief-and-national-belonging-in-central-and-eastern-europe/). What difference does it make to manifest in a country with a deeply Catholic background, a history of intra-Christian violence (this is, after all, the home of the executed Church reformer and Protestant forerunner Jan Hus), and contemporary indifference or active hostility to religion? France and the Czech Republic might make for an interesting comparison case here – and not just in terms of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.