Transitioning in the Public Eye

New transgender groups raise awareness, build communities

By Valerio Farris

Transgender advocacy is gaining traction in the Czech Republic, but many transgender people still face discrimination. Photo courtesy Damian Machaj.

Transgender advocacy is gaining traction in the Czech Republic, but many transgender people still face discrimination. Photo courtesy Damian Machaj.

When Viktor Heumann cites the need for transgender awareness in the Czech Republic, he recalls the experiences of his friend Daniela.

Daniela, who identifies as a transgender woman, was signing up for a hotel gym in Prague. Upon receiving her keys and membership, the gym informed her that she was to use only the men’s restroom. No exceptions.

Not long after, Daniela was touring an apartment with the intention to rent. After walking through the space, she decided the house was ideal for her. She wanted to make an offer. Daniela, however, had to continue her search as the agency informed her that the owner was not interested in renting the apartment to her.

While these events could occur anywhere, they are emblematic of the obstacles facing transgender people in the Czech Republic.

The term transgender refers to a wide variety of people who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. While some people undergo surgery and/or hormone treatment to align with their preferred gender, others adopt pronouns or modes of dress that allow them to feel more comfortable. Queer is often the term of choice activists use to describe those who do not identify with traditional sexual or gender divisions.

Transgender advocacy is gaining traction in the Czech Republic following the growing, post-communist success of gay and lesbian organizations. Before 1989, gays and lesbians across the former Eastern bloc had to remain underground as just admitting to same-sex attraction was an aberration frowned upon by the authoritarian regime. Today, however, there is a thriving gay scene, registered partnerships, a gay-themed parade, a gay movie festival and many openly gay leaders across political and business sectors.

Now, just as in the United States where celebrity Bruce Jenner has just revealed his own transition, transgender people are a hot topic, and the transgender — or trans — community is taking note and emerging as a rights movement.

“Our goal is to strengthen the trans community itself, to start from the inside.”

In contrast to more conservative former communist countries like Slovakia and Poland, the Czech Republic, and particularly Prague, is generally open to so-called alternative lifestyles. Analysts often attribute Czech tolerance to its status as one of the world’s most atheistic countries — more than 60 percent of the population identify as non-religious. Still, the concept of transgender is new to many Czechs.

“Prague is a bit different than the rest of the Czech Republic because there are some queer scenes at least,” said Heumann. “But elsewhere in the Czech Republic, I don’t think people have any idea about transgender people in general.”

Heumann, along with transgender activist Damian Machaj, felt a lack in the representation of transgender culture in the city’s LGBTQ scene. Thus, in early 2015 they created Transparent Prague.

“There was no specific alternative place which could provide more information, raise more awareness and be a safe space for queer people where they can all mingle like normal people could,” said Heumann.

The main aim of Transparent Prague is to provide a friendly environment for transgender people to meet each other and discuss issues unique to the trans experience.

“Our goal is to strengthen the trans community itself, to start from the inside,” said Machaj.

“People after transition, or in the process of transitioning, they sometimes find it difficult to stay in their jobs or find a new job. They tend to stay at home and give up on social contacts,” said Heumann.

Dealing with gender identity issues frequently drives people to the brink of despair: In the United States, for instance, 41 percent of trans or gender non-conforming people surveyed have attempted suicide.

A 2015 report released by Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring Project reveals that, worldwide, “a total of 1,731 cases of reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people from Jan. 1 2008 to Dec. 31 2014.”

“The wording in the law says that you have to lose or be deprived of your reproductive functions to be eligible for the gender change, legally.”

Transparent Prague sometimes conducts meetings at Q Cafe, the popular LGBT friendly cafe in Prague 1. Transparent provides an alternative to doctor-sanctioned group meetings.

“The only opportunity, official opportunity, trans people had to meet is in a support group when they have doctor appointments. But the thing is, the doctor is always present in the meeting, so it’s just sort of a weird situation,” said Machaj.

A partner of Transparent, TransFusion, is a separately run Czech organization that challenges legislative limitations placed on the transgender community.

“When you transition and you’re married, you have to get divorced. If you want to change your documents, first of all you must get divorced. In the Czech Republic gay and lesbian marriage is not allowed, so that means that if you’re a heterosexual couple and you’re married and one of the two wants to transition they have to divorce. And after that they can’t get married again,” said Machaj.

This is only one of several institutional difficulties transgender people face.

The Czech Republic is one of 21 countries in Europe that requires individuals who have transitioned to be sterilized before the government will recognize their preferred gender identity.

“The wording in the law says that you have to lose or be deprived of your reproductive functions to be eligible for the gender change, legally,” said Heumann.

In 2009, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “transgender people appear to be the only group in Europe subject to legally prescribed, state-enforced sterilization.”

Each year in the Czech Republic around 50 to 60 people undergo a sex reassignment surgery. For the surgery to be covered by public insurance, a commission at the Ministry of Health must approve an application. Before the surgery, the applicant must experience a year of hormone therapy and a subsequent year of living as one’s preferred gender.

Machaj, who DJs on the side, created a blog in November of 2014 for those seeking to learn more about transgender topics online.

“The motivation when I started the blog was when I came out as trans, so many people I knew didn’t know much about being trans and how to talk to me. It was difficult, I suddenly had these experiences when you meet people that you have known for ages, and they suddenly don’t know how to address you,” he said.

His acquaintances were  “just freaking out about the pronouns. They don’t know how to ask questions they are interested in. So I started writing videos about basic things, pronouns, trans ethics and just basically to guide people how to handle this,” said Machaj.

His entries address topics such as the nuances of relationships involving trans people or the debate surrounding passing, the ability of a transgender person to “pass” for the gender they are assuming. Most articles center around his experiences and opinions, often accompanied by photos of him with his flowy mop of bleach blond hair shaved on the sides.

“The online community, that’s also a very important form of being visible, to share your experience with other people. The trans online community is very strong. The personal stories that are shared in the online space are very important,” said Machaj.

Through Pandamian, Machaj has become something of a public figure in Prague’s queer scene.

“Damian and his blog, he’s been there on the scene, he’s an artist and a DJ and involved in festivals, so he’s out there and quite known to the queer scene. So that’s one good thing because he’s using himself, and the image he creates is very friendly,” said Heumann.

It’s important to spread the image of queer people being normal people, like everyone else, he added.

“And that’s also important for us because we’re not really inaccessible people, we’re people who are there, you can meet us, you can talk to us,” said Heumann.

He noted that Bruce Jenner notwithstanding, the visibility of transgender public figures — whether they appear in politics, media or sports — is severely lacking.

But being recognized comes at a price. Often, media representations of transgender people can be sensationalized, fetishized or ridiculed, according to Machaj. “Visibility in the sense that you don’t put trans people in some place that they don’t want to be,” he said.

Still, he called last year, 2014, revolutionary for the trans people: “Like the Laverne Cox cover on Time magazine or the many many people who are very visible and many people came out publicly, and I think its great.”

*Daniela is a pseudonym used to protect the subject’s identity

 

Valerio Farris is in the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development class of 2017. His hometown is Houston, Texas.

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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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