|Cafè Muskátli, a meeting place |
for gays and lesbians in Budapest in 1984
In this paper, Anna Borgos and Kriszta Pozsonyi from the Labrisz Lesbian Association in Hungary discuss the lesbian herstory project that they introduced in 2008. They collected, archived and published the life stories of lesbians aged 45 and older. Moreover, they used some of the interviews to make the documentary "Secret Years" that premiered at the LIFT Fesival in 2009. Through their project they increased the visibility of older lesbian women in Hungary and uncovered unexplored elements of Hungarian history like the "lesbian colony" Szatina or the urban lesbian underground scene during the socialist regime.
What do you find most inspiring about the lesbian herstory project? And what do you think about the idea of not only publishing the women's life stories but also turning them into a documentary?
To read the full paper, click on "read more". And like always, comment, share, discuss and enjoy!
Secret Years: Fragments of a Hungarian Lesbian Herstory
Ever since its foundation in 1999, Labrisz Lesbian Association has been laying great stress on documentation. From collecting materials about the life and history of the organization itself, to publications, books, tapes, and videos on Hungarian lesbian life, our aim has been not only to record contemporary lesbian experiences in Hungary, but also to document the stories of older generations regarding the past, about which very few written resources are available.
In 2008, we started a lesbian herstory project. We began by conducting life-story interviews with lesbians aged 45 and older, with the aim of creating an archive, editing and publishing a volume out of the stories, and making a documentary film. Secret Years, a documentary based on 11 interviews and directed by Labrisz member Mária Takács, premiered at the 2009 LIFT Festival (Festival of Lesbian Identities) to enormous success. As the next step of the project, a volume of 16 interviews, titled Secret Years: 16 Lesbian Life Stories, was published by Labrisz in 2011.
|A gathering of the women that helped making the "Secret Years" documentary|
The interviews that we have made throughout this project present an exciting and unique perspective on recent social history through personal lenses. As suggested by the title of the project, the interviewees talk about the “secret years” of their lives as lesbians: about women, love, family, work, being in the closet and coming out, and happiness and pain during state socialism and after the democratic transition in Hungary. These women lived their lives as lesbians during state socialism either in complete isolation or within a small social network of lesbians. Through their life stories, we can get a glimpse into the former regime’s power techniques of oppressing individuals and communities and we also learn of the freedom (as complex as it was) brought along by the democratic transition. However, as the formerly taboo topic has become a part of the public political discourse due to the political changes, new forms of openly homophobic discrimination and oppression have appeared and have since been deployed relentlessly by the extreme right movements and political forces in Hungary.
The women we interviewed come from diverse social and professional backgrounds, and through their stories, we can also see the diversity of everyday experiences in the era of state socialism. Some of the women are currently over 70 and many of them discussing the 1970s and 1980s are already retired. They used to work in academic, musical, hospitality, and blue-collar professions. Because of their different social contexts and positions, their views on the political system vary greatly, but there seems to be a common denominator of them all – the repression of their identities and private lives. Among those interviewed we can also find the artists, public personalities, and activists who started the lesbian movement in the 1990s.
An interesting point of junction in the threads of the herstories in a number of interviews is a village called Szatina. Around the time of the political transition, a significant lesbian community gathered in this village and founded a “lesbian colony.” To these women, this move was a symbolic exodus, a way to escape from society’s pressure and return to nature. This way, they created a safe space for themselves and chose their own, self-reliant ways of making a living (e.g. by breeding goats or making wooden toys). While they found the balance between freedom and protection in this isolated community, other women looked for the same balance in the underground urban scene, such as in the company of alternative bands, artist communities, pubs, and bars. The sixties saw the establishment of the first gay venue (a cozy café called Egyetem presszó), while the first space for lesbian meetings was set up in the eighties in a movie theater (called Ipoly). While these locations provided lesbians and gays with a quasi-private milieu, they also served as tools of state control. For the political regime, these meetings proved to be easily observable. Oddly enough, such spaces satisfied the needs of both parties: they functioned as a place of hiding away (for lesbians and gays) and being seen (by those in power) at the same time.
In this political context, though lesbians and gays were not explicitly outlawed, lesbianism was indeed socially stigmatized and often times misrepresented or not represented at all. In some cases, the force to stay in the closet led to leading a double life. The only (also, the oldest) interviewee in the book who chose to appear under a pseudonym, put it as follows.
Back here, at home, I was a decent intellectual, and when I went to Paris, I was a different person living a different life. The two lifestyles were geographically split as well. […] Lesbianism was never really integrated into my life; my personality had two separate threads […] that hardly ever crossed each other.
As for the methodology of the herstory project, the interviewees were found via snowball method as well as through our webpage and through advertising in various papers. The interviewers were trained by an oral history expert with special emphasis on the specific knowledge and considerations required by the project. The interviews were conducted by a team including a camera operator, a director, an interviewer and (occasionally) a sound engineer. The locations for the interviews were chosen by the interviewees. The interviewers were members of Labrisz. Our herstory archive project is unique in two respects.
On the one hand, it explores and brings awareness to a previously unexplored segment of 20th century history, i.e. that of an invisible sexual minority, providing important data and a special viewpoint in 20th century historiography. On the other hand, it increases the visibility of older lesbians. It was already an important achievement in itself that during the film production process, the crew found members of these older generations who were willing to present themselves and their life stories to the public. These generations are often closeted, hardly visible even for the lesbian community, and for some of them, appearing in the film was a major public coming out. Their life stories may give encouragement to closeted lesbians to come out and become more integrated in society. Also, non-lesbian viewers and readers have an opportunity to get familiar with a social group with less visibility.
The film has been screened with great success in Hungary and abroad as well, at various festivals and public events. We sell the book both in bookshops and online, on our website. We regularly receive orders from women in the countryside, who have much less access to social and cultural activities than women living in the capital city.
Besides our plans to conduct more interviews, we are currently continuing the work on the material that we already have and we are taking the project to a next level. On the one hand, the DVD version of the film is just about to be released. The DVD includes subtitles in 13 languages, including those of Central Eastern Europe. On the other hand, we have decided to digitalize the materials and create a website to make available the interview transcripts with English translations and over one hundred hours of video material. The content of the website would be accessible—and, we hope, useful—for social scientists, cultural anthropologists, historians, archivists, and for the wider public as well.
We find it important to translate the interviews in order to make them accessible for a wider, international audience of readers. The stories open a window to the Kádár-era from the special perspective of Hungarian lesbian women, thus introducing both the social context of the Iron Curtain and the life of a community formerly invisible to many. While there are several volumes of lesbian herstory in the “West,” only a few cover East Central European herstories. A digital archive could also contribute to establishing a virtual community between lesbians of “the East” and “the West,” creating opportunities for further dialogue.
The oral herstory archive based on a series of life interviews will be the first of its kind in Hungary. We would like to continue the collection of life story interviews of older lesbians and make the stories available for the broader scientific and lay public. At the same time, we are also looking to expand our collection of written, audio, and video resources in our mission to search for and reconstruct the roots and fragmented traces of lesbian existence in Hungary. The overall purpose of the project is to develop a Hungarian lesbian herstory archive accessible for researchers and people interested.