Since 1989, gay and lesbian organizations have tentatively begun to emerge in the postsocialist region. Joining the European Union in the mid-2000s put additional pressure on new member states to extend all citizenship rights to LGBT people. Pink marches, gay pride parades and film festivals have been regularly organized since the 1990s. But this limited visibility has also provoked a significant backlash. Even the most basic advances towards legal equality and moral acceptance are obstructed in a nationalistic climate, where heterosexism is deeply normalized and institutionalized. Given the dreary landscape, it is all the more crucial to underscore breakthrough achievements in visualizing gay and lesbian agency. One such milestone is the recent documentary film Secret Years (Eltitkolt évek, 2009), directed by Mária Takács. As the title implies, the film’s mission is to chronicle, for the first time, the untold, unseen history of a lesbian subculture during socialism as it is remembered by eleven women who lived through the period in Hungary. As the trailer indicates, much of the political power of the film is in its low-key tone, a quiet intimacy between interviewer and her subjects, who do not feel any evident pressure to perform. The political intervention is in rendering lesbians always already visible within national culture. As it transpires from the women’s stories, several of them had lived in happy heterosexual marriages and raised children before they came out. Their very appearance and stories defy the stereotypes of man-hating and self-hating, tragic lesbians. All of them talk about their secret years – decades – in hiding, the pain of loneliness and rejection, the surreptitious joy of finding underground communities and places to meet, and the passage to self-recognition and coming out. They do so without self-pity, in a tone of profound, self-aware humor. In fact, if there is something that sets off this group from the moral majority, it is precisely that they are not afraid. Their fearlessness establishes the majority’s fear of gays and lesbians as irrational and panicked.
One of the merits of the film is that it defamiliarizes the history of the socialist decades, which has been told obsessively, but always from the perspective of a taken-for-granted national community. An alternative history appears here, which progresses from the tentative attempts of individuals to find partners in the 1960s and 70s to the constitution of a robust underground community concentrated in gay bars and other meeting places in and around Budapest by the 1990s. Secret Years grows out of the work of a Budapest-based lesbian activist film collective. It marks the collective’s progression from earlier, playful short films that provided the first images of identification for lesbians in the early 2000s to addressing mainstream society in a way that renders lesbianism something that has always been part of ‘normal’ national societies. The film’s status is also validated by the fact that it was produced by Forum Film, a prestigious documentary film studio, with partial support from the Hungarian Motion Picture Foundation. While these developments are to be applauded as progressive steps towards normalizing homosexuality, the film has still been kept in a glass cage in subtle ways in Hungary. The annual Film Forum, a festival venue that exhibits new Hungarian films, refused to include the film in its regular competition, relegating it to an ‘underground’ status. The film has circulated in art cinemas and special screenings, and has been on a steady festival tour abroad, but has not been able to penetrate commercial venues and reach a wider audience.