A Lesbian History of Socialism

Curator's Note

 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.


Thank you, Aniko, for starting this week with such a compelling clip and commentary. I especially appreciate how you discuss that filmmaking is used to bring alternative histories to light. Media - and digital/online media in particular - have a significant role in uncovering hidden or "transgressive" histories that depart from the stalwart conventional narratives. It is heartening that established institutions like Forum Film are participating in the support of films like this but, as you mention, there are other imperatives or limitations (often self-imposed, no doubt) that construct the film's reception and level of support. Hungary is certainly not the only country in which films with LGBT or other non-mainstream stories are relegated to glass cages. And in places where the national identity is so strong, the history of nationalism so fierce, those "underground" stories are perhaps hard to recognize or place in the national narrative, despite the absolute necessity of their presence. After all, what is national identity if it's not the identity of the people -- ALL the people?

Thank you, Mary. Perhaps the most powerful, perhaps inadvertent lesson of the film is precisely this contradiction at the heart of nationalism: that it's so inclusive and exclusive at the same time. One of the scenes in the film shows footage of the 1956 revolution against Soviet invasion but this time with women marching and fighting in the streets of Budapest. 1956 is one of those events around which national cohesion has been successfully created; but the images that have helped fabricate this cohesion have been all about heroic, youngish men. At least that's how the event is burned into my inherited memory. I was stunned to see '56 associated with women in this film. In another segment, one of the women talks about her obsession with Tereskova, the Russian woman astronaut -- someone rather overshadowed at the time by Gagarin but, again, revealing a different thread within the allegedly homogeneous national fabric of memory.  

Aniko: I particularly appreciate your mention of the documentary's tone and style which is quite notable. So much of how we have seen the secret histories of socialism/lesbianism rendered in the US has been through fearful/closeted stylisitics of noir or sureveillance, or then again, a kind of post-socialist/post-Stonewall celebration or defiance.



 Hi Alex, 

exactly: I think what makes this film so compelling to watch, and the key to its activist intervention, is that it renders the women interviewed totally 'normal' -- a term routinely used to mark the national boundaries around heterosexuality. These women are all quite 'normal', except that they come across as more confident and witty than most.  I can't help thinking that the film could single-handedly do more to break down the artificial walls around 'normal' than years of legislative struggles can. If only more people could see it...


The story you tell about the documentary is a fascinating one. In a film that makes visible the secret lives of these lesbians the irony of the Film Forum's exclusion is disheartening. It also serves as an important reminder of the global struggle for LGBT rights. Sometimes I become so fixated on our own US battles that I forget that I am a part of a much larger movement. Naturally, the solidarity is both comforting and a source of dismay.

 Thank you for your comment. I agree that the experiences depicted in the film seem at once globally linked and isolated, even incommensurable with those of LGBT communities in the US. This particular film's main activist mission is to get through to the homophobic majority in Hungary, to create a retroactive, non-heterosexist history. But the struggles of the interviewees are also recognizable across borders and cultures.


I'm really struck by your metaphor of the glass cage. Not only does it aptly describe the conditions of the film's circulation, but it also captures nationalism's core contradiction that you mentioned in response to Mary's comment. The "containment" of the its circulation situates the film's lesbian subjects outside the nation's fold, also captured in the video's opening sequence about the march.

At the same time, the cage's glassy barriers render the inside/outside visible to one another, if not making it appear altogether seamless. As such, I wonder if this metaphor opens up a more complex politics of seeing and, by extension, of film's capacity in literally making visible invisible histories. The interview with the couple on how they were able to use each other's IDs because of a stereotype strikes me as an example of the ways in which regimes of visibility can be played to the advantage of those it seeks to subjugate. This is not to downplay the effects of marginalization, of course, but it prompts the following questions: To what extent does "normalizing" homosexuality queer regimes of visibility? What are its effects on heteronormativity?

 Thanks, Fiona, for bringing up the issue of different 'regimes of visibility.' It's one of the most interesting questions brought up by the film and films like it because it's a site of the incommensurability between Western models of LGBT activism and the historical conditions from which these activisms grow elsewhere. There are several moments of the film when 'invisibility' is associated with a paradoxical state of safety provided by the majority's logic that 'what cannot be named doesn't exist.' If there is no such thing as a lesbian, as was the official line during socialism, then female bonding is actually afforded a more innocent, more expansive space. Also, as one of the interviewers recalls, 'the slightly awkward, masculine girl who is good at sciences' was a perfectly acceptable image, so acceptable that she had trouble verbalizing the sexual difference of her own femininity until she read the word "gay," in English, on the cover of an American magazine. 

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