It seems that a certain time and perspective is necessary for a community to focus its attention from present-time activism to retrospective “archivism”, or at least share its energies between the two. While there are certainly more urgent, “hot” issues to deal with, especially in countries that have to face individual and politically approved/incited homophobia (like Hungary), from a larger perspective, reconstructing and remembering our history should be considered just as essential (and political). In Hungarian lesbian association Labrisz, recently a growing need has appeared for exploring, organising and sharing partly the history of the organisation itself (being 16 years old, it has its own past now also in a material sense), partly the wider “Hungarian lesbian herstory”.
There are very few traces and resources of lesbian existence in Hungary from before the regime change, not to mention the pre-war period. Women with same-sex attraction seemed to be out of the system of social-institutional suppression on the one hand and social acknowledgement on the other. Paradoxically, the fact that only male homosexuality was criminalised in Hungary (until 1961), involves that one of the main resources of pre-war homosexual lives (court cases) are missing in the case of women. The few available traces of female same-sex attractions before WW2 derive from the field of psychiatry, the contemporary tabloid press, or from a few personal documents of close female friendships (of married or “single” women). The stories of the few women loving women have been preserved mostly due to their public cultural/social position (like poet Minka Czóbel, journalist Sándor/Sarolta Vay, writer Cécile Tormay, or poet Sophie Török). From the years after WW2, the private heritage of two out lesbians, writer Erzsébet Galgóczi and actress Hilda Gobbi are still waiting to be uncovered and are currently only partly accessible.
As for the forming archives of Labrisz Lesbian Association, its main purpose is to more systematically explore, collect and arrange autobiographical writings, correspondence, and other personal documents, as well as published articles and books related to women attracted to women in Hungary.
At the end of the 2000s, film director Mária Takács, launched an oral history project, which set out to record the lives of middle-aged and elderly women who lived as lesbians during state socialism. The resulting documentary and volume of interviews Secret Years have been translated into English, too. The narratives of the interviewees create a colourful picture of recent Hungarian social history: the state socialist Kádár era and the period of transition. The women, aged forty to eighty, are professionals, employees, artists, and catering workers, and their stories span the oppressive atmosphere of the fifties through the gradually increasing openness of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Coming from diverse social and economic backgrounds, they express different perspectives but have similar experiences when it comes to the pressure to hide their identities and the struggling with isolation. Their stories also reveal the hidden and semi-public spaces where women were able to meet. While some women looked for alternative/outsider spaces in the countryside, others opted for a specifically urban environment – such as music bands, artists’ societies, pubs, cafés, and the gradually emerging gay bars.
The English Secret Years interviews will be our first online ‘exhibit’ of our archives, but we are also seeking funding for organizing, cataloguing, and digitizing the already collected archival materials, and continue collecting written and visual documents of 20th-century Hungarian lesbian herstory. The long-term aim of the Hungarian Lesbian Herstory Archives is to serve as a resource for scholars, activists and the wider public and to give place to cultural events related to lesbian culture and history. We are also interested in cooperating with other lesbian/women’s/LGBT archives in the region and in ‘Western’ countries. The English translation of the sixteen Secret Years interviews will soon be available on www.labrisz.hu, and we will be gradually adding digitized versions of pieces of the archival material.