New York native Gail Whitmore, a classically trained opera singer, “came to Prague for four days in 2001 and just never went home.” Since then she has involved herself in activities from singing (in which regard she’s known as the “Human Jukebox”), moderating and radio hosting, to her prime profession as a counsellor, dealing particularly with crisis prevention and street harassment. Most recently she was involved in the Prague Pride festival, where she manned both the stage and the crisis hotline. With quite a lot to talk about then, I started with the question everybody must surely ask her first:
“Well one of the main things is health insurance. I have a disability, and nowadays it’s just… once I turned 18, I no longer had health insurance, which made my ten years back in New York excruciating. It was either eight-hour lines at the hospital where they did not allow you to sit, and if you sit for a minute you lose your place in line. And that was basically my life, and it continues to be the life of my friends now – all these people who hold higher degrees from excellent universities. It absolutely drives me crazy. And being born with a disability – guess what - that’s a pre-existing condition; so you’re totally and completely screwed. And for people to say ‘you didn’t take care of yourself’, well, I didn’t have a choice, I was just… born. So, coming here, I am completely covered, I have excellent doctors, excellent care, I am the healthiest I have ever been in my entire life.
“So that was my number one reason for staying. After that, it was just that my lifestyle in America was extremely difficult, because I was pursuing an opera career, so I had to do work that didn’t suit my personality or my skill set at all, in order to pay for my voice lessons. And so when I came here I was actually able to use the skills that I have and actually be compensated for it and able to have a life. Like I love languages and I speak a few languages, but that simply wasn’t interesting in New York. And my volunteer work was extremely important to me in New York, but of course you don’t get paid, and then here I was able to use the certification I had in that to start my practice here.”
You work as a singer but also as a counsellor; what kind of people and what kinds of problems do you find yourself dealing with most?
“The kinds of people are 97% expats, English speaking (English doesn’t have to be their first language but they’re people who are more comfortable in English if they can’t find someone in their language). The main problems I’d say are depression, thoughts of suicide, a lot of self-injury and eating disorders, a fair amount of people coming to grips as adults with a sexual assault they suffered as children. I found that many of the people I work with have moved here to try to escape their lives back home, kind of thinking, you know, ‘if I go away then it didn’t happen or I don’t have to deal with it anymore’…”
So most of these problems are not related in any way to their problems as expats living in a foreign country?
“Not specifically, no. There are a few people dealing with culture shock, or who deal with having come here thinking that after they got their TEFL certificate they were going to have a great job and a lot of money, and it didn’t work that way. But that’s not that often. I find it’s primarily people who probably would have been in counselling back home, but it was too difficult to be home, so they’re here and now find that they still need it. And once they’ve left where they came from, they’ve also left behind their entire support system, so that means their therapists, their parents, their friends – everything they would have turned to. So now they find themselves here, it’s completely new to them, their old problems are still there, and they’re completely alone and don’t know what to do. So that’s pretty much what I work with.”
Certainly people who don’t, yet, live in the Czech Republic have come to you, said that they might be interested in living here and asked what kinds of problems they might face or how difficult the move would be. What do you tell them?
“I ask them to think very strongly about who they really feel they are inside. Not just in terms of career – don’t put that first. Are you someone who enjoys travel, who enjoys adventure, enjoys really new experiences? Able to deal with some instability in terms of finances, being shaken a little bit maybe in regards to language, or culture, or things not being exactly the way you want – you know, you’re not going to find your caffeine-free diet A&W Cream Soda in the store. So, to think about those things. If that’s something that excites them, then the next question is ok, are you at a point in your life where you feel you can really make this change? Do you have some personal things that are perhaps unresolved and if so, why? And to reflect on that in their own time. Or is this a good time in your life? Are you planning to have a family? If so, are you planning to do it here? Because, again, you’ll be leaving your support system behind and it’s difficult to have a child in a foreign country (now I’ve learned that firsthand). Are you going with someone or on your own, if that someone has a job, what’s your plan, because it’s only so long that you can set up house. Really they should think about these kinds of things before they make a final decision.”
You were just involved in the Prague Pride festival… I see you’re still wearing your Prague Pride pin today, one day afterwards…
“I am indeed, happy pride everyone, even though it’s over. I intend to wear it for a while, at least until the subject is kind of off the radar – and I have a feeling that’s not going to happen in the next few weeks.”
Comments by certain conservative Czech officials in the week leading up to the festival seemed to test the tolerance of Czech society towards homosexuals. Having lived here for ten years, how do you view the general level of tolerance here?
“I should say, I think my perspective on that is based on my immediate social circle and the people I’ve worked with, so I can’t speak as to the entire demographic or the population of the Czech Republic. But from what I’ve seen it’s been tremendously tolerant as opposed to some of the neighbouring countries. I know I’ve spoken with men who have boyfriends who live in Poland and they absolutely cannot come out to their families, if fact they have girlfriends there who act as their ‘beards’, so to speak, and then they come to Prague, you know, they just can’t live their lives where they live. I know one transsexual woman who moved away from Slovakia to Prague because she finds that she can live here and be herself here. Then there are some people from smaller towns in the United States where it was just very difficult for them to live and to be happy being who they are, so they came here. I’d say the scene itself is just extremely friendly and open. And certainly yesterday was an indicator of the support, with the thousands of people marching - and then the thousands of people watching! I mean, I felt it was safe enough to take my small child; we went and we had a great time, and then only people I saw that were confrontational were still peaceful; they were peaceful, but firm. But - back at you – we were too. I found people to be very receptive and very open, and I was extremely surprised and heartened by the success that we enjoyed.
“I was the English-speaking, on-call, counsellor in crisis person for the entire festival, vigilantly watching my phone, and I’m really happy I didn’t get a single call. (At the same time I think it might come later – a lot of people, if they experience something they’re not going to call right away; they need to wait, process and then get in touch. But I’m also the director of Ozvi se!, which is the Cezch branch of the international HollaBack! movement, an international movement against street harassment of women and gay and transgender people, so I’ve walked around for the last few days carrying two laptops with me going up to people so they could submit their stories of harassment – it’s confidential, it’s anonymous. And people were not experiencing it during Prague Pride. They were experiencing it plenty outside of Prague Pride, so I don’t want to say it doesn’t exist here. But during the festival it was an okay time – in fact a very successful time in terms of emergency...”
For more info on ‘HollaBack!’ in the Czech Republic see: www.czech.ihollaback.org
The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 15, 2011.
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