It's Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month (#GRTHM) in the UK – quite a fitting time to review this collection of essays, interviews, personal testimonies, and study reports, called „Gypsy Sexuality“. Despite the attention-seeking title, the book deals not so much with the hot and horny stuff than with relationships, questions of equality and Roma self-perception.
If you're wondering about the word „Gypsy“ being used in the title: The foreword explains it. In many languages, Gypsy and its equivalents carry racists connotations and negative stereotypes. Many Roma consider it a pejorative. Others don't. Some try to reclaim it, others reject it. My recommendation: Listen to what people are comfortable with.
The individual contributions deal with very diverse topics: They examine the objectification and fetishist views of Roma people in Western art; they explore how Romani women of Eastern Europe see themselves and their culture and what they have to say about gender stereotypes and gender roles; they look at the data available about Roma prostitutes. Romani women and men talk about their relationships both with people from their community and outsiders, researchers look at the changing power-balances in Roma communities in the West. The most harrowing report deals with the coercive sterilization of Romani women in the Czech and Slovak Republic happening between the 1970s and 2004 – at least that's the date of the latest reported case. Women where pressured to sign agreements for being sterilized while already in labour; they were threatened with financial and social disadvantages should they reject; or they were coerced through financial incentives, often without any explanation what they were agreeing to. The Czech and Slovak Republics are by no means the only countries where this happened, but it's the example the authors choose to cover.
While interesting and informative, the collection would have profited from better editing and proof-reading. Nonetheless, I appreciated the variety of different perspectives presented here, coming from researchers, Roma political leaders, and people with very little formal education alike.
While Roma often explain their actions by saying „this is how Roma do things“, this book will show that there is no one way Roma do anything; one Romani community's norm is another's scandal.
Maybe those who read the collection, Romani readers included, will be less prone to discuss Gypsies as a set of problems to be solved or victims to be saved and more likely to remember that people, even when discussed as a collective, are individuals and are alike only in our (sic) uniqueness.
I cannot stress enough how important the latter statement is.
The book concludes with a short biography of Rita Prigmore, German Sinteza and Porajmos surviver. She and her twin sister were experimented on by a student of Mengele; her sister died, Rita suffered lasting health consequences. Rita later went to live in the USA, but continued to visit Germany for educational events. In a book published in 2011, her words ring somewhat prophetic:
So much has changed in so many ways, it seems that it is going back to the ways of more racial problems... that will never end completely. It is so hard to understand why nothing has been learnt from the past. […] Bring a man like Hitler... and there will be a second Holocaust... their attitudes don't change deep down.
Yep, a pretty gloomy conclusion. The author and editor himself offers a more hopeful look into the future:
At least Roma, Sinti and members of other ethnic groups called 'Gypsy' have learned a hard lesson. We have learned what can happen when stereotypes are left unchallenged and bias is left to grow. Today, many Roma know the importance of challenging the stereotypes that can become the foundation for discriminatory treatment. As Rita Prigmore says, 'it is the knowledge that is important'.
Well, let's hope he's right.