Rémi Diligent on coming out and becoming a father

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Rémi’s interview was both inspiring and fascinating. I went into the experience with almost no knowledge of him or his workings in Prague, aside from the fact that he has a daughter with an LGBT family. Rémi’s story was probably one of the more difficult to edit because everything just seemed so fitting (it’s evident that he is a talented writer and speaker). What follows is a look into his life in Prague, which began with the fall of communism, a look into his artistic tastes and talents, and also an interesting anecdote in how he came out to his parents in their small French town so many years ago. Coupled with Petr’s stunning photographs of Rémi’s minimal yet uber-stylish flat, this is one interview that needs to be read to the last word.

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Where are you from, Rémi?

I come from Metz, a provincial town, the capital city of Lorraine. I am the son of Jean-Marie René Henri Octave Diligent, librarian and Élisabeth Solange Virginie Michelin, gynecologist and the midwife who witnessed my birth states in my birth certificate that my parents had chosen to name me Rémi Marie-Bernard André François. I had a happy childhood; I remember that I had been authorized to paint on the walls of my bedroom. I received an Apple II on my fifteenth birthday, it was 1982 & the start of the Internet, a new era was starting.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

My first wish was to be a postman. I was three or four and I had noticed that my grandmother was always happy to see him. I wanted to be the bearer of good news. During my teenage years, I opted for auctioneer. But I entered the École des Hautes Études Commerciales, better known as HEC, and I started to work in an audit firm. Left it to come to Prague, found a job with Apple, as financial controller, became the first financial director of ELLE in the Czech Republic, then worked with Evropa 2 and Frekvence 1, left the media industry for the advertising industry being CFO of various agencies as Ogilvy, DDB, Havas (then Euro-RSCG) and Lion Communications (gathering agencies such as Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett).

You sound like a busy guy. What do you do now?

I have my own company, A Diligent Eye, capitalizing on a great family name and fifteen years of experience in advertising, offering advertisers the possibility to audit their advertising or media agencies.

Cool name! How did you get to Prague?

My first time was December 1989. The Wall had just crumbled and everybody was going to Berlin to celebrate the start of a new era. I was in Vienna, with a fellow student from Austria and we heard that Czechoslovakia had just cancelled visa. It was December 27th if I remember well. We decided to hop on a train, and spend New Year 1990 in Prague. God was with us in the train, we met a young Czech woman who offered to accommodate us in her flat in Prague. She was going to her family country house, so no problem. We were eating at the Russian “McDonald’s”, called Arbat, at Mustek, wandering through the dark and grey streets. New Year was outstanding. Wenceslas square was packed, we were offered drinks, slivovice, sekt, you name it. We were also hugged, people were chanting “Svoboda! Svoboda! Svoboda!” On that day I fell in love with Czechs and with Prague. I was still a student but it was clear that I’d come back one day…

That day was the summer of nineteen-ninety-two, I came for a sabbatical year, to write a novel. I was again extremely lucky. For whatever reasons, someone had spread the word, on American campuses, that “Prague in the nineties, would be the Paris of the thirties”, i.e. the place were writers and artists would gather and create. I was adopted by the community of poets and writers. They would gather every week, on Sunday, in Radost, for what they called a beef stew reading. I was influenced by Claude Simon, Nobel prize winner of literature and founder of the Nouveau Roman school. Long sentences, formal search of perfectionism, complicated development. In order to share my work with my friends of the beef stews, I did an abstract of it in English. Because it was not my tongue, I had to use simple words, simple sentences. It turned into a nice short story which got published in ‘Yazyk’, the English language literary magazine at that time.

But let’s be honest here, my coming to Prague, was about something else than writing. It was about growing free, on a foreign environment, accepting myself as a gay man without the shadow of my family.

When did you come out of the closet and what happened?

Ach! I did it too soon… I was eighteen. I couldn’t say “I am gay”. So I wrote it. Two similar letters. One for each parent. Sunday lunch. My sisters were out of town, so I figured it would be the right time. My father kept quiet. My mother, to interrupt the deafening silence proposed a walk. It was the peak of the AIDS pandemic and her concern was about my life.

There is a funny anecdote to it. A year or so after that first letter, I’m having dinner with my father and he tells me:

“I thought a lot about what you wrote us in that letter…”

“Yes?…”

“I don’t think it is a problem…”

I’m thinking “yes! hurray!” He goes on:

“You’ll just get married and lead a normal life as everybody else.”

“One moment! Did you understand what I was writing?”

“Yes, yes…”

“I don’t want to make a woman unhappy!”

“She won’t be unhappy. You are not the first one in the family, you know…”

“What?!?…”

And the doors of our family closets start to open. He tells me about this couple.

“Let me stop you here! If there is one thing I knew about X is that she’s been described as a saint woman” [a euphemism, in our catholic family for someone suffering some kind of martyrdom]. Don’t ask me to repeat that story.

Years after that scene, I was lucky to create my own kind of family and become a father.

So you now have a child in Prague, tell us more.

It all started with my previous partner, Honza. We wanted to become fathers and contacted lesbian friends of ours, posted ads on lesbian websites, offering our help and describing our vision of LGBT family. It was not successful but ten years after that, Tereza, a long term friend of mine, thought it was the right moment and contacted me. Little Julie Diligent was born in September 2012. The Czech matrika is not very flexible with names, although they had to drop the obligation to add -ová at the end of women’s name for European citizens born in the Czech Republic (this was one of the many adjustments to European recommendations prior to the entrance to the Union). At the French consulate, things were easier, and for the French authorities, she is Julie Tereza Élisabeth Drahoslava Diligent, following the family tradition of naming a child with its own name, the name of the godfather or godmother and the two grandparents from father’s then mother’s side.

Another anecdote showing how much society has changed tremendously since I was born. I am catholic and think it is important to transmit not only a language, a culture, a name, but also values and religion. Tereza & Ivana, Julie’s mother had agreed that Julie be baptized, so I go talk to the priest of my parish in Prague. He actually doesn’t know I am gay. Not something I would “confess”.

“I will become a father soon and I would like to ask you to christen our future child.”

“Yes, of course. But are you married with the mother?”

“No…”

“Well, let’s do things in order and celebrate that first.”

“We have our reasons not to do so…”

“But there are very good reasons to do so too, you know…”

“I feel it would be a lie.”

“What do you mean?”

I explain him the full picture.

Then follows a long moment of silence.

“I understand. In those conditions, I think it would be improper to require a prior marriage of the parents… And yes, I will baptize your child.”

“Thank you, father.”

“The Catholic Church is not making it easy for you [gay or lesbian people].” He adds with empathy.

With a smile and a like-minded empathy, I reply:

“It is even tougher for you [ecclesiastic people].”

And we went on talking about how we dream our Church to be in the twenty-first century.

If you could go back in time…

I do not fetishize the past. If I could go back in time, I’d move to the future and see how our world has evolved. Like in Back to the Future. Our vision of the future is influencing the present. Did you know that Nike is going to edit next year the sneakers of Back to the Future which is supposed to take place in 2015? Ha ha! That’s funny!

Yes! I saw! I’m really excited to see those, but I’m also looking forward to the flying car… if it ever happens. You’re also a fan of art. What’s your favourite kind?

The kind you see on the walls of this apartment… Some I bought in the Art for Life auction (Martin Stranka’s ‘I Have Been Distant’, Pasta’s ‘Ice-cream Money War’… Eugenio Percossi’s ‘Death Is Cool’, Josef Čechota’s ‘Love In Motion 2’, etc.), some I bought thanks to my long-time friend Tereza Fidlerová-Buchtová who opened the gallery Budoart (Jana Vojnárová’s Často se mi o nich zdá & Klánějící se or Christophe Gilland’s ‚Mucha With Mushrooms’). Robert Zauer’s ‘Akt 5’ which you can see in the bedroom was purchased directly from the artist, following his exhibition in my favorite hangout, Q Cafe, in Opatovická street. I don’t have a “program” or a pre-set idea. I buy based on what we call, in French, a “coup de cœur”, a stroke of the art, I mean the heart (Rémi stresses the h, so tricky for French speakers); I think you say “gut feeling”. For example, ‘Mucha with Mushrooms’ symbolizes so many things to me: Mucha as The Czecho-French artist, an homage to Arcimboldo, and Renaissance portrait painting, a reference to Art Nouveau, a hint to psychedelism… A masterpiece, I think.

How would you describe Prague?

More than a beautiful city, I think that it is a very free city. Czechs, post-communist Czechs have managed to make their country a very free and cool place to live in.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

Keanu Reeves. Not the Neo of the Matrix, the one from My Own Private Idaho, able to glide through all levels of society, from the town hall to the underworld, never out of place, always belonging there…

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Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating-Lambert. Photography by Petr Kurecka.

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