Gay & Lesbian Vienna
Vienna is the undisputed capital of gay and lesbian life in Austria. Of Vienna’s 1.7 million inhabitants, an estimated 170,000 of them are gay or lesbian; both in the past and in the present, gays and lesbians have managed to play a prominent role in public life and in the media.
Gay Generals and Imperial Love
Probably the most prominent homosexual in Austrian history was the man responsible for stopping the Turkish advance into Europe once and for all in the 17th century. Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736) was the successful warrior who freed Vienna from Turkish siege and pushed the Ottomans back to the Balkans over the course of several wars. But it wasn’t just on the battlefield that Eugene was surrounded exclusively by men; in private, he preferred to have intimate relations with members of his own sex – a fact well known even during his lifetime. Even so, he managed to build his career and expand his power base during the reigns of three emperors, and his strong influence on Vienna remains visible to this day. His summer palace, Schloss Belvedere, is an impressive baroque edifice which today houses the Austrian Gallery with paintings by numerous Austrian artists of the modern period (Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka).
And the last emperor served by Prince Eugene, Charles VI, the father of Maria Theresia, is said to have had an intimate relationship with Count Michael Johann Althan III, one of the few members of the introverted and eccentric monarch’s inner circle. When Althan died in 1722, the grieving emperor recalled that they had “loved each other intimately 19 years long, in true friendship.” Under Charles’ reign, Vienna flourished, the Church of St. Charles Borromeo (Karlskirche) was built, Schönbrunn Palace and the Hofburg were enlarged, and numerous grandiose baroque structures were put up by the most prominent architects of the day, Fischer von Erlach (the elder and the younger) and Lukas von Hildebrandt.
The 19th Century: Architecture, Music and the Habsburgs
Somewhat more than 100 years later, in the second half of the 19th century, it was once again time for frenetic building activity. During this period, Vienna grew to exceed a million inhabitants and Emperor Franz Joseph ordered the construction of the Ringstrasse, Vienna’s most glorious boulevard. In 2008 Vienna will be celebrating te 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse.The tragic end met by the architects of the State Opera had to do both with the Ringstrasse, the building itself and with their homosexuality. The gay architect couple Eduard van der Nüll (1812-1868) and August Sicard von Sicardsburg (1813-1868) began construction of the opera house before the street level of the Ringstrasse had been officially established – with the fateful consequence that the street ended up being one meter higher then they had expected. The result, visible to this day, was that the State Opera turned out a bit too low-slung, with the front ramps somewhat too short. Following open public criticism of the architects’ error in judgment – to which Emperor Francis Joseph supposedly added his voice – van der Nüll, who was depression-prone to begin with, took his life on April 3, 1868. Barely ten weeks later, on June 11, Sicardsburg – his heart surely broken – followed him in death.
The field of music, so closely intertwined with Viennese history, also has its share of homosexual figures. The composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) – the houses of his birth and death can still be visited today – was reputed to have little interest in female companionship. Schubert spent over two years living with his librettist Johann Baptist Mayerhofer – who was known to be homosexual – in a sublet room where they even shared a bed. Their affection for each other is documented in several song texts written by Mayerhofer for Schubert, as well as in an opera – unfortunately destined to remain unfinished – entitled “Adrast.”
Emperor Franz Joseph was plagued by headaches not only from the toils of government but also from his younger – gay – brother, Archduke Ludwig Viktor (1842-1919), known affectionately as “Luziwuzi” among his friends. Luziwuzi had a reputation at court for his sharp tongue and his propensity to cross-dress. On one of his regular visits to the “Centralbad” indoor swimming pool (today’s gay Kaiserbründl Sauna) he quite literally touched off a public scandal, being slapped in the face by an officer who was none too flattered by his advances. Following this episode, his brother the emperor banished him to Schloss Klessheim near Salzburg, where Luziwuzi died mentally deranged in 1919.
The center of the gay and lesbian scene is the Rosa-Lila-Villa on Linke Wienzeile. Here, both gay and lesbian tourists and natives alike can obtain information and advice on orientation-related issues. Café Willendorf on the ground floor of this gay and lesbian institution is a place to eat, drink and get acquainted. The lion’s share of gay and lesbian hangouts is situated near the Rosa-Lila-Villa, along Linke Wienzeile and Rechte Wienzeile. Friends meet at the plush Café Savoy for a “Melange” coffee or a “G’Spritzter”; young gays up for cocktails go to the mango bar or Felixx, and great cocktails are also mixed at Village Bar. During the daytime, Café Berg with its adjoining gay and lesbian bookshop Löwenherz is a popular place to meet. And the doors of Eagle and the exceptionally appointed Sling are wide open to those who like their nightlife really late.
Alongside Café Willendorf at the Rosa-Lila-Villa, there are several restaurants close to the scene offering fine food to their gay and lesbian guests. Café Conquer Standard serves classic traditional Austrian cuisine, and Motto – while not exclusively gay – is a stylish in-place with a high celebrity and gay factor. Meanwhile Zum Roten Elefanten (“The Red Elephant”) is – contrary to its name – a small and congenial restaurant.
The Leather & Motorbike Community Vienna (LMC) has in [lo:sch] its very own club catering to all preferences and hosting frequent events. Those preferring to meet the like-minded out of doors during the summer months can – by day – head for the nude area in the “Toter Grund” section of the Danube Island, a recreational area very popular among the Viennese, and – in the evening – venture a walk through Rathauspark. And it’s not just during the cold winter months that the Kaiserbründl-Sauna (an old oriental bathhouse) and the Sport-Sauna keep the steam turned up for hot and sweaty action.
Vienna’s gay dance club scene has seen vast change in the last couple of years. The quality of events is also absolutely competitive. In recent years Heaven Vienna at the notorious Camera Club has undergone some radical changes and now stands out in new splendor. On special occasions the event’s promoter Miss Candy appears on stage in person, and the annual “Rosenball”, which takes place in tandem with the Opera Ball, is an established fixture of Vienna’s party calendar. Why Not offers a special program every Friday and Saturday. This small inner-city disco has been around for many years, and the place is always full, particularly since its refurbishment in 2004.
The oriental-style homoriental has returned not only to its root but also to its original location. The party is geared to both gays and lesbians. The atmosphere is relaxed and the music orientally inspired. The ingenious concept and the atmosphere have made homooriental one of the most popular events of the Vienna scene. About once a month, always on a Friday, it is H.A.P.P.Y. time. At varying venues, the crème de la crème of Austrian and international House DJs spin their tracks. The audience is mixed, with a strong gay bent. In the summer organizers always come up with something special. The monthly party SUBVERSUS is geared primarily to gay and lesbian students. The previous location subzero was unfortunately forced to close and now the organizers are looking for a new venue. This event is a highly successful initiative of the LesBiSchwulTransGender office of the student u_nion of the Vienna University of Technology. G.Spot, two, was forced to find a new location after Subzero closed and finally found one at the Camera Club. The party that takes place there once a month is geared mainly to lesbians but is also open to gays. The music program features alternating musical themes such as Electronic, Tribal and Techno, providing welcome relief from the run-of-the-mill gay lesbian disco fare. The queer:beat party has suffered from the closing of Subzero and is still looking for an adequate permament home. Here gays, lesbians and friends can dance away to Indierock, Electronic and Charts. Four DJs on two dance floors pump up the sound for the young, dance-addicted guest joined by optical treats in the shape of visual artists.
DRAMA is not only the name but also the theme of the event held every three months. Great theater is staged and the smartest outfits in the wardrobe donned. The glamour and prominence of this largest and coolest party in the city magically attracts both gays and heteros.
The Lesbian Scene
Vienna’s lesbian scene is significantly smaller than its gay scene, but here too there are well-established offerings. A popular fixture since 1977 is the Frauencafé. Founded in the 1970s by a feminist collective and then lovingly and faithfully managed by a sole woman, this small but exclusive women only (transgender welcome) café is now headed by a group of committed lesbians possessing plenty of experience in the gastro and cultural scene. The Frauenzentrum Bar, known to regulars simply as the “FZ”, complements Vienna’s female and lesbian bar culture with recurring fests and events. Women wanting to hit the dance-floor go to the Saturday disco at FZ where there is plenty of space to dance (sparsely furnished) and a good atmosphere and music for minimal admission.
Party buffs will feel at home at the popular women’s fests at Andino, usually on the first Saturday of every month, or the occasional Friday clubbing events at U 96. A particular recommendation is Las Chicas women’s disco. One of the oldest clubs of the scene is Café Willendorf which has become especially popular with lesbians over the last two years. Café Willendorf offers excellent cuisine and a cozy bar. In the summer the garden in the inner courtyards is an idyllic haven for guests. Women’s parties take place at irregular intervals – organized together with the counseling center for lesbians located in the same building. At Marea Alta, a friendly pub in Gumpendorfer Strasse, women in particular feel right at home. The clientele is young and trendy. Another haunt not purely lesbian, but nevertheless frequented particularly well by women, is homoriental. Since its establishment, it has evolved into one of the city’s finest gay and lesbian events. The club happenings called G.Spot, which takes place at the Camera Club, are also highly recommended to all women.
The Community at large: Gay and Lesbian Events
Vienna’s variety of gay and lesbian special events is second-to-none in all of Austria, and even exceeds those of some other European big cities. It wouldn’t be Austria if Christopher Street Day (CSD) in Vienna were actually called “CSD”. Every year at the end of June, the community celebrates Vienna Pride which culminates in the Rainbow Parade.This event takes place each year in June but because of the UEFA EURO 2008 there will be an exception. The 2008 parade will take place on July 12, 2008. Over the twelve years of its existence, this has become one of the largest CSD events in the German-speaking world attracting over 150,000 visitors.
A further sparkling jewel on the scene’s calendar is the Life Ball, which is probably the most flamboyant – and lucrative – AIDS/HIV charity event in Europe. From the Austrian federal chancellor to Hollywood stars, everyone comes to admire the fashion show masterminded by the likes of Christian Lacroix and Vivienne Westwood, and afterwards to celebrate one of Vienna’s most uninhibited evenings. Tickets for the Life Ball, however, are hard to come by.
The Regenbogen Ball (Rainbow Ball) proves that the Viennese Waltz isn’t just something for straight folks. At this classic Viennese ball, gays and lesbians swing arm in arm to the waltz’s triple beat. Formal eveningwear is mandatory. In contrast, the only thing at the Rosenball (Rose Ball) that reminds one of a classic ball is the opening polonaise. Otherwise, the Rosenball is a flamboyant alternative to the Opera Ball.
The international leather and fetish convention “Wien ist Schwarz” (“Vienna is black”) offers a whole fringe program in addition to the obligatory leather and fetish party – including things like banquets, leather brunches, bike tours and much more. And there could hardly be a more fitting weekend for this than that of the Austrian national holiday (October 26), when the Austrian Federal Army stages its military parade on Heldenplatz square.
All these themed offerings shouldn’t, however, obscure the fact Vienna offers an immense range of cultural, culinary and shopping experiences that aren’t specifically gay and lesbian in character. The major cultural institutions, including the State Opera, Burgtheater, Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) and the MuseumsQuartier vie for visitors’ attention, as do the avant-garde offerings of small exhibitions and cellar stages. Shopping on Kärntner Strasse and Graben has a homo-factor nearly as high as that of Mariahilfer Strasse, which lies in close proximity to the scene – and it goes without saying that openly gay and lesbian guests can feel quite welcome at the city’s “normal” restaurants, inns and wine taverns.
A Minority with Rights
In terms of political and legal equality for gays and lesbians, the Republic of Austria has made progress over the past few years, although it continues to lag behind most other European countries. The minimum age for homosexual relations was finally matched to that for heterosexuals (14 years) in 2002, but in contrast to Germany and Switzerland, there still exists neither civil partnership status nor an anti-discrimination law.
Vienna, however, is the positive exception in Austria, having already passed fairly extensive anti-discrimination legislation (including laws on tenancy and housing issues). A diverse array of political associations and groups in Vienna are working actively to lead the way in wiping out inequality on legal and social levels. All in all, the situation is thus similar to that of many European countries.
The City of Vienna goes the extra mile to actively support its gay and lesbian population by subsidizing gay and lesbian culture and special events. The provincial organizations of the political parties provide frequent support to all sorts of initiatives, the anti-discrimination bureau seeks to actively influence provincial politics, and the Vienna Tourist Board has for its part developed strategies to ensure gay and lesbian guests a pleasurable experience of Vienna and to also disseminate information on the city’s offerings to gays and lesbians internationally.
Alongside existing traditional values, the city of Vienna has succeeded in nurturing young, dynamic homosexual AND heterosexual scenes which might be a positive surprise for some guests. Vienna, after all, has always been a bit different, and these differences are not to be missed.
Author: Robert Kastl Wiener Tourismusverband (Vienna Tourist Board)
Further information on gay and lesbian Vienna can be in found the “Queer Guide” from the Vienna Tourist Board
Image: CC BY 2.0 by Guillaume Paumier