Tall and tan and young and handsome, the boys crowding the two floors of the Why Not club disco, hidden away in Vienna’s Tiefer Graben, eagerly await the Eurovision fanfare. The atmosphere is joyous and merry, and the drinks served by hunky barkeepers with tank tops are named “Desire”.
Then, a couple of minutes before the start, the party music gives way to a dulcet voice. “Walking in the rubble.” Heads turn, eyes lock. “Walking over glass.” Hands clasp, glasses clink. “Stranger getting nearer. Who can this person be?” Voices join in, as the willowy, bearded singer on the screen builds up to the chorus. “You wouldn’t know me at all, today.”
Then, powerfully: “From the fading light I fly.” And finally, salvation, redemption, relief. “Rise like a phoenix! Out of the ashes, seeking rather than vengeance, retribution.”
Now three years on, the spell still holds: Conchita Wurst, the “queen of Europe” reigns supreme in Vienna’s gay clubs. And as the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community all over the world is getting their hopes high for real equality, at long last, the song touches their hearts, and not only for one reason.
Many felt Conchita Wurst winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2015 was a big step forward, underlining LGBT equal rights efforts across Europe.
© Markus Felix
Three and a half years ago this looked all but impossible. When Kathrin Zechner, the program director of Austria’s public broadcaster ORF, took the controversial decision in September 2013 to send the pop artist and drag queen Conchita Wurst to the flamboyant annual spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest, the initial reaction oscillated between ridicule and downright scorn.
The comment sections bristled with malice for the bearded lady, a stage character played by the then 24-year-old Styrian Thomas Neuwirth. Many Austrians were convinced that their country would, as usual, end up last in the judging. In the same year, Russia passed a series of laws criminalizing material distributed among minors that supported “nontraditional” sexual relationships.
To distribute material supporting “nontraditional” sexual relationship is banned by law in Russia.
Eight months and a tireless roadshow of Europe’s capitals later, Conchita took Europe by storm, bringing the trophy home to Austria for only the second time in the contest’s history. She did indeed Rise Like a Phoenix, as the song was called, bringing a message to those who are still phobic about those who want to live their lives differently.
“This night,” Conchita said on receiving the award, “is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are – we are united and we are unstoppable.”
Conchita’s return to Austria was, all of a sudden, nothing less but triumphant and even erstwhile critics now bit their tongues and extended their congratulations. Her message of tolerance reverberated throughout Europe and even across the world; yet she had fought and overcome dreadful adversity to get there. It was her victory, yes, but it was also a little bit the victory of so many who had had to hide or exculpate themselves for so long just for being who they are.
I Want to Break Free
Conchita’s story symbolizes like few others the troubles and tribulations of the LGBT community, but also the gigantic strides they and society have made in the last few decades. Until 1971, the Austrian penal code still featured a paragraph outlawing homosexual acts punishable by imprisonment up to five years.
A mere 15 years ago the so-called “homosexuals paragraph” treated relationships between adolescent male lovers differently than all others. Young men could have sex with each other as long as they were both between 14 and 18. When one of them turned 18, if the other was still younger, it would become illegal and punishable. Eight years later in 2010 Austria passed a law allowing registered same-sex partnerships. In many places, however, lived reality had long outrun legal theory.
“For me, it is totally normal to live openly gay or lesbian in Vienna,” says Matthias Moser, 35. “Honestly, being gay doesn’t even figure in my daily life; I feel neither privileged nor disadvantaged. This feeling of normality even makes it quite weird when it is pointed out that I’m not really “equal” yet, such as not being allowed to marry or adopt children – whether or not I’m even planning to do these things.”
Expats living here echo this sentiment. “In general, I rarely feel uncomfortable as a gay man in Vienna,” agreed Peter Berry, a 26-year-old Briton living in Austria. “I suspect that this would be different in large swathes of the Austrian countryside, which are a lot more conservative,” although he has friends who face issues with their sexuality “at home in the Bundesländer.”
As does Berry himself in his job at a middle school in one of Vienna’s more troubled districts. “I have not told my pupils I’m gay, and I observe a lot of homophobia in the school – the word Schwuchtel (faggot) is a common insult used even by 10-year-olds.”
I Will Survive
It is a familiar pattern to most LGBT people, and not only in Austria. While the progress in bigger cities and internationally-minded circles is so rapid that equality has become a reality for many – in Vienna, gay couples can even become parents for foster children, an offer that many have responded to with enthusiasm – there are still barriers that are formidable at work, in public, in the legal sphere and in family and personal life. And the greatest barrier of all is still growing up as a gay teenager in a world that has such different expectations.
“It was difficult growing up in a Christian Conservative, Republican, and now Trump supporting family,” tells 26-year-old Faa MacDonald. “I think, like many gay teenagers, I fell into severe depression, being bullied at school and at home. There was really no place to go.” Going out in New York with her supportive friends helped MacDonald come to terms with her sexuality. Today, living and working in Vienna, she is “in a loving relationship with a great girlfriend and two pets.” For her, “the community in Austria is like one big gay family.”
Far too many falter on this path, however. A 2004 study at the University of Salzburg showed that a third of suicide attempts in Austria were by homosexuals, although they make up only 5–10 percent of the population. In the U.K., young LGBT people are seven times more likely to live on the streets than their straight peers.
Worse, the carnage does not seem to stop with growing up or even after a successful coming out into an ever more accepting society. In the Netherlands, the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001, according to research at the University of Amsterdam, gay men are three times more likely to suffer from mood disorders and ten times more likely to engage in “suicidal self-harm.”
In Canada, more gay men die from suicide than from AIDS. And a 2011 report by the U.S. Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., showed that gay men at every age and in all parts of the country are more likely to have cancer, cardiovascular diseases, allergies, asthma and other health impairments.
What lies at the bottom of these sobering statistics?
In a much-noticed piece published in the Huffington Post, journalist Michael Hobbes explored what he called the “epidemic of gay loneliness” and its gruesome consequences. His main thesis boils down to what researchers call “minority stress.” Minority individuals who face prejudices and poor social support experience recurring stress responses (for example, anxiety, high blood pressure) that accrue over time, eventually leading to poor mental and physical health.
Every time their own internal response differs significantly from what is socially expected or their behavior is frowned upon, called out or ridiculed by others, it bruises, quite literally, their self-identity and health.
For LGBT youths, this means as soon as they start developing sexually, they scan the environment and adjust their comportment accordingly. To realize at the age of 12, whether consciously or unconsciously, that you may never have a family like mum and dad can be gut-wrenchingly brutal – and without close role models to talk to about your feeling, the first choice is mostly denial and avoidance, leading to festering self-doubt.
Yet, when problems do pop up, hardly anybody traces them back to the difficulties of navigating their identity and sexuality as a teenager – even if all the statistics point to the crucial importance of these years.
“The trauma for gay men is the prolonged nature of it,” notes William Elder, a sexual trauma researcher and psychologist in Hobbes’ essay. “If you experience one traumatic event, you have the kind of PTSD that can be resolved in four to six months of therapy. But if you experience years and years of small stressors – little things where you think, ‘Was that because of my sexuality?’ – that can be even worse.”
Minority stress like this shapes your way of thinking and processing events and feelings, not only as a kid or teenager, but for decades afterwards. Trauma, even if inflicted merely by accident, can have long-term effects even on your body and genes.
One answer often is that, once out and proud, LGBT people like to party wildly and live their newfound freedom to the fullest. “Every year, there is a greater diversity of queer events in Vienna,” says Ursula Raberger, 35, co-organizer of the famed “homoriental” Kibbutz Klub (see “Rainbow Sabbath”, MET April, 2017). “For me, the scene is a meeting place for all those who want to party without any discrimination, to just have a good talk or a drink.”
Many also see the scene on its way to becoming much more open and inclusive. “Back then, there were only two, three gay bars, saunas and a couple of movies about this,” remembers Moser. “Being there felt like a protected space and of course you could meet people, but you were also isolated from society. Today, you are much freer to choose yourself how much and where you want to be involved with the LGBT scene.”
Other trends, however, are also seen critically. “I am very reliant on dating apps and websites for meeting men,” says Berry. “But I find they tend to exemplify and exaggerate the worst qualities of the gay scene – men are objectified, there is a fetish for ‘masculine’ men, and nothing below the surface seems to count for anything.”
Berry didn’t feel welcome at many of Vienna’s gay events and says it’s hard to find gays who want a serious relationship.
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!
Herr Finnland, 34, creator of the Nesterval adventure thrillers and a long-term event organizer for among others, the contemporary art festival Steirischer Herbst and the Imagetanz Festival, has experienced it all. “I had my coming out in 1999 and I believe we have seen enormous changes in society since then,” he says. “Particularly in the countryside where I grew up, I often felt very lonely, simply because there were no positive role models. That’s totally different now.” Finnland now has a “great husband” he has been verpartnert with for two years.
Yet for many, finding and nurturing long-term relationships seems nigh on impossible. And while entering the LGBT scene and having fun at queer parties can be an enormous relief for those encountering this world for the first time, a world they hardly dared dream of, for some it can also mean additional pressure, expectations and hardship. Labels of exclusion are disturbingly widespread – such as “no Asians, no Blacks, no Fatties, no Femmes” – on the dating profiles of gays on apps like Grindr or Planet Romeo.
The outside world likes to think of gay men as stylish, smoothie-drinking gym rats or effeminate drama queens, and imagines lesbians as either muscular viragos or lascivious beauties. But the reality is that many LGBT people, too, tend to sort themselves into tribes based on their outward appearance.
As a gay man, you may be a “twink, otter, bear or jock,” as a lesbian you can be “butch, boy-babe, lipstick or alpha,” just to name a few. While nothing is wrong with having certain very concrete preferences, it is sometimes hard to fathom for young LGBTs, just out of the closet, to find they are put once again in a box and seen first and foremost as a sexual object.
At first, it is absolutely exhilarating, of course, and deeply satisfying. But with few societal models to aspire to and a cult of the young, fit and handsome, many gays can soon feel as lost and lonely in their new lives as they did in their old ones. The struggle for fulfillment, happiness and, most important of all, love, often does not end with coming out. This, it turns out, is often just the beginning.
I Need a Hero
To get things moving, bankers Ludo Swinnen, 61, and Pavel Šubrt, 39, founded the LGBT business network East Meets West in 2013. “We wanted to grow social acceptance of LGBT people in CEE,” Czech native Šubrt, explains. “So we figured the best place to start is where we are good – in business.” They also wanted to encourage role models. “Seeing successful businesspeople and realizing that, just incidentally, they happen to be gay – that opens people’s eyes and kills bigotry,” Swinnen adds.
Their goal is to establish LGBT “chambers of commerce” across Central and Eastern Europe – similar to those in the U.S. and -Canada – helping professionals and companies to tap the full potential of the community. Talks with the Czechia, Slovakia, -Romania and Austria are ongoing. Meanwhile, Swinnen and Šubrt keep developing their network with workshops, events and a quarterly newsletter reporting on LGBT businesses in the region.
“You’d be surprised what you see there,” says Šubrt, describing LGBT activities in Russia and Belarus, where the legal situation and atmosphere are notoriously difficult, or a fundraising dinner for LGBT shelters in Albania. “You see more and more people coming forward,” Swinnen agrees. “Things are changing.”
Born This Way
Showcasing the diversity of minorities within the community and telling their stories is also the aim of the Transition International Queer Minorities Film Festival in Vienna. “Movies and cinema hugely helped me with my own coming out,” remembers festival director Yavuz Can.
Growing up in Vienna in “a classic ‘guest-worker’ family from Turkey,” Can is able to relate to the tensions between the migrant and queer communities. “For all of Vienna’s supposed multiculturalism, there are surprisingly few events to really mingle and exchange views. I wanted to change that.”
Having looked in vain for someone to talk to in his mother tongue, Can also started MiGay, a contact point for queer migrants. “Some from conservative backgrounds like the Balkans or Turkey only manage to live queer on the weekends and return to their families for their ‘straight’ life during the week,” he recounts. But there are many prejudices. “So I’m showing them, we queer migrants are here, too!”
This November, the sixth annual Transition Festival plans to show more than 60 movies with LGBT and minority themes, from near (Hungary) and far (Brazil) and this year’s focus country, Israel. “I want to have people to watch and maybe say ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how I am feeling, too’.”
Over the rainbow
For some, that also means seeing gender roles in a completely new light. “I would label my circle as ‘queer’,” says Moser, with “gender relations, identities and sexual orientation [that] are fluid to some degree.” Stereotypes and the craving for clearly defined forms of masculinity and femininity, often surprisingly prevalent in the gay community, leave him at a loss.
“Polyamorous lifestyles, a fluid understanding of homo- and heterosexuality, or concepts of partnership aside from wedlock are for me of equal value as a monogamous relationship.” After living for five years in a loving, committed relationship, he makes the case that every form of love and partnership based on mutual consent has a right to be respected as equal.
Raberger agrees. “Whether it’s the happy gay couple or my grandparents who were married happily for over 60 years – love is love.” Finnland chimes in: “Love does not need an explanation, an excuse. Love just is – and that’s wonderful.”
Back in the club, Conchita is ready for the grand finale of her James Bond-esque ballad.“Once I’m transformed. Once I’m reborn,” she sings and hundreds join in. Then, for the last time. “You know I will rise like a phoenix. But you’re my flame.” A flame nobody here will ever allow to go out.
Pride and Seek
June is pride month and all over Vienna you’re invited to embrace the spirit of inclusion and celebrate the freedom to love.
From all-day parties on Rathausplatz to free art exhibitions, fetish events and a culture boost with a tour through the history of homosexuality at the Univeristy of Vienna, the city is positively paited in rainbows this month.
For venues and addresses visit viennapride.at.
14 -17 Jun, Rathausplatz
All-day celebration with live acts and DJs
Pride Day at the Prater
Jun 10, Prater
Various acts on stage at the Riesenradplatz. Entry to more attractions with the Adrenalin-Card
Pride Day at the Zoo
Jun 11, Tiergarten Schönbrunn
Varied rainbow parade events with an info stand in the Orangery
Jun 16, 16:00-17:30, University of Vienna (main entrance)
Guided tour on the history of homosexuality
€6 (free for students)
Drag Tour im KHM
Jun 13, 16:00-17:00, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Guided tour on the history of drag culture
Jakob Lena Knebl Exhibition
Jun 11, MUMOK
Free entry to the exhibition of the celebrated queer artist.
Pride Queer Film Nights
Jun 12-13, 19:30, Top Kino
Top Kino will show a range of films addressing LGBTIQ themes
Regenbogenparade (Rainbow Parade)
Jun 17, 12:00-23:00, Ringstraße
The legendary parade returns!
Vienna Fetish Spring
Various locations and events including “Woof & Oink” – for pets and pet lovers (Hard On / Eagle Bar / Café Bar SIXTA)
Big Gay Brunch
Jun 18, 8:00-17:00, Café Savoy
Big Lesbian Brunch
Jun 18, 8:00-17:00, Café Willendorf