If you live in Vienna, you know all about the Life Ball – even if you’ve never been to it. The ball’s opulent opening show is transmitted to homes across the country for three hours non-stop on the public broadcaster ORF. The pictures of people in extravagant and gorgeous costumes are splashed across the newspapers and displayed in countless online galleries (find our very own below).

Front and cent is the ball’s message of tolerance, courage and compassion – but most importantly, its unapologetic advocacy for HIV/Aids support and its commitment to raise funds for those affected by the virus.

The Life Ball has become Europe’s biggest Aids charity event, raising between €1.5 and 2.3 million each year for projects all around the world – a world that looked very different when the ball first launched in 1993. It was a time when homosexuality was still a punishable crime in Germany (the last provisions criminalizing sex between males aged 14-18 were only abolished in 1994) and HIV/Aids was still seen as the curse of gay men, something the rest could ignore or even shun, while the infected suffered and died.

Loud, Brassy & Extravagant

Against this wall of disapproval and indifference, the founders of the Life Ball, Gery Keszler and Torgom Petrosian, wanted to set an example: An event as loud, flamboyant and life-affirming as possible, that would show not only that LGBTQ* people are just people, like the rest of us, but also that they intended to live their lives to the fullest in the midst of society, even if menaced or struck down by an insidious disease. Their idea was bold and they found a supporter in Helmut Zilk, then mayor of Vienna, who opened the Rathaus, Vienna’s City Hall, as the venue for the ball.

It was a first in many ways – the only ball to take place on the premises of an otherwise legislative and administrative building (the Hofburg was and is a residence), and the first ball with the goal to raise money for HIV/Aids projects. In other ways, though, it rejuvenated and took inspiration from Viennese traditions. Balls by their very design and origin were meant to celebrate life, to assume a character, wear a mask, show who you are and perhaps who you could be – all while dancing, mingling, drinking and feasting in a world of one’s own making. The Life Ball excelled at it.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Attending the ball, as the author had the pleasure to do this past Sunday for the fourth time, always meant entering a fairy tale for one night. Costumes that may seem almost garish on newspaper pages are, when viewed up close, intricate works of art, painstakingly hand-crafted over months.

The message of tolerance, courage and compassion, perhaps formulaic on TV, becomes immediate and powerful when celebrating with 4,000 guests of all ages and origins; most of them, one senses, have gone through the struggles that young LGBTQ* people still face growing up – finding the courage to be true to themselves, and love who they want. Their presence that night, full of life, joy and creativity, is like drinking an elixir of happiness.

And the awareness of and fundraising for HIV/Aids is, also in a very Viennese way, both a cautionary tale and a voice of encouragement: Life can sometimes be harsh, hard and cruel; all the more reason to enjoy it prodigiously while it lasts.

The End of an Era?

This year’s ball had The Circus as theme and “United in Diversity” as its motto. It turned the august Rathaus into a grotto of Swarovski crystals, a swirl of juggling balls sailing through the air to freewheeling saxophone sounds, a big tent of the fantastical and wondrous, and a meeting place of the misfits. Like a real circus, it was place to experience magic.

It was to be the last of its kind, if one is to believe co-founder and organizer Gery Keszler. The 27th ball was designed to “close the circle of the Life Ball,” he announced with much gratitude, some nostalgia, and a kernel of bitterness for a decision he described as “necessary” amid the changing priorities of sponsors and erstwhile supporters.

Yet, as in every circus, if one claps hard enough there might just be an encore. And for those clapping, there were a few glimmers of hope – from Keszler’s announcement that he would explore “different options with the city” over the coming months, to mayor Michael Ludwig’s commitment that Vienna, in his words “the city of love,” must keep an idea like the Life Ball alive.

Or, as the always graceful moderator Conchita Wurst said in the opening: “The last Life Ball? Surely just a rumor.”

Let’s clap for that.

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