by Stuart Haggas
International visitors who come to Vienna, Austria can't help but notice that many of the palaces, monuments, and fountains are embellished with an abundance of muscular, homoerotic statuary. This is because its history was shaped by some prominent gay figures, including a celebrated military leader who liked to be surrounded by men both on and off the battlefield, a prominent member of the House of Habsburg causing a scandal for inappropriate conduct in a public bathhouse, and a young empress whose tragic life and obsessive beauty regime made her a cult figure.
Add to this the cultural attractions, including the Leopold Museum and MUMOK in Vienna's MuseumsQuartier, the Albertina, Schönbrunn Palace, the Spanish Riding School, and a musical heritage that encompasses Mozart and the Vienna Boy's Choir; you can see why the city's queer history provides a fascinating anchor for every gay and lesbian visitor. The Vienna Tourist Board even has a dedicated Queer Guide with suggested walking routes as well as listings of gay bars and clubs, while travel company QWIEN offers guided gay and lesbian city tours.
Regarded as one of the most successful military commanders in European history, Prince Eugene of Savoy's military career spanned six decades. His many victories against the Ottoman Empire and other foes during the 17th century brought rewards to Vienna that remain evident to this day. As well as having men beside him on the battlefield, he preferred male company in the bedroom, too. His sister-in-law, Liselotte von der Pfalz, a well-known society gossip, reportedly said: "He doesn't trouble himself with ladies, a nice couple of page boys would be more his thing."
The prince also liked making extravagant architectural statements, and his legacy includes the imposing Belvedere Palace, a baroque complex built in a vast park landscape just outside central Vienna. Dating to 1697, Prince Eugene's former summer residence is today a renowned art museum with the world's largest collection of works by Gustav Klimt, including his gilded masterpiece "The Kiss," as well as pieces by other vanguards of the Viennese expressionist movement such as Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.
Other prominent historical figures, including the penultimate Habsburg sovereign Charles VI and celebrated Austrian composer Franz Schubert, are also said to have enjoyed same-sex relationships. The most infamous of all, however, is Archduke Ludwig Viktor of Austria.
Nicknamed "Luziwuzi," the hedonistic younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph was born in Vienna in 1842. Like other members of the House of Habsburg he pursued a military career, but Luziwuzi was more intent on seduction than military strategy. Centuries of inbreeding meant that the lanky and sickly looking archduke had to use his wealth and status to seduce the men he desired. He commissioned an ostentatious Italianate palace on Vienna's Ringstrasse, complete with dramatic blue and white swimming pool, and he'd invite handsome young army officers to use it, but neglected to provide them with swimming costumes. It became known in the ranks that it was inadvisable to accept such invitations, but those who did would often be gifted a watch. A lowly soldier would have little need for such an expensive gift, so these watches would inevitably turn up at auctions and the Habsburg family would allegedly buy them to avoid a scandal. Luziwuzi's indiscretions, his sharp tongue, and his propensity to cross-dress were legendary, so scandal was surely inevitable.
Luziwuzi enjoyed frequenting Vienna's Centralbad public baths, and on one such visit he slapped an officer who was none too flattered by his advances. The slap sealed Luziwuzi's fate. To avoid further scandal, Emperor Franz Joseph banished his brother from cosmopolitan Vienna to provincial Salzburg, and he was forced to reside there until his death in 1919. His former palace is today home to the Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz and houses one of the stages of the famed Vienna Burgtheater.
Dating to 1889, the Centralbad baths were renamed Kaiserbründl. This historic bathhouse, once considered Vienna's most elegant bathing establishment, is now one of the world's most famous and unique gay saunas. Despite the addition of video cabins and sexually explicit murals, much of the original Oriental-style décor has been retained. Although Sportsauna is currently more popular with steamy young Austrians, a visit to Kaiserbründl is a must do for the gay visitor to Vienna, if only for the historical context—just be careful you don't get a slap!
In spite of Luziwuzi's scandalous endeavors, it was his beautiful yet tragic sister-in-law who was to become one of the best-known Habsburgs, and one who is beloved by both gay and straight Austrians to this day. Emperor Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister, but when he saw the captivating young Elisabeth of Bavaria he insisted that this 15-year-old princess would be his future bride. Sadly, that's where the fairytale ends. They married within a year, but Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi, found the strict etiquette of the Habsburg court unbearable. Sisi therefore shunned her husband and the immense Hofburg palace by spending as little time there as possible.
The young and lovely Sisi seemed to make effortless fashion statements (like the time she wore a constellation of diamond stars in her hair, created by court jewelers A.E. Köchert), but was in fact obsessed with maintaining her beauty and mythology. She had a private fitness room installed in the Hofburg palace and would train rigorously; her miniscule waistline was just 47cm (18.5 inches). She would rarely eat. Indeed, no one wanted to attend state banquets in Sisi's presence because all she would have was a taste of soup; when the Empress stopped eating, everyone was obliged to stop. To avoid being hated by hungry courtiers, Sisi began avoiding state banquets altogether.
So fearful was she of being seen as aging, she hid from public view for much of the latter decades of her life. When her son committed suicide, Sisi became known as the Black Empress, because from that moment she dressed only in black, including her jewelry. When she died in 1898, tragically stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist determined to assassinate any aristocrat, she had probably not been seen in public for over 20 years.
With World War II casting a dark shadow over the country, Austria wanted a new identity and found it in the cult of Sisi. Statues were unveiled, biographies were written, gay men were besotted by her tragedy, and famous Vienna-born actress Romy Schneider portrayed Sisi in a series of hit films during the 1950s–altogether elevating Sisi into a Princess Diana-type figure for Austria. Today, Sisi's Imperial Apartments within the Hofburg palace are the Sisi Museum. Designed with appropriate flair by a stage designer, this fascinating museum provides a glimpse into Sisi's world, with portraits and personal objects on display alongside replicas of some of her most flamboyant gowns and jewels. You can also see the file used to stab her—unusual in that murder weapons are normally prohibited from going on public display.
Austrian cabaret singer and actress Greta Keller had a profound effect on Vienna's gay scene. Her voice can be heard alongside Liza Minnelli on the soundtrack of Cabaret, but that's not why she's remembered. In the days when it was illegal to be gay in Austria, she would host parties for gay men in her apartment, and today you may still find elderly Viennese gentlemen who'll have fond memories of eating goulash and meeting other gays at one of Keller's soirees. Her Vienna apartment bears a plaque in her honor.
Dating back to the 1960s, Vienna's oldest surviving gay bar is Alte Lampe, today a bear bar. Also from this era is Goldener Spiegel. The right side of this unusual gay venue is a casual restaurant serving simple fare like schnitzel, while to the left is a bar that's frequented by hustlers from the Balkans and beyond. With an interior that echoes the bygone days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, popular Café Savoy is another historic gay venue, perfect for mélange (Viennese blend coffee) or early evening cocktails.
During the 1960s, celebrated English poet W. H. Auden, who shared a summerhouse in an Austrian village with his American lover Chester Kallman, was a regular visitor to Vienna; his love of opera was legendary. He died in Vienna in 1973 in a hotel close to the grandiose Vienna State Opera House (itself designed in the 1860s by a couple of gay architects, Eduard van der Nüll and August Sicard von Sigardsburg).
Today, Vienna's gay scene remains very much grounded in the 6th District, close to the famous Secession building with its distinct golden bauble on the roof, as well as other beautiful examples of Jugendstil (art nouveau) by renowned architects like Otto Wagner. Known for its Saturday flea market, as well as an array of gay-frequented restaurants and gourmet food stalls, Naschmarkt is a popular weekend spot. Just beyond the market is Rosa Lila Villa, headquarters for numerous LGBT organizations and home to a busy gay café-bar and information hub. In this neighborhood, you'll also find the majority of Vienna's gay venues, including gay bars like Felixx and Mango Bar, welcoming lesbian spaces Marea Alta and Frauencafé, and hardcore establishments Hard On and Eagle. There are also a number of stylish gay-friendly restaurants in this area including Motto, whose roster of handsome waiters once included a young fashion student called Helmut Lang (before he became an internationally known designer); and schon-schön, which mixes restaurant with fashion boutique and hair salon.
"Vienna is a cosmo-authentic city with a huge hidden flair," says Marcos Valenzuela from Vienna-based label Tiberius. "Between history and culture, palaces and coffee houses, kitsch and simplicity, Vienna offers an exciting way of living."
Tiberius was founded by Karl Ammerer in 1992 and originally offered typical fetish shop products. When Karl met Marcos, who came from Colombia seven years ago to study music, they took Tiberius in a new direction. "I realized the amazing potential from Tiberius' philosophy," explains Marcos. "So we decided to go forward and create the brand. We renewed the shop and created our own fashion identity."