Viennese Freedom

Gay Culture in the West

/ by Uroš Prah

It was logical to me that they were offering themselves to the potential customers that were sitting around the bar. However thought-over this posing was, they were pretending it wasn’t so. The men did not engage in their game, quietly sipping their beer, those with a moustache wiping off the foam, and some voraciously stuffing their mouths with snacks, pretzel sticks, peanuts and toast. The difference between the one and the other was monstrous. The boys were young, the men almost old geezers, the first lean, the second shapeless, masses of flesh, sausages, floppy folds, the first smiling, the second stern, curt, merciless, rough, the first lively, the second motionless, the first were babbling in melodious languages, I heard Bulgarian, Romanian, perhaps Russian, the second were using a cold tongue, as if it was always tripping over itself and breaking.”

 

-Brane Mozetič: Objemi norosti (Embraces of Madness), Ljubljana: ŠKUC, 2015

 

 

Gay club culture in the west today is mostly dull. A young guy who lives in one of the urban centers generally has, at his disposal, a whole bunch of generic gay clubs and bars. There, one and the same type of middle-class, white, muscled gay man, the image of exuberant manhood that is expressed in the swollen muscular tissue and fetishization of domination, a bad attitude, a full wallet and a profound disinterest in anything communal, are celebrated. This is a peculiar double bind of the patriarchal dominant culture (the dominant culture is the culture of dominance), and a specific gay ideal of a chiseled Adonis that was formed as an immediate reaction to the AIDS crisis (all of a sudden it became crucial that, as a gay man, you project only an image of a hyper-healthy man) and later on, even appropriated, to a large extent by cis-culture, as is noticeable in the mark that the fitness culture has recently left in fashion (in the proliferation of leisurewear designed to hyper-accentuate, even modify, the masculine form). To a certain extent, to be integrated in a society means to be assimilated. Fran Lebowitz, when referring to today’s gay culture of New York, in contrast to the one before the AIDS crisis, got it completely right, by saying: “These people want in, not out.” If coming out during the first wave of the gay rights movement in the US, and a bit later in Europe, was primarily tied to something like: “Outside of society/That’s where I wanna be,” the main political and individual strive of gay people is to “come in” – into the fold. Gay identity is, here, mostly that: It warmly wraps itself in a certain form of the family cell (for which the movement has won a considerable amount of judicial rights, and rightfully so). It wraps itself in its western whiteness, and thus takes on practically all the qualities of dominant culture: Patriarchalism, socio-economic revanchism against the poor, racism.

 

This is noticeably reflected in the conflict within the former crowd of the famous Viennese gay bar, with the marvelously adequate name “Wiener Freiheit” (Viennese Freedom). Its members of the Austrian white majority, who don’t visit the establishment anymore, are at war with the bar and its owner, who warmly and decisively embraced the change in its clientele that occurred over a decade ago. The change of clientele is a reflection of a sub-cultural shift in the gay scene. Viennese Freedom is now a club where young guys and transgender women from many different Muslim majority regions, from East and Southeast Europe, some from the Sub-Saharan Africa, meet. Only a fraction of the previous clientele comes, mostly older white Austrians who stand at the edge of the dance floor and observe. Young white Austrians (with a few exceptions who work there) are nowhere to be seen. Surely, some transactions (drug-related or sexual – prostitution in Austria is legal, if registered) do occur, however this is not your usual hooking establishment. The guys come there to enjoy themselves, and the older Austrian men to watch them do so.

 

The scene laid out in front of us is similar to the one that the Slovenian author, Brane Mozetič, describes in his novel, Objemi norosti (Embraces of Madness), cited above. With the exception that, as the owner of the bar states: “The ratio has completely flipped.” There are now only a handful of Austrians and, at least in this bar, their predominance – social, numerical, symbolic and violent – has been nullified. This is how it is in this basement: This is the true Viennese freedom. In principle, every club is a scene of gazes and stares. However, here they happen in an abundance of ranges you can’t find anywhere else in the city. Chalga echoes across the dance floor. A moderately joyous boy is intensively working it with his hips, his moves somewhat reserved. He is glancing around the room, hunting for recognition, perhaps for a customer. The gentlemen in the corner are not that impressed. A transgender girl sways with the rhythm in the company of her friend, her eyes locked on the mirror-wall, as she looks at herself in somehow joyous disbelief. As I look at her, I feel at home. A group of guys who have just stumbled upon each other are exchanging looks, as if in a shooting match, the bodies suddenly tighten up, eyes zigzagging left and right, as are gestures, some swift words are exchanged, someone pushes the other, someone grabs the other’s shoulder, two of them burst into laughter, a whole series of kisses on the cheek are exchanged, one on the mouth, an arm grabs someone’s ass. The gentlemen in the corner approve. All of these glances and stares in the room (even the older gentlemen’s) have something in common: They are fundamentally queer, minority gazes, even though it is a space of great freedom, the glances and stares are always encoded at least twofold. They express contentment and caution. This is perhaps the focal aspect of what it means to be gay.

 

The owner describes, in an interview, how he learned, through the years, that 90% of the Viennese gay scene was racist. I wouldn’t like to speculate about these numbers, but in my experience, it is quite common, as the same can be said for Ljubljana, where I spent ten years. It would not surprise me to find this to be true for other European cities, as well. After a short five-minute internet search about the place, on a chat-site I’ve found statements like these: “This riffraff is destroying the whole scene. Outrageous to demand 100 for a BLOWJOB, and no quality, too. Some foreigners are so short between the legs and not even clean!” Or: “The regulars don’t go there anymore anyway, because of all of the riffraff. That’s what you get, if you value the riffraff more than those who actually leave money there.”

 

Mozetič’s challenging, yet wonderful novel depicts interactions of sex workers (from flirting to Desadean scenes with unclear outcomes) and the Middle-European meticulously-organized boys-trade, that takes place in a non-operating industrial hall, where a “bazar” full with numerous improvised themed rooms is held: One for the addicts, one for boys with missing limbs, one for those with mental illnesses and/or developmental disabilities, most of them younger than 20, some much younger, most living with some sort of trauma, practically all of them migrants, whom one can purchase indefinitely for around 10,000 EUR. Mozetič succeeds in describing this underworld in its true light. This is not merely a dark unrealized fantasy, but more so an utterance of the underlying forces of the European patriarchic, imperialistic, and capitalist society. When mostly unaccompanied refugee children are disappearing, as has been reported in the past years, where do they go? Some to the streets, and others into the black markets of economic and sexual slavery, as well as the organ trade. They disappear in the underground veins of Europe that are spreading through the streets and corners of cities, through industrial properties, apartments, hotels, and houses in idyllic rural pelargonium-filled communities, like the one Mozetič is describing. In this sense, Europe is the monster that digs its claws into its “former” colonial possessions, displaces young bodies in their pure potentiality, exploits and exhausts them, and then disposes of what remains.

 

The value of the rare places like Wiener Freiheit lies in the flipping of relations. The European power structures that, among other things, produce the previously-described conditions are here, for a few nightly hours, almost completely suspended. Their last remains are some bills sitting in the pockets of those few older men in the corner. The majority of the gay population in these parts of Europe has lost most of its sub-cultural power. So this basement seems like one of the last places where being gay remains an act of defiance towards the violence of dominant culture. There, the naked potentiality of the poor, young, supposedly displaced bodies is abolished in the fabulous lives of a fleetingly free community.

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Uroš Prah

is a university graduate in philosophy and comparative literature. He co-founded a literary magazine called IDIOT, which he co-edited for many years — between 2011 and 2015 as the editor-in-chief. In 2015 he co-founded Literodrom – an international festival that problematizes literary practice and traces novelties, new modes of writing, new modes of publishing and new modes in forming artistic communities. The artist is currently based in Vienna.

Prah's first poetry collection came out in 2012. It carries an untranslatable, onomatopoetic title Čezse polzeči (»Gliding over Themselves«). His second poetry collection with an also hardly translatable word-pun title Tišima (»Phush«) saw the light of day in 2015. In 2016 it was nominated for the Jenko Poetry Award and the Veronika Poetry Award.