The Closet Creaks Open

For Homosexuals in Vienna, It’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

At the Rainbow Parade, gays and lesbians celebrated along the Gürtel in Vienna‘a 10th District | Photo: HOSI

It used to be nastier. “People like you were gassed by Hitler! And he was right to do so!” a man had shouted as he passed the HOSI information stand back in the early 1980s. “You have no right to stand there!” The Homosexual Initiative Vienna used to be a lightning rod for people’s discomfort.

From a society with laws forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality to one where a gay and lesbian counseling center is supported by the state, Austria has come a long way.

Still, there are limits. Austria, which has made some progress over the past few years, continues to lag behind most European countries. And although opinions have changed, the homosexual organizations HOSI and Rosa Lila Villa find they still have a lot to do in order to change people’s views towards homosexuals and achieve genuine acceptance.

Austria was one of the last countries in Europe to repeal the total ban on male and female homosexuality. Before 1971, same-sex relations could lead you to jail. This law was finally abolished but three new articles were introduced in its place: Article 209 set the age of consent for homosexuals at 18, Article 221 outlawed the advertising of homosexuality, and Article 222 made it illegal for homosexuals to assemble.

It is interesting that despite laws banning the promotion of homosexuality existing until 1995, both HOSI and Rosa Lila Villa were established before that, and were actively promoting homosexuality through the media. According to Kurt Krickler, general secretary of HOSI Vienna, a close analysis of the law’s wording showed that an organization could only be banned if it was considered to offend the general public. Therefore, in the 1980s it was actually politically impossible to ban a gay organization – the same applied to so called propaganda for homosexuality.

Article 221 and 222 remained in force until 1995. But it took three cases to be brought before the European Union’s Court of Human Rights to have them repealed. Article 209 stayed on the books until 2002, when it was repealed and the age of consent was reduced to that of a heterosexual. Attempts to abolish Article 209 had failed before, because both the “People’s Party” (ÖVP) and the “Freedom Party” (FPÖ) voted against them.

Although the laws were changed, there were still around 1,500 people in 2005 that were registered as criminals for committing homosexual offenses. Most of these crimes can be traced back to the period when homosexuality was still illegal. Nonetheless, the convictions still apply, and disclosure laws mean future employers have to be informed. Having a criminal record poses obvious problems for those seeking employment.

“To keep the listings in the registry even though the offenses are no longer considered crimes, violates human rights,” said Helmut Graupner, a spokesman for lobby group Platform Against Paragraph 209 in an interview with The Associated Press.

However, problems around the workplace don’t only exist for those with criminal records. In Vienna there is an unwritten rule that homosexuality is tolerated. In the countryside, however, it is a different matter. According to workers at Rosa Lila Villa, telling people you’re gay can easily lead to discrimination. To avoid harassment, many homosexuals choose not to show their true colors.

“A lot of people are afraid of what could happen to them if they were to reveal their homosexuality,” says Marty Huber of the organization. “People are afraid of loosing their jobs, especially since there is no law forbidding discrimination.”

Austria has next to no anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and lesbians. The federal constitution theoretically offers all citizens equal protection, but in reality it does not apply to discrimination against sexual orientation. Since 2002, the Equal Treatment Act should at least offer such protection in the workplace. However, since its introduction, only one case has been successfully prosecuted, involving a homosexual employee of a transport company who suffered harassment on account of his sexuality. Two employees at the company were ordered by the court to pay EUR 400 each to their colleague.

Being homosexual in Austria also affects the most personal areas of life. Austria is among the few European Union countries that do not permit some variant of civil union for gays and lesbians.

Austrian law does not permit homosexuals to marry one another, and there is no legal recognition of same-sex partnerships.

The first same-sex marriage was recognized last year, but only by default. It involved a transsexual, biologically male, who was already married. Neither partner wanted a divorce, and after requests to have official documents changed to reflect their new status were turned down by the Ministry of Interior, the case was taken to the constitutional court. Since the state could not force them to divorce, it was obliged to recognize the marriage legally. However, this one isolated case, arising in exceptional circumstances, doesn’t reflect progress in attitudes.

Homosexuals are not only denied the right to marry, they also face difficulties becoming parents. Last year the city of Vienna saw a way to both help homosexual couples and find enough homes for orphans by launching a campaign to encourage the city’s gay population to adopt children. However, the FPÖ threatened to campaign against the move if the city was to go through with their plans, so they were scrapped.

So despite the progress made in some areas, the problems of discrimination in a social sense still remain. Huber believes that the roots of this problem lie in the influence of Catholicism. Although the constitution stipulates separation of church and state, in practice the catholic church still influences politics. Many politicians may not be regular churchgoers, but catholic tradition and values are culturally instilled in them. According to Huber, it would never have taken so long to abolish the laws against homosexuality had this influence not existed.

So the problem is deeply ingrained. If Austrians were more supportive of homosexuality, it would be much easier for the state to change the laws. But since catholic values hold so much sway, either directly through the church, or indirectly through the church’s inherited effect on society, things are unlikely to change. Because of this, Austria may tolerate homosexuality, but it doesn’t embrace it.

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