Queering the city: life, lust, and lesbians in Vienna

4CITIES has been fun so far. Sure, I spent most of my time in Brussels in my dingy little basement room binge-watching Game of Thrones, but still, the courses were critical and involved, and friendships were there to be made. But the fun really started once I hit the Viennese streets.

As a queer woman who has spent most of her adult life living in cities (moving from the beautiful, pagan yet strangely conservative Cornish seaside of my teenage years) I relished my time in London before starting the course. As a squatter I spent most of my time hanging out with anarcho-hipster types plotting secret missions in various warehouses, and a whole bunch of them identified as queer, which suited me just fine. But then came Brussels and making friends in a very different kind of way. I returned to my student roots and bonded through outrageously strong beer and an obscene number of cigarettes. But hey, it worked.

When the time came to look for housing in Vienna I took the advice of a friend and signed up to a feminist mailing list which advertised for rooms. And bingo, I landed in queer feminist heaven, and have not looked back since.

With the friends I have made in Vienna outside of the course I have been to queer bars, roller derby, women’s marches, queer yoga, drag concerts and even witnessed an adorable musically-choreographed lesbian wedding proposal which made me question my adamant anti-marriage rhetoric and brought a genuine tear (or twenty?) to my eye. Which leads me on to the analytical side of this article: queer spaces in the city matter.

If you don’t know what you are missing until you find it, this revelation can be huge. I didn’t spend my time in Brussels pining for lesbian bars, but once I started going to them the experience filled a hole (in the purely metaphorical sense!) I didn’t know existed. I don’t need to preach to you about the importance of creating spaces for marginalised groups to congregate, meet, experience solidarity and affirmation, but beyond their social value they are also just a bunch of fun! Recently, a lot of lesbian bars have been closing across the USA, which could mean that lesbians are feeling more comfortable frequenting ‘regular’ bars due to the increasing normalisation of queer identities. However, a darker reading could take into account not only Trump and all the oppressive policies and attitudes he endorses, and the devastating, horrific, attack in Orlando last year, but also the more gradual rise of assimilation-or-expulsion rhetoric and practice which has been building since neoliberalism first grasped hold of the essence of ‘the city’.

This is what makes my experience in Vienna so important for me. These spaces still exist here, and they are full of like-minded people, in terms of sexuality, but who also share an understanding of intersectionality and integrated forms of oppression. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. For one thing Vienna appears to be incredibly white, which the queer scene reflects, and this exclusion needs to be taken seriously (spaces like Queer Base, an infoshop and space for solidarity for queer refugees are addressing this head on) but the fact that these spaces exist and support a community within them has been hugely affirming for me.

I am scared, though. I am scared that these spaces, like the ones in America, will start disappearing. I am scared that, as women’s rights are eroded across Europe through the shutting of refuge centres and declining funds for services and facilities catered towards marginalised individuals, these spaces too will cease to exist. Still, there will always be the fringes. Even in London, the neoliberal wet-dream that is fast eroding any semblance of an inclusive city, there are still spaces, squats, occupations, and groups that have taken the role of service providers for oppressed people into their own hands (see Sisters Uncut for an example of an attempt to integrate protection for women, occupation of space, and promotion of black and WOC voices in the city). And this brings hope.

Vienna is not as completely in the ravages of neoliberal restructuring just yet, and so there is hope to be found here, too: hope that these spaces and solidarities will be able to survive – to do more than just survive, to assert their right to a place in the city. I wish I could be around to help in this struggle as this is the first time since leaving London that I have felt at home somewhere. But the cruel mistress which is 4CITIES leads me away from immersion in this struggle and I only hope that I will be able to find such solidarities and inclusion elsewhere in Europe. And besides, “Queering Copenhagen” has a better ring to it anyway.