Like most people, Im a lot of things. Im a university student, a good cook, a film nerd with big dreams, Swedish, Austrian, about to turn 22, a big reader, a diplomat kid, a haver of ADHD, queer. And Im just another regular at the Villa Vida.
Its a recently renewed café-by-day-bar-by-night hub located in the corner of one of the most historically important buildings in Vienna, at least as far as recent queer history is concerned: the Türkis Rosa Lila Villa (Translated: the turquoise pink purple villa). A building that, in 1982, was occupied and turned into, and has since remained, a cornerstone of the queer community in Vienna. The three colours in the name, inspired alongside the colour they painted its façade back in the 80s, represent trans, gay, and lesbian folk respectively; it has always been a project of queer solidarity. Today, the building hosts all kinds of projects and events, ranging from workshops to housing.
That little café-bar in the corner is a staple of queer Viennese culture and is one of extremely few queer spaces dominated by queer women, rather than queer men. Its owned and run by a queer woman, most of the bartenders and regulars are queer women, and it hosts mixers and various other events every Tuesday with the express purpose of bringing together queer women. But it is a space open to absolutely anybody who wants to be kind, and will welcome anyone who enters through those doors with open arms and bright smiles.
One Tuesday in April of 2022, I finally gathered the guts to go inside this building that so proudly proclaimed LESBEN- & SCHWULENHAUS on its façade (Translated: lesbian & gay house). Id been spying it out the windows of buses since high school, wondering if Id ever feel like I could walk through those doors. When I finally did, that one Tuesday in April, it smiled at me and I discovered, better yet, became myself. My life grew, and at the centre of it all, my little villa.
April of 2023, and the place had become, not my home, but our home. A place I walk into and get overwhelmed by the amount of people I have to greet. A place where the owner is my role model and my best friends are the bartenders. Sometimes Im asked to host the weekly Wednesday karaoke nights. Rarely is there a week I dont find myself at the Villa, as my friends (or better said, my found family) and I have come to refer to it. Occasionally, I find myself there multiple days in a row.
Almost everyone and everything important in my life is connected to that little place. I plan to celebrate my 22nd birthday there. I invited my grandmother and every friend I could without overcrowding the small place. I wanted to show her who I have become, what I have built, the pride I have in all that Ive achieved in the last mere 365 days. And, on a Ritalin-high, I even invited both of my divorced parents. Even more shockingly, they accepted! This is shocking, because, for both of them, this involves a plane ticket from some place or other around the globe.
Except, theres this little complication. See, suddenly, my little café was on the news. Nazis had shown up at our doorstep. Oh, Im sorry, I mean, conservatives, alt-right, identitarians. Whatever the politically accurate term might be that Im supposed to use, when youre on the receiving end of their violence, a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi. And less than a week before my birthday, I was suddenly called to arms to make sure the place would still be standing there when I turned 22.
A couple weeks earlier, the building had been attacked. While I refer to it as my home metaphorically, it is also the literal home and shelter of many queer folk, and the rising threats against it are not only a threat to a community space, but a threat to safe living for the occupants. For weeks, a culture war, pathetically inspired by the one in the US (because our fascists are not only pathetic, but unoriginal and embarrassingly desperate to mimic larger countries. The pitiful irony of their nationalism having to scrape inspiration from other nations because the truth is, their image of a True Austria does not exist, and this little nation located right in the middle of Europe has always been, and will always be, culturally diverse and fluid.), had been growing in the media and right wing circles, against drag. Specifically, drag queens and their oh-so-dangerous fun events for kids. A couple smaller attacks on such events at lesser known locations had already occurred.
Tensions exploded over this one particular week, and within only a couple days, what began as simply another storybook reading for kids had seemingly escalated into what threatened to be the final battlefield of that culture war.
If this part seems rushed and vague and quickly-paced, then it accurately represents my experience. I was at the villa a couple times that week, each time updated with the new level of threat expected on Sunday. To me, there was such a perverted absurdity to the situation, of saying goodbye to people after just another lovely evening, and saying wed see each other on Sunday, with the unspoken addition that it would be to protect this place from violence.
That coming Sunday loomed over us all week.
It was hard to focus on class when my closest friends were worrying about their safety on my phone. Trans friends were buying pepper spray, and my friend who had a shift there on Sunday was discussing her time and route plans to get to work safely. I tried to comfort my friends by letting them know that I had been face-to-face with Nazis, with right wing extremists, before. Because I could remember the comfort of being with someone who had had experience then. All this in the group chat, in between memes and dumb conversations and friendship drama.
That Friday we celebrated a close friends birthday at the villa. It also happened to be one of the semi-regular game nights, hosted by another close friend, and the place was filled with people chatting and laughing and getting to know each other over various board games. One of my friends had bought the birthday girl a plushie of the Badnerbahn-nach-Baden, and everyone there giggled ourselves silly about it.
As I paid my tab, the bartender pulled me in close and told me I was on security, and that she would be sending out more details after her shift. Those details came in around 2 in the morning. The poor but powerful souls who did organising for Sunday lost a lot of sleep that week, many of them even sleeping in the building over the weekend. To them, I am endlessly grateful and filled with admiration.
Once again, I hugged my loved ones and affectioned acquaintances goodbye, and we said wed see each other Sunday.
The existential absurdity of contemporary queer existence became so stupidly blatant.
I shared it with my father, a liberal who always swore hed accept his children in any form, who once sat me down to tell me it was alright if I was a lesbian, who once walked in the Washington
D.C pride parade because he happened to be there. Grateful as I am to have parents who dont mind my identity (and the absurdity of having to be grateful for parents who dont mind my identity), not minding is not enough. I shared it with him, because I wanted to show him that that element of myself, which is no big deal to him, is a big deal.
I shared it with him for the same reason Im writing this article: being accepting is not enough. I need those who accept us to know what our reality looks like, the parts of our reality that those who just accept us cant see.
And I will use this opportunity to say that I mention my own childhood a couple times and want to make clear that I did not grow up in a homophobic household. My parents never said or did anything to imply that I would not be accepted if I was queer. My parents, progressives of the 2000s, did the best they thought they could. It just wasnt enough to prevent the much stronger cultural and structural influences on my childhood.
Why would this reading be a danger?
Which is why, not only is a drag queen reading a story book about being yourself to children not a danger, I would actually very much suggest you go take your kids to that. Because those cultural influences are still very much in place, and if you consider yourself a queer-friendly parent, your child needs to be exposed to queer-friendly culture.
(Which, to be clear here, at the age of the kids at the reading, literally just means making it clear to them that whoever they are is exactly who they need to be. So that theyre equipped with that self- confidence once they realise that society tries to tell them otherwise. Were not reading Judith Butler to children who dont even know what gender is yet. Were not explaining to four year olds the cisheteropatriarchal rules of the gender binary and then explaining why theyre actually harmful and arbitrary. That would be ridiculous.)
I was once helping a six-year-old with his homework practicing writing, while his mother sat in the other room. He was to build sentences out of a list of names and the verb mag (likes). As in "Lisa mag Tom". I would suggest two random names from the list, and he would write the sentence. At one point, I suggested two male names, and he looked up at me with a face like I was being ridiculous.
"That doesnt work. Theyre both boys," he said.
And from the other room, his mother called, "so what if theyre both boys? They can still like each other."
Just like my own family two decades ago, a parent who supports the queers still raised a child who doesnt. And it isnt her fault, the takeaway here is by no means that she is a bad mother. What Im trying to emphasise with this example is that being okay with queer is not enough, being pro-queer is not enough, if you want your child to know that theyre accepted, and teach them to accept others, you need to actively battle the queerphobia that theyre going to bring home with them.
My hero: "Das kleine ich bin ichI have, on my shelf, a tiny copy of the Austrian childrens book Das kleine Ich bin ich (Translated: The little I am me), about a creature who cant figure out what it is because it shares features with many different animals, but resembles none of them, and in the end, simply concludes, "I am me". And as a kid, it was one of the few stories I heard, in the tempest of gender expectations I was bad at, that told me it was okay to just be me.
Thats the real agenda were trying to push. To attempt to put it without seeping snide sarcasm, earnestly, the goal of drag queens reading books to children is to expose the children to alternative modes of self-expression to the ones theyre surrounded by, as well as show them what a playground (rather than a gendered prison) self-expression can be. Kids wear whatever the fuck they want, and drag shows them that they can continue to wear whatever the fuck they want when they get older. The choice of books at these events usually have a similar theme, with stories about princesses who are their own hero, and so on.
Were not trying to turn your kids gay or trans. Were trying to turn them into people who accept themselves and others freely for who they are. So that they dont have to live the way that I am trying to show you we live now.
That Saturday, returning home from my weekly film course, my new friend wishing me "have fun with your Nazis" as we said goodbye, I knew the afternoon was shot. I had a lot of university work to catch up on, but all I could think of was hatred and rage. Their hatred, my rage.
I went to my grandmother, whose apartment is below mine, and sat on the floor spilling out all my anger and confusion at the absurdity of it all. My little café, my humble little café, where I hang out with my friends so often I can no longer criticise sitcoms for that gimmick, where I go to open mics and writers circles, where I order cappuccinos and pretend to study, suddenly the target of a call to attack from right wing media.
"You will always be marginalised," my grandmother sighed, "you will always be strange. You will always be ostracised."
All my silly little activities at this bar I always go to, each one of them, every fry I ate there, every book I read there, every coin I dropped in the tip jar, is a political act, simply because Im there and Im me. And I hadnt even realised it.
She recounted to me her memories of what shed seen that same building already have to survive against on the news. Nothing has changed since her time, I thought. Nothing has changed since my fathers.
That evening, I watched Victim (UK, 1961), a movie starring lifelong (loosely-) closeted gay actor Dirk Bogarde, about the exploitation of queer folk by blackmailers due to the law banning homosexuality. Existing, simply existing, as a queer, was illegal in England until 1967. I took four hours to watch a movie with a 100 minute runtime. I spent the movie in tears and in pain. I drowned in the bleak reality our colourful community seemed permanently doomed to, and I could only find solace in knowing that those I admire suffered it too.
"Nature played me a dirty trick," one of the characters of the movie says, "Ive come to feel like a criminal, an outlaw."
Speaking of another queer characters suicide in jail, he says, "I think boy Barretts well out of it." And I lay there, counting the reasons on my fingers not to jump out of the window, hang myself
from my pull up bar, or swallow all my pills. Nature really did play me a dirty trick. Despite the
progress we keep thanking time for, thats still the same time we live in. Tomorrow I have to wake up and defend my home, and this is the best time and place its ever been to be me?
As a bisexual, wha are you even crying about?
As a bisexual, you often get asked and ask yourself what youre even crying about. Theres a perceived triviality to our pain as queers. Bogardes character in Victim speaks to me so strongly because, the fact of the matter is, no matter how much you love your wife, if youve ever so much as had feelings for a man, youve committed a crime.
That night, when I went to bed, I said a little prayer: As I lay my head to rest,
I call upon thee,
spirit of Dirk Bogarde, to give us strength
to fight the battle awaiting us at dawn
and continue to wage the war we never asked to wage, with your patron soul watching over us,
knowing you waged it with us.
The next morning, I woke up at 6. My grandmother, as I had requested, rang my doorbell a couple minutes later to make sure I was awake. I got dressed in my prepared attire, packing as little as possible into a fanny pack Id keep under my black jacket, hiding my gender under a beanie.
Fucking nazis making me get up at 6 on a Sunday, I complained.
The volunteers had been told to get there early, to be there before the Nazis, and to take back routes, to avoid getting hate-crimed on the way. We had been sent a map with all the relevant points of the day pinned. My long, exhausting day began with a suspenseful walk, knowing nothing about how the day was going to go, just that I was filled with an anger to fight.
I arrived a little after 7. Familiar streets became foreign, already filled with police, fences, and tension. The façade of my usual comfortable little café had transformed into a battle station. After telling a group of vested people my name and reason for being there, and having myself checked off a list, I entered this regular little old café of mine. I walked up to the bartender who had assigned me security and said, "I need instructions."
She put a hand on both my shoulders and answered, "you need coffee and some breakfast."
The organiser of the security team recognised me and said we might have met before. I answered, that was highly likely. But neither of us could remember how or when. This happens to me often here.