In the new comedy Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen plays an outlandish gay Austrian TV host and fashion reporter who wreaks havoc in the United States. Does Austria have an especially thriving gay community?
Sort of. Austria has long been a relatively conservative Catholic country. (In 2001, about 74 percent of Austrians considered themselves Catholic.) In terms of gay-friendliness, it only started catching up with its Western European counterparts, like England and Germany, in the last decade or so. But nowadays, Vienna does have bars, clubs, restaurants, and bath houses that cater to the gay community. The city's annual pride parade, first held in 1996, is now a major national event. Vienna even markets itself to gay tourists, boasting its history of "[g]ay emperors, generals or composers of days gone by."
Homosexuality was illegal in Austria until 1971. At that point, the all-out ban on gay sex acts was replaced by another set of restrictions, including a ban on gay and lesbian organizations, a ban on male prostitution (female prostitution is legal), and an age-of-consent law that prohibited sex between a male older than 18 and a male younger than 18 (even though the heterosexual age of consent was 14). Austria only started allowing gay organizations to operate aboveboard after it joined the European Union in 1995 and didn't repeal the age of consent law until 2002. In 2004, the government passed legislation that prohibited discrimination in the workplace. Gay marriage remains illegal in Austria, although a couple is allowed to marry if one member gets a sex change.
Austria has few prominent gay figures. There's Alfons Haider, the host of Strictly Come Dancing, a sort of Austrian Dancing With the Stars, and the supposed inspiration behind the Brüno character. Lunacek, a Green Party politician, is known for her work in Austrian parliament and now represents Austria in the European Parliament. Perhaps the most famous Austrian homosexual was Jorg Haider (no relation to Alfons), the longtime leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party and Alliance for the Future of Austria, who died in a car crash after leaving a gay bar. Although Haider was not out during his lifetime, his successor as head of the Alliance party claimed that their relationship "went far beyond friendship." For years, a T-shirt commonly seen at gay pride parades said, "I'm Haider's Boyfriend."
Bonus Explainer: What does that umlaut over the U in Brüno mean? It tells the speaker to pronounce the vowel toward the front of the mouth. For example, the ö in the Swiss hotel chain Mövenpick is halfway between oh and ooo. Likewise, the ü in Brüno denotes a sound between "ooo" and "yoo." The German name Bruno, however, does not actually include an umlaut.
Bonus Bonus Explainer: Why doesn't English have a lot of accents on its letters? Because of the way the language evolved. Many European languages grew out of Latin—Spanish, French, Italian, etc. * But by the time their speakers actually adopted the Latin alphabet for writing, the languages sounded nothing like Latin. As a result, the speakers of each language needed to adjust the alphabet to fit its own sounds. For example, Latin did not have a letter to make the ch sound. So in Czech, they added a hatchek, or a little V sign, to the top of the letter C. In English, however, we just combine C and H. In some cases, the decision to use accents rather than recombining letters can be traced to one person. For example, French engraver Geoffroy Tory introduced the "cedilla," or the little hook under the letter C, to denote a soft C. But it's usually impossible to pinpoint who decided to use a particular accent or not. Accents in English are few and far between, but a dieresis—which looks like an umlaut—is occasionally used to suggest re-emphasis on a double vowel, like in the words coöperation or naïve. *
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Explainer thanks Matti Bunzl of the University of Illinois, Amalia Gnanadesikan of Holy Family University, and Paul Kay of the University of California-Berkeley.