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social sciences

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Up until the end of World War I in 1918, Austria was a large empire consisting of a number of smaller states and ethnic groups, which was ruled for almost 750 years by the Hapsburg dynasty. Much of central Europe, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia once comprised Österreich, or the Eastern Empire, until the empire's dissolution. At various points during its history, the Austrian Empire also included parts of Poland, the Ukraine, Romania, and Italy.

Today Austria is a small, German-speaking country in middle Europe. It is a federal republic, governed by two legislative bodies, a National Council and Federal Council. The president is its head of state, who appoints the chancellor, usually the leader of the majority party in the legislature, who serves as head of government. Austria joined the European Union in 1994, and currently it has a population of 8,100,000.

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Homosexuality and Early Modern Austrian Nobility

Austrian history prior to the late nineteenth century and the emergence of homosexual identity and culture contains many suggestive traces of homosexuality. From the mid-seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth century sexual innuendo surrounded a handful of individuals who were members of the Austrian nobility. During this period Austrian imperial law took great pains to define and punish homosexual behavior.

Perhaps most notorious from Austria's early modern period is Prince Franz Eugen of Savoy (1663-1736), a figure whose behavior caused gossip about his sexuality. A Parisian born soldier who had volunteered to help the Hapsburgs protect Vienna from the Turkish invasion in 1683, he led numerous military campaigns in the years following and was instrumental in making Austria a major European power.

Famous for his military prowess, Eugen became equally infamous for his flamboyant gender-bending behavior and his affection for young men. Suspecting her husband of having homosexual affairs, Duchess Elisabeth Charlotte of Orleans wrote that at the French court Prince Eugen was called Madame Lansine or Madame Simone and would often appear with her husband in women's clothes. Referring to them as two common whores, the duchess concluded that Eugen did not "inconvenience himself with women, a pair of handsome pages was much more the thing for him."

During this era, Emperor Charles VI (1685-1740), the father of the Empress Maria Theresa, was also known for his lack of interest in women. His close friendship with Count Michael Johann Althan III was not popular, and his critics judged their emotional relationship harshly.

No record remains of the intimate details of their relationship, but the Emperor lavished palaces on Althan in Vienna so that the two could remain close. A few years before Althan's death in 1722, Charles wrote to him as "my truest servant, my heart's friend, who loves me as I have loved him for nineteen years in true, profound friendship."

Legal Prohibitions of Sodomy

In the eighteenth century, was a criminal offense punishable by death. In 1768 Empress Maria Theresa reformed the imperial law; article 74 of the Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana defined "sodomitical sins" or the "abominable vice of unchastity against nature" as sex between men, between women, or between men and women who committed sexual offenses against the natural order. The law also prohibited bestiality and necrophilia. The statute stipulated that sodomites were to be beheaded, after which the body and the head were to be burned.

As Napoleon swept through Europe in the early nineteenth century and put into place a new system of law, known as the Napoleonic Code, he temporarily decriminalized sodomy in many European countries.

Although the Austrian law prohibiting sodomy was not lifted, in 1803 Emperor Francis II lessened the punishment for sodomy from death to a prison term ranging from six months to a year. Although in the early nineteenth century, the Austrian state considered sodomy a crime, it no longer targeted it for extreme persecution.

The Rise of Homosexual Identity

As in many European countries, Austria also saw the rise of homosexual identity, and the appearance of a homosexual subculture in the nineteenth century. People began to see sexuality as an important aspect of identity and slowly and tentatively gay and lesbian subcultures began to emerge.

At the same time, and perhaps in response to the appearance of gay and lesbian subcultures, the punishment for sodomy was made more severe. In 1852, sodomy laws were revised, and the punishment was increased to a maximum of five years in prison. Unlike other European sodomy laws, the Austrian statute prohibited lesbian sexual activities as well as sexual relations between men.

Turn of the Twentieth Century Lesbian Culture

Hanna Hacker argues that Austrian lesbian history began in the late nineteenth century. At this time, she notes, many early Austrian feminists eschewed relationships with men and chose other women as their life partners.

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Top: Austria and neighboring countries.
Center: Adolf Wilbrandt, author of the first gay novel in German.
Above: A fountain in Vienna's Rathaus Park (City Hall Park). The park has been a favorite gay cruising area since the 1920s.

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