Rainbow Flags in Vienna But Dark Clouds Everywhere

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the mixed pleasures of being an academic is the opportunity to teach and conduct research at other universities, often in foreign countries.  Although some outsiders might view these as little more than junkets, the work is not easy by academic standards -- that is, it is even more difficult to explain U.S. tax law to foreign students than to explain it to U.S. students -- and the travel itself can become a grind.

I am, of course, fully aware that these are the quintessence of what we now think of as First-World Problems, but even at best the "working" part of these supposed working vacations does feel like something short of leisure.  In any case, such visits achieve both scholarly and institutional goals, with research being advanced by collaborating with foreign scholars in person and with our universities anxious to have us "fly the flag" elsewhere to enhance reputations.

This is all a long way of explaining that I am currently back in Vienna, Austria, for my fourth visit in the last nine years.  I have just completed teaching a course to masters-level students, and I led a research seminar to doctoral students, at Wirtschafts Universitat Wien (or WU, the University of Business and Economics in Vienna).  As always, the students were engaged and impressive.

During and after my visits in 2009 and 2013 (but not, for some reason, in 2015), I wrote a number of columns here on Dorf on Law and elsewhere on Vienna-related topics, focusing in particular on the superior public transportation system here.  (See, for example, here and here.)  With my adopted home city of Washington -- which has the second-worst automobile traffic in the country, second only to Los Angeles -- still awaiting a connection between its inadequate Metro system and Dulles International Airport (a connection that was scheduled to be completed this year but is now hoped for in 2020), and with the plan to reintroduce a system of street cars now all but abandoned, the contrast with Vienna is as stark as ever.  And transit fares are still much lower in Vienna.

In the remainder of this column, however, I want to focus on some similarities between these two capital cities and their respective countries.  The entry point for that discussion is gay rights, which was brought to mind by the 2018 version of the Vienna Pride and Rainbow Parade this past Saturday.

Vienna's old city (the home to the buildings that were built during Austria's imperial eras) is surrounded by a "ring" road that is by no means a Beltway.  (There are highways here, of course, but they are farther from the city's center.)  For the parade, the ring was closed to traffic and became a rolling festival that went on for hours.

In some ways, the parade here resembled the legendary annual Halloween parades in Greenwich Village in New York City, with people having a wonderful time reveling in extreme behavior and wild costumes, which is a predictable reaction by people who have been repressed and then take joy in the opportunity to break free.

Here in Vienna, however, some of the parade floats also represented groups that were not what one would see at a NYC pride parade, including political parties (even center-right parties) whose floats were amusingly anomalous because they were filled with very staid people who were nonetheless publicly supporting gay pride.

Another notable group of marchers was "Diplomats for Gay Rights," which included foreign service officers carrying flags from all of their countries.  No stars-and-stripes were to be seen, however, so the Trump White House can rest easy!

In addition to the parade itself, there were festival sites set up with music, concessions, and family fun.  There were also stickers and buttons with pro-gay rights messages.  In a testament to the imperfect ability to translate nuances between German and English, one of the favorite stickers simply said "homolobby," a term that would probably be viewed suspiciously in the U.S. but was unambiguously positive here.

And the very public endorsement of gay rights is not limited to this annual event.  A few years ago, Vienna changed hundreds of its walk/don't walk signals to depict female couples and male couples in love, as shown in the images that I have copied below.  The city is also flying the gay pride flag on its streetcars, alongside their national flag.
[Image from The Telegraph]
As a person who is fully committed to gay rights, this has all been a delight to behold.  As sometimes happens when Americans travel abroad and leave Trump's insanity behind, I gushed to friends in emails: "It's so nice to be in a civilized country!"  (That sentiment is also supported by the notable vegan-friendliness of this city.)  But as I think about it, that is not actually what is going on here.

In fact, for all of the other differences between Austria and the United States (two very rich countries, only one of which has embraced truly progressive economic policy, for example), it strikes me that the examples of support for gay rights that I have witnessed here are different from what one sees in the U.S. at most as relatively small matters of degree.

After all, my first thought when watching Saturday's parade was, as I mentioned above, how similar it was to New York's gay pride events.  And certainly one could imagine seeing such events (perhaps not quite so large, but still impressive in their own ways) in other U.S. cities, obviously including San Francisco but also in most large and many mid-sized American cities.  Even Washington, which continues to chafe under congressional Republicans' meddling in our home rule, again hosted its own gay pride event earlier this month.

Even so, I do not imagine that any American cities would change over to the traffic signals that Vienna has adopted, and that does tell us something.  In particular, the Christian Right is much stronger in the U.S., which ends up having an impact even in the secular cities.

As The Washington Post reported today, for example, right-wing evangelicals are in notably large numbers not critical of Trump's inhumane (and un-Christian) policy of ripping children away from their parents at the border.  These self-styled Christians' silence is explained by "what is perhaps the biggest driving force in the diverging attitudes toward the border crisis: culture war. A desire not to be on the same side as secular, socially liberal forces that to many are by far the biggest threat to America."

Even more bluntly, The Post's writers note: "For many conservative Christians, the brutal headlines of children torn from hysterical parents are weighed against other concerns, chief among them what social conservatives call religious liberty regarding issues of marriage and abortion."  Even though the public salience of same-sex marriage has plummeted in the past few years (post-Obergefell), Trump's most fervent supporters are still ready to trade everything to return to a time when they could attempt to control women's bodies and to dictate everyone's sexual activity.

What about Austria?  Like much of Europe, this country is decidedly more secular than the U.S.  It does, however, suffer from the rumblings of authoritarianism that Trump represents on our side of the Atlantic.  Austria's presidency (a ceremonial role and thus a nationally elected post of symbolic importance) was nearly won by a scary right-wing party in 2016, and of course nearby countries including Hungary and Poland are well on the path toward rejecting pluralist democracies.

In the U.S., the Red State/Blue State divide has been superseded by a city/non-city divide, with even places like Birmingham, Alabama electing progressives to office.  Indeed, the original "bathroom bill" controversy arose out of Charlotte, North Carolina, where the state's right-wing (and heavily gerrymandered) state legislature overrode its largest city's residents' decision to pass an anti-repressive law.

It appears that something very similar is happening in Europe, where the cities are decidedly secular and socially progressive while the non-cities are filled with people who fear the unknown.  And I do mean "unknown" in the sense that the people who reject pluralism are the least likely people actually to know anyone whom they are rejecting.

The Brexit vote in the U.K., for example, was notable for how the areas that voted "leave" had virtually no foreign migrants.  The U.S. areas that most fervently believe Republicans' lies about immigrants (including lies not just from Trump but from supposed moderates like Jeb Bush, who supported admitting only Christian refugees from Syria) are similarly demonstrating the opposite of the old adage that "familiarity breeds contempt."

There are scary trends everywhere we look.  Who knows how long it might be before people will quietly decide not to attend pride parades for fear of being targeted by repressive governments (and other hateful bullies)?  As pessimistic as that sounds, events like Saturday's parade in Vienna cannot help but make open-hearted people everywhere feel optimistic about a possible future that leaves hate behind.