It only took a couple hours on a train to travel from Vienna to Bratislava, Slovakia, but it felt like a million miles. During the Cold War, Slovakia was one half of communist Czechoslovakia; though so close to the relative freedom of Austria, they were blocked from experiencing it. The national border is even closer to Bratislava than Vienna – one couple I met who lived high up in a large apartment building could point to lights from their balcony that were in Austria. They could literally see across the Iron Curtain from their window. Close enough to throw a rock – or better yet a communist – but during the Cold War they wouldn’t have been able to travel across it.
The huge gulf that exists between two places so close geographically is also a stark reminder of the legacy of communism on the LGBTQ community. Vienna is mostly a comfortable place for gay people; Slovakia has one of the worst records on the issue in the European Union.
In February 2015 a referendum to create a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and adoption failed only because the voter turnout was too low to be legally binding. They had to have a turnout of 50% and only got 21%. But of those who voted, over 90% voted for it. (It’s difficult to know, though, how many Slovaks actually supported it, since LGBTQ activists encouraged their supporters to stay home and not vote to ensure that the turnout was under the 50% needed.)
Though now a poor area, Bratislava certainly had its glory days, as made evident by the large castle on the nearby hill. (Another hill, another castle; I swear they’re like McDonald’s around here.) During the Habsburg Empire, Bratislava was temporarily the capital and after that was still the location of the royal coronation for centuries. It was where queens came to be crowned, like a medieval RuPaul’s Drag Race. (Ba-dum-ch.)
As for gay businesses, there are only a few. There’s only one gay dance club, which is supposedly a Bel Ami boy hangout, though I didn’t see any as far as I’m aware. There is also a gay café, some other gay-friendly spots, and a gay sauna.
It’s interesting to me that they have a sauna. It usually has to be a larger city with several bars before somebody thinks to make a sauna. But hey, if they’ve found enough business to stay open, they must have found a good niche… so to speak. Maybe it’s instead of a bar? Just cut the pretext, I guess.
There’s a really impressive community center and organization here in Bratislava called Qcentrum. For such a small country, the organization is amazingly active. They participate in advocacy, organize Pride, offer counseling (psychological and legal), run a center and library, have online services for rural LGBTQs, etc. I was really impressed with what they’ve been able to put together.
I really feel that Bratislava is underrated. The old town area is just as charming as the old town of any other Central European city (though smaller than some, of course). And I love being able to just glance over and see a beautiful castle nearby. Maybe it’s the queen in me.