Curious J�

2.22.2009

By Ilya Marritz

'He wasn't gay!' says Edith Haislinger, a middle-aged woman in an ankle-length red skirt, selling woolens at an open-air market in Klagenfurt. She claims she knew Haider personally for 20 years.

'How do I know he wasn't gay?' Haislinger asks, lighting a cigarette and jabbing it in the air. 'If it was true, someone would have come out and proven it by now!'

But he was in a gay bar on the last night of his life'

'He went to lots of places!' Haislinger retorts. 'He went to old-age homes. I'm sure he'd have gone to lesbian bars too. He was always going places, he was always close to the people.'

Haislinger and other Haider supporters believe the gay rumors are the echoes of baseless election-season whisper campaigns.

But in Stadtkr'mer, where he was an occasional visitor, the opposite view prevails.

'He liked them young. Twenty-five years old, then -- pffft! -- the end,' says Markus Ren' Einicher, a sturdy, fauxhawked 23-year-old who was a co-organizer of Schreuder's gay-bar hop.

What about Petzner, at 27? Was he the One?

Einicher flattens his palms and holds them perhaps 10 inches apart. 'That's what he liked about Petzner,' Einicher says.

'I asked Haider, would he ever live openly,' says Michael Neuss, a Roman Catholic priest who is a regular at Stadtkr'mer and looks like the younger brother of Osgood Fielding III from Some Like It Hot.

'He said to me, 'If Germany were to get a gay governor, then Austria could have one too,' ' Neuss recalls. (Technically, the gay mayors of the city-states of Berlin and Hamburg are equal to governors.)

A man who gives his name only as Robert, Neuss's colleague from the Catholic priesthood, demurs when asked about Haider, passing the question on to Patrick, a 24-year-old member of Haider's political party. Patrick has bedroom eyes and a clean-cut appearance that sets him apart from the bar's other patrons.

Was Haider gay? Patrick grins and brushes the question aside.

Is he himself gay? He lights a cigarette. 'Of course.'

Why did Haider surround himself with so many handsome young men? Patrick would rather talk about the need to abolish bilingual street signs in Austria's border regions -- one of Haider's favorite bugaboos.

The Alliance for Austria's Future also declined comment on Haider's sexuality. A spokesman says the party opposes discrimination against gays, but also opposes gay marriage or partnership (Austria has neither).

But Stefan Petzner, reached on a cell phone, told Out categorically that he's not gay, and that his words had been twisted by the foreign press. Lebensmensch, he said, was meant more in the sense of 'best friend,' not lover.

Petzner sounded pleased to receive a phone call from an American magazine -- until he learned its name.

'I have nothing against gay people or gay magazines, but I can't comment,' he said. 'It wouldn't be fair to Mr. Haider. He can't respond.'

Reckoning the emotional widower a poor choice for family capo, the Alliance for Austria's Future has reassigned Petzner. Several weeks after the crash, he was replaced as party chief and is now doing campaign communications (he's considered a gifted ad man off-camera). Keeping Petzner on a short leash, it's surely hoped, will induce a sort of collective amnesia, and allow the party to rebuild.

But the Alliance for Austria's Future was more a cult of personality than a political party. Without its charismatic core, it's hard to imagine the network of enablers and admirers winning many elections.

And there is the most impressive thing about Haider: He achieved fame and success, in part, by building a movement of potential sexual partners. At times, he seemed to be daring the world to call him gay, though every time he was asked the question directly by journalists, he denied it. Unlike Sen. Larry Craig or Rep. Mark Foley, J'rg Haider didn't resort to public bathrooms or icky instant messages. Comely young men swarmed to him like ants to a picnic.

The son of unrepentant Nazi party members, Haider knew how to play on old fascist themes of masculine youth and vigor. Haider's sister, Ursula Haubner, offers insight into Haider's early development in a book rushed out after his death. She writes that in the summer of 1968, when Haider was 18, he was a big hit in a ladies' hair salon while an opera festival was going on in town. Haider 'washed the hair of the women and the stars with youthful abandon -- including scalp massages. His work wasn't always perfect, but since J'rg wasn't stingy with compliments or charm, he made up for his deficiencies. The size of [his] tips reflected his disarming ability to make small talk, and [the owner] had one of her best seasons.'

Haider understood that the Austrian public, like an adoring mother, would always see the J'rg it wanted to see.

Schreuder says it was 'annoying' to watch Haider standing blithely in the closet doorway. He believes Haider's death and the ensuing drama have done absolutely nothing to advance discussion of gay rights. Meanwhile, blogs peddle wild theories about the 'real' cause of Haider's death, including the possible involvement of Israel's Mossad.

For Krickler, Haider's death was much, much more prosaic. 'Even the end was like in a B movie,' he says. 'Sorry -- to drive drunk and die in a car crash?'

'The only thing that would have helped [change people's view of Haider],' says Krickler, 'is if Haider would declare 'OK, I'm bisexual' or 'I'm gay. I have sex with men.' That would have made a difference. But he never dared.'

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