by Leander Milbrecht
Werner R. had a dream: to build a gay sauna in Larnaca, to give the community a home, to gradually expand the gay infrastructure – and to make Cyprus the new gay hotspot of the Mediterranean. But he did the calculation without taking into account the corrupt authorities and the Greek Orthodox Church.
“In court I sit alone. No one comes to support me – they are too afraid of being outed,” complains Werner R. The German got caught up in a crusade by the church and authorities against the queer community of Cyprus – because he has been running the country’s only gay sauna, the “Vinci Sauna”, for five years. Since October 2019 he has not been allowed to open it. The fight for the sauna means more than just making fast sex possible, it is rather the decision of a whole island: For progress, queer tourism and arriving in the 21st century – or for preserving the dogmas of a past time.
A Mediterranean paradise – but not for gays?
Cyprus lies in the eastern Mediterranean and is the third largest Mediterranean island after Sicily and Sardinia. It has around 1.12 million inhabitants – and is one of the sunniest countries in the world with an average of 320 days of sunshine a year. Since 1974, the island has been divided into the southern Republic of Cyprus, which under international law comprises the entire island, and the northern part under the control of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognised by Turkey. Between the two areas is the buffer zone, which is monitored by the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus.
In this zone, the so-called “Green Line”, lives Werner, who on the island is known only as Vinci. When we talk to him on the phone, he is sitting on his paved courtyard, half in the sun, half in the shade – under the canopy of leaves of a large tree, a Ficus Benjamini, as he tells us. Birds are chirping in the background. When he climbs up to the roof, he can see the Mediterranean in the distance, says Werner. Inbetween are palm trees and many small, sand-coloured houses with red roofs. A Mediterranean paradise.
For Werner R. and Iosif S., the move to the island five years ago was the fulfilment of a life-long dream. They wanted to help create a gay hotspot similar to Mykonos. The emigrants chose Larnaca, the second largest city in Cyprus, because there was an international airport, a gay club and, unlike in the capital Nicosia, no sauna yet. The best conditions to build something together with the owners of the other establishments, to create a gay scene for locals and tourists alike. But things turned out differently. The owners of the first sauna were already planning to return to Great Britain, and the gay club closed last spring after 15 years. Werner remembers:
“The handsome boys, the Mediterranean mentality and a great island. To create something gay from it – that was our motivation to turn our backs on Germany for good”.
Shortly before Christmas 2018, the dream of Cyprus as a gay hotspot finally became a nightmare. During a raid, police officers took dildos, videos and magazines showing naked men. Shortly afterwards a first charge of illegal publications followed – Werner’s lawyer filed an appeal. The police carried out further raids, but the operators were always able to present all the licenses. The end of the problem? It would too good. Back then, Werner had no idea how serious the authorities were about their crusade against the sauna.
When Werner and Iosif returned from Pride in Nicosia on June 1, 2019, a rude awakening followed: In an illegal raid, the police had completely destroyed the sauna. A week later they received a letter from the court: Restraining order, they were not allowed to open the sauna anymore. Why? Werner hasn’t quite understood that yet – and he believes that the city administration and the court feel the same way.
The sauna: More than just sex
“We were able to breathe a little gay life into the island, but couldn’t get past the corruption,” Werner sums up sadly. According to him, the Greek Orthodox Church has the country in its grip. The authorities do not support the queer community. Five times, Werner says, homophobic vandals have torn the rainbow flag from the roof of the sauna. Four times they were caught on camera – every face of the perpetrators can be seen. There were no arrests, the police did not even look at the footage. “Gay clubs simply won’t be helped,” Werner said sadly.
Cypriot society is still very conservative. “People lose their families if they publicly give themselves to gay life,” says Werner. “Many homosexuals are therefore not outed, but live in heterosexual marriages and have children – they could only go to fuck in secret.” In the sauna, the men were finally free. “Here they were allowed to be,” says Werner. “Touch men and talk to them”. “Flitzer” is what Werner and his regular customers call the young Cypriots who only spent a very short time in the sauna to relieve pressure while their families thought they were out for cigarettes. “They get in and out so quickly, you can hardly see them,” Werner laughs.
Cyprus has three and a half million tourists a year, and Werner estimates that half a million of them are gay. Besides locals, many of them also came to the “Vinci Sauna”. Since the sauna closed, the local gay community has nothing left. Surely some of them are now rolling their eyes. It is “only” a sauna, a place for anonymous meetings and sex. For many gays on Cyprus it is the rock in the surf. A place to drink a beer among like-minded people, meet people and take a deep breath … That’s all over since last autumn.
Corruption, lies and homophobia – damage around 50,000 euros
The sauna’s owner with a passion is convinced: The authorities were looking for a reason to close the place. Tried to drag him by the hair. To date, they have changed the charges four times – a joke from a legal point of view. After it was first stated that sauna activities were not allowed in a public building and Werner filed a complaint (after all, this was a private members’ club), the authorities claimed that the owner was not allowed to receive private visitors in his private rooms. Werner R. was explicitly named as the culprit. For what reason? “They made me out to be a perpetrator and forbade me private visits. In doing so they violated all human rights, especially the freedom of assembly”, the accused was horrified.
A legal odyssey followed, for which Werner has had to pay around €15,000 in legal fees to date. Again and again a new reason was sought to keep the sauna closed. In the end, it was said that the illegal raid was necessary because the facility was “prison-like”. But since the police officers entered the sauna without permission, the photos they took during the raid could not be presented as evidence. And: How do you know that they are prison-like buildings before you go in? “They manufacture something, anything, just to keep the shop closed,” says Werner R.
Werner and his partner have moved in the meantime so that they no longer live in the immediate vicinity of the sauna – so Werner can receive visitors again while he waits for the verdict. Iosif works in construction, Werner as a freelancer. They get along financially. In their free time, they ride their motorbikes around the island. For them life here is still worth all the trouble. “Nothing gets us back to Germany. Nothing”, Werner confirms. But they still miss the sauna.
Hope: Will Cyprus become a gay island after all?
For the city, it is now more than just a thorn in the side of public morality: “If I get justice, I’m out of my private crime – as soon as that happens, the city will have to pay me €50,000-60,000 in compensation for loss of income, lawyers’ fees and court fees,” Werner says. He is sure that the city wants to avoid this and therefore delayed the decision time and again. Finally, Werner even turned to the Supreme Court, the highest court in Cyprus. Only then would he be allowed to lodge an appeal with the European Court of Justice. The Supreme Court, however, referred the case back to the Regional Court in Larnaca for the time being – with the remark that the matter should be decided quickly.
The last court dates gave Werner back hope. As the officials became more and more entangled in contradictions, his lawyer is sure: Soon the sauna will be able to open again. Werner’s hope continues – so far that the fight for more tolerance on the island could soon bear fruit. Werner hopes that the authorities will realise that long, tough negotiations and penalties imposed by the EU could cause the country many costs and problems.
In addition, according to Werner, the Corona virus has caused the island immeasurable damage. He hopes that the Cypriots will finally turn to the world in a more open and liberal way – contrary to the church’s view. Both the Corona virus and his own situation could have positive after-effects – and make a virtue of necessity. Then perhaps soon also a social change will follow. Werner looks positively into the future:
“In order to reform the island as a safe and beautiful holiday destination again, the slightest positive changes are of enormous importance for the island’s infrastructure. So why not, together with Mykonos, give a warm welcome to the queer community”.
- www.loganmccree.tv: www.loganmccree.tv
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