Viewpoint: How the European LGBT Community Took Eurovision to its Heart
Published: 08 May 2018 Tags: Eurovision, LGBT By James Harris
How the European LGBT Community Took Eurovision to its Heart
With the first of the semi-finals due to kick off in Lisbon tonight, James Harris looks at how the Longest Running Annual TV Music Competition has become a favourite of LGBT communities in Europe and beyond.
Love it or hate it the 63rd Eurovision Song Contest will kick off on 8 May 2018, and end with the Grand Final on Saturday, May 12th, taking place for the first time in Lisbon, Portugal.
According to some, it’s uncool to enjoy Eurovision – their loss! To admit liking it can elicit anything from gleeful squeals of enthusiastic agreement to outright bewilderment. Generally speaking, however, for LGBT communities in particular it is a safe space in which to proudly declare without fear of ridicule your love for sequins and shamelessly bad singing, Polish maids suggestively milking, and fit Norwegians fiddling.
But Eurovision wasn’t always so synonymous with the idea of LGBT Christmas.
Perhaps it was the uniquely diverse nature of the event that made the incorporation of Eurovision into LGBT culture inevitable. It has always been a colourful, exuberant celebration of variety and difference; a perfect environment in which to welcome the LGBT community. And yes, I’m aware it’s stereotyping, but the camp, cheesy music and extravagant spectacle drew us in and we’ve never left since.
Here’s a few key moments in Eurovision's history that show how the world’s campest song contest has become such a prominent feature on the LGBT cultural calendar:
Need I say more?
First Ever Trans Contestant (1998)
Israeli contestant Dana International quickly became an LGBT icon following her win, and stood as a strong symbol of defiance against religious intolerance. According to Billboard.com:
“The Orthodox religious community threatened to topple the government over the transsexual, who they described as ‘an abomination.’" But Dana, in her grace and equanimity, simply responded: “I want to send my critics a message of forgiveness: try to accept me and the kind of life I lead. I am what I am.”
Lesbian Love (2007)
Though she didn’t come out publicly until 2013, Serbian singer Marija Šerifović played with gender stereotypes and nodded to lesbianism with her squadron of all-girl backing vocalists, who frequently caressed her. The performance ended with her holding another woman’s hand. Their point of contact revealed a painted red heart.
A Gay Drag Queen Rose to Victory (2014)
Conchita Wurst’s striking image and defiant stance amidst the controversy over Russian state-endorsed homophobia attracted support and garnered attention even before the competition began. According to Teen Vogue, “Wurst addressed Putin directly: ‘We are unstoppable.’" In Belarus and Russia, social conservatives filed a petition not to show Conchita’s performance, which would turn Eurovision into “a hotbed of sodomy.” Sounds fun.
Her song entry “Rise Like a Phoenix” was a bold, rousing pride anthem preaching perseverance in the face of discrimination and oppression. Her refusal to conform to rigid, binary gender norms by way of her ‘ambiguous’ appearance, challenged people’s overly-simplistic notions of gender.
But her appearance isn’t really ‘ambiguous’ at all; she wore her apparent contradiction where all the world could see it, and stood as an extremely prominent symbol of LGBT pride and gender fluidity. Instead of seeking limited acceptance by presenting herself as unequivocally feminine and walking onstage clean-shaven, she refused to pretend that she was anything less than who she was; biologically/physically male, but at heart a woman, and that need not be a contradiction.
“Homophobe of the Decade” Redeems Himself (2017)
Despite the outrage in response to homophobic comments made in 2005, Croatian entry Jacques Houdek competed at Eurovision 2017 – themed “Celebrate Diversity” with its obvious nod to gay rights. He launched a campaign celebrating friendship, giving interviews to media outlets with large gay followings. His performance of “My Friend” was bonkers yet endearing, and ended with him standing beneath an immense digital rainbow; many read this as a statement of reconciliation, an apology aimed at Croatia’s gay community.
Platform for Protest
Recent years in particular have seen the Eurovision stage become a platform for more than just singing, and contestants have protested against hate through song. For example in 2013, Finland’s entry Krista (a straight ally) kissed another woman live on stage in protest over Finland’s failure to extend equal rights to gay people.
Many eastern European countries affected by homophobic laws/attitudes, (particularly those influenced by Russian prejudice e.g. Ukraine) have been put under the spotlight due to their participation in the competition. When Azerbaijan hosted Eurovision in 2012, the country's troubling LGBT rights record was placed under scrutiny. According to TIME:
“Religious extremists threatened to kill homosexual visitors and to disrupt the song festival." But the show went ahead anyway, thankfully without disruption.
LGBT Eurovision fans 1: Party-poopers 0.
Eurovision is much more than just a daft bit of camp fun. It is a unique, warm, generous, uninhibitedly heartfelt unification of European nations that celebrates diversity and love through shamelessly ludicrous, flamboyant spectacle and sentimental song. Ideal conditions for the flourishing of fabulousness.
I hope it lasts forever!