How Eurovision became a gay-friendly contest
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The LGBT community’s passion for the Eurovision Song Contest hardly began with Conchita Wurst’s triumph last year. The international TV and radio contest has long been embraced by gay, lesbian and transgender people tuned into its message of unity.
Drag queens, a lesbian kiss and a transgender champion are part of the official history of Eurovision, which is organising its 60th edition in Vienna on Saturday. Slowly, but surely, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi and transgender) community found a welcoming home in Europe’s annual musical extravaganza.
“Many of our most dedicated contest fans, those who follow Eurovision throughout the entire year, are from the LGBT community. This fact has not gone unnoticed,” Sietse Bakker, Eurovision’s event supervisor, told FRANCE 24 in a recent interview.
But the Dutchman said Eurovision’s wide fan base could hardly be defined by sexual orientation. “We want to produce great TV shows that appeal to the greatest number of people: No matter where they are from, no matter if they are men or women, young or old, in Europe or out, white or black, homosexual or straight,” Bakker insisted.
He pointed out that Eurovision remains a global event, watched by more than 180 million viewers worldwide, from Portugal to Azerbaijan, and even Australia, which was invited to participate in this year’s edition.
A ‘3D’ pioneer
Although the song contest is not designed to appeal specifically to the LGBT world, many say it projects the values of tolerance and diversity that are dear to them. Paul Barnes, a gay British man in his fifties, has been a fan for decades. “Eurovision is broadcast in 3D: dance, disco and divas. We like to dance, we like disco, we like divas,” Barnes said with a measure of self-ridicule. “Last year Conchina Wurst was the perfect diva for gay people. There’s the music, but there is also a flamboyancy that goes with it.”
Eurovision kicked off in the 1950s and 60s, with a mild-mannered and conventional repertoire of songs. However, the 1970s introduced disco and the genre’s eccentricity to the music contest. Eurovision adopted it, and never looked back.
Professor Brian Singleton, who holds the Samuel Beckett Chair of Drama and Theatre at Trinity College Dublin, and who wrote an article on the sociology of Eurovision for the Society of Queer Studies Journal in 2007, said gay men growing up in the 60s and 70s gravitated toward the event while watching it at home with their parents.
At a time when social convention told men to show extreme emotional restraint, Eurovision was a welcome breath of fresh air, according to Singleton. “Eurovision is full of emotion. All these songs about falling in and out of love, and of course it’s live TV, so things go wrong, adding to the excitement. Only one person wins, so it’s a great emotional experience,” he said.
“That’s the difference that made Eurovision so attractive. The glamour, the spectacle, it’s all those things that gay men invest in to get away from the norms of masculinity,” noted Singleton.
Window on the world
In the 60s and 70s Eurovision was also a rare window on the world for Europeans still largely isolated from one another. “You know, people growing up in that period, including myself, we only had national broadcasters. We only had access to one thing, one view of the world, one language. And one night a year, we could see people from other countries and other cultures and how different they were,” the scholar recalled.
Singleton, who remains a big Eurovision fan to this day, argues that the opportunity to see people on TV who were different helped gay men accept themselves as being outside the norm, and even to celebrate that difference – a process many gay men go through.
Shining a spotlight on diverse languages, styles and cultures of Europe – and the world – remains at the core of the contest today. “When you mix all these different cultures you almost automatically create an environment where being a bit different is accepted, where differences don’t matter,” Bakker said.
“The people who take part in Eurovision don’t see each other as gay or straight. It’s just one big melting pot of various different backgrounds, and being gay or straight is just part of the mix.”
From Dana to Conchita
Observers say that despite the climate of tolerance, Eurovision “came out” gradually, and the change started with audiences.
Gay men had already been organizing viewing parties for years, when the first Eurovision fan clubs with close LGBT links began cropping up in the 1980s. The trend would only become stronger in the decade to follow.
“In the late 90s, there was already this well established association between Eurovision and gay identities in terms of fandom,” said Catherine Baker, a historian at the University of Hull whose research focuses on the 20th century.
The year 1998 marked a change for the televised contest, one that would make evident its LGBT magnetism. For the edition held in Birmingham, England, organizers decided to place the studio audience next to the stage and in front of the cameras. “It was very obvious that [the audience] was composed mostly of gay men, it really sent a signal across Europe,” Singleton said.
Things were also changing on stage. In 1997, Icelandic pop singer Paul Oscar became Eurovision’s first openly gay contestant, although he didn’t win. The subsequent edition took things a step further as the Israeli transgender singer Dana International won the competition with the song “Diva”, a dancehall hit celebrating women from history and mythology. “This was the first time audiences had the opportunity to see a transgender woman be successful at anything,” said Baker.
“At the same time you have this newfound visibility in Eurovision, European political and legislative institutions are taking interest in LGBT equality as a value,” she added. While Dana International torpedoed conventions on television, lawmakers too began knocking down barriers for LGBT members at the workplace and the military, and opening civil unions for same-sex couples.
Politics not aside
Several memorable performances from members of the LGBT community would follow. In 2007, Serbia’s Marija Serifovic won the contest that year with the song “Molitva” or “prayer” in Serbian. Although officially heterosexual (Serifovic came out of the closet a few years after), she and her backup singers performed in male attire. “If you have a stage presentation with women in tuxedos holding hands, which is how the song was performed, there is definitely a subtext there to be read” said Baker.
The diversity of the LGBT community was brought to the fore with Conchita Wurst’s in 2014. The singer’s triumph was a first for a drag queen, but also for an openly gay man – Tom Neuwirth, the Austrian man behind the Conchita beard (surprisingly, not his own).
Eurovision prohibits contestants from making any kind of political statement during performances, but that rule does not apply to victory speeches, and the artists are well aware of it. Some performers have defied the ban, as was the case with Finnish singer Krista Siegfrids, who topped off her interpretation of the song “Marry Me” in 2013 by kissing one of her dancers, thus clearly taking sides in Europe’s heated political debates on gay marriage.
Conchita Wurst chose a more subtle approach last year. Accepting her award she said “This night is dedicated to all those who believe in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are united and we are unstoppable,” she said before thrusting her trophy into the air.
Her statement was a high-heel kick to her critics, notably Russian and Belarusian politicians, but also conveyed the message of unity that has been at the heart of the Eurovision contest since it began.