Much has been said over the past twelve months about the legislative changes in Russian and the increasingly homophobic laws and restrictions that have been instigated by Vladimir Putin’s government for the—supposed—good of the education and development of Russian, and the rest of Europe’s, youth. But Russia isn’t alone in it’s ideas about gay rights and their place—or lack there of—in society. Those in power spread their hands around the globe centuries ago and put a stranglehold around the throats of those who were different and those who refused to conform.
Post Stonewall the Pride movement has made who strides in achieving equality for huge swathes of people in the LGBTQ community, and for that we, in those forward thinking places, can now live safely the way we want to without fear of legal persecution. The map below shows where same sex relationships are legal/illegal and where we have even equal marriage rights. As far as I’m concerned, there is far too much of this map still coloured in illegal persecution or non-recognition for my liking…but one step at a time, right?
The Eurovision Song Contest was dreamt up in the 1950’s as a way of reuniting war torn Europe and helping people move forward, learning about different culture’s through the medium of music. The first contest was help in 1956, and every year since. As relationships in Europe have fluctuated over the years there have been times when the contest has been seen as little more than a joke, other’s—during conflicts between European countries—where the tension has been palpable, and the victories have become increasingly politically motivated since the break up of the USSR and the inclusion of the Baltic states to the contest. It’s also camper than Christmas, but believe me this is all part of what we love about Eurovision.
It started as a political statement—to unite a continent that was divided—and it feels fitting that this year’s contest has regained some of that early sentiment for the rights of the LGBTQ community across Europe, and the world.
There were two standout events, besides the bearded lady winning, that have made it blatantly obvious that this was the underlying tension to this year’s contest. One was the crowd’s reaction to the Russian entry, and indeed the Russian judges when the scores were collected at the end of the show, but the most telling to me was the way the votes were reflected by the judges votes and the public votes from countries such as Russia, Belarus, and Armenia. Some of the most, if not the most, conservative countries in Europe.
The judging system in Eurovision is fairly complicated but each country votes for their favourite song—not including their own entry–based on a public score and a judges. The judges are officials, and dignitaries…ie, politico’s with axe’s to grind and reputations and public offices to maintain. The judges from Russia gave Conchita’s song—Rise Like A Phoenix—a very low score while Belarus and Armenia award nothing at all. The Armenian public vote placed her second, the Russian third and the Belarussian fourth. High scores from Western European countries as well as some in the East, such as Georgia and Ukraine, Scandinavia, Greece, and Israel led to a resounding win for the drag act with a song that seemed to hold a very significant message.
Upon being awarded the trophy, Wurst held it aloft and proclaimed “We are unity and we are unstoppable”. She later confirmed to reporters that this was a message meant for politicians who opposed LGBT rights, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Later, she expanded on the message of tolerance which she had championed at Eurovision: “It was not just a victory for me but a victory for those people who believe in a future that can function without discrimination and is based on tolerance and respect.”
While the Austrian President Heinz Fischer asserted that it was “not just a victory for Austria, but above all for diversity and tolerance in Europe”.
Not every reaction to her win has been so positive. In Russia, while the song “Rise Like a Phoenix” topped the internet download chart two days after the competition. Fans of Conchita and LGBT rights activists applied to hold a Conchita Wurst March of Bearded Women and Men through Moscow on 27 May, a date commemorating the 21st anniversary since the legalisation of same-sex sexual activity in the country. Officials from the city’s security department rejected the request, citing a wish to “respect morality in the education of the younger generation” and to prevent violent clashes between marchers and anti-gay demonstrators.
Criticism continued to be made following Conchita’s victory. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin posted on Twitter that the result “showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl.” Another Russian politician, the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, proclaimed “There’s no limit to our outrage. It’s the end of Europe”, later adding that “Fifty years ago the Soviet army occupied Austria. We made a mistake in freeing Austria. We should have stayed.” The Russian Orthodox Church condemned Conchita’s victory, with Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the church’s information department, describing it as “yet one more step in the rejection of the Christian identity of European culture”, reflecting an attempt to “reinforce new cultural norms”. A social media campaign involved Russian men shaving off their beards in protest at Conchita’s win. Several church leaders in the Balkans asserted that the May 2014 flooding in the region was “divine punishment” from God for Conchita’s victory.
I’m no expert on these things, but to me, the voting of the public doesn’t seem to be reflective of the opinions of those in power in the ultra-conservative countries of Europe. But this is a song competition, right? Not real life, right? But everything starts somewhere, and every little step forward in raising awareness and knowledge is a good thing, right?
The UK’s Eurovision commentator Graham Norton—a self described Irish puff—commented on the socio-political significance of Conchita’s win: “it seems like Eurovision has done something that matters just a little bit”.
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