“We are here in London, a city that has hosted the contest four times. And if, from the top of your head, you can name the specific years that happened, well then you know you are a true homosexual–sorry, Eurovision fan.” Those were the words of Swedish comedian Petra Mede, host of the BBC’s 2015 Eurovision Greatest Hits spectacular. The Hammersmith Apollo erupted in laughter, cheering Petra’s hyperbolic punchline.
As is a key ingredient of comedy, Petra’s comment contained a tinge of truth. It’s no secret the Eurovision Song Contest has strong ties to the LGBT+ community. Over the years, Eurovision has introduced the world to countless queer icons: Austria’s Conchita Wurst, Netherlands’ Duncan Laurence and Serbia’s Marija Šerifović to name a few. This Pride month, there is a question to answer: where did the queer fascination with the all-singing, all-dancing show come from?
Pride Month: How Eurovision queered the continent
“Rise like a phoenix
Out of the ashes seeking rather than vengeance
Conchita Wurst, “Rise Like a Phoenix”
The brainchild of Swiss journalist Marcel Bezençon, the Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne, as it was then known, was designed to test the limits of modern television. The show saw vocalists from seven countries compete in a high-calibre display of songwriting excellence. Marcel’s vision succeeded, simultaneously unifying a post-war Europe and creating a new television format that to this day continues to advance live broadcast technology. But behind the scenes, something else was brewing — a cultural phenomenon the EBU could have never predicted.
The song contest was one of the first of its kind to exist on an international level. Before Eurovision, most international competition revolved around sport and, to a lesser degree, politics. Rallies of fans would cheer on their home team at the Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup, the Ashes test cricket series. Local pageants, talent shows, and national showcases — i.e. Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival — had large followings, but international competitive anything bar sport didn’t exist. Such arenas were dominated by cisgender, heterosexual men, competing to best their opponents through brute strength and to achieve the pinnacle of human fitness.
But Eurovision offered something different. The competitive and patriotic elements of international contests remained, but the playing field changed dramatically. Now, judges were looking for other types of talent: vocal skill, performance ability and composition prowess were the most desirable qualities. Incoming, performing arts professionals — and with them, the queer community.
Hidden pioneers: LGBTQ+ visibility at classic Eurovision
“But the hour will strike
Less difficult nights, and I could love you without talking about it in town
I promise, It’s written”
Jean-Claude Pascal, “Nous les amoureux”
Years before the tidal wave of rainbow flags that fill the Eurovision venues of today, classic song contests of years gone by showcased queer themes, even covertly. French singer Jean-Claude Pascal, won the 1961 contest for Luxembourg with “Nous les amoureux”, a song embedded with the story of a same-sex couple who are unable to love free from discrimination. This song spoke a subtle message to the queer community, at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in many parts of Europe. By proxy, Jean-Claude Pascal became an invisible pioneer of LGBTQ+ rights.
As the decades passed, Eurovision transitioned from a blacktie and ballgown event to an all-out glitz and glamour spectacle. Queer themes still operated in the undertones, as the contest continued to challenge the norms of competition and rivalry. The Netherlands’ Milly Scott, remembered as the first Black artist to grace the Eurovision stage, drew inspiration from nightclub culture and the cabaret scene with her fully-choreographed “Fernando en Filippo” performance. Meanwhile, Ireland’s king of Eurovision Johnny Logan, singing openly about the pain of love lost, showed a side of masculinity missing from other competitive arenas — a man that is not weakened by but bolstered by his vulnerabilities, emotions, and compassion.
Viva la Diva: Queerness in the face of adversity
“And when she cries, Diva is an angel
When she laughs, she’s a devil
She is all beauty and love”
Dana International, “Diva”
The 43rd edition of the contest in 1998 marked a significant cultural shift. Israeli participant Dana International became the first openly transgender contestant, and went on to win the contest with her track “Diva”. Her song quickly became a LGBTQ+ anthem heard at Pride celebrations around Europe.
Dana’s victory came at a time long before mainstream society had the acceptance of transgender rights on its radar. Only in 2019 did the World Health Organisation declassify being transgender as a mental disorder. Her presence as a proud openly trans woman on an international platform sparked a revolution at Eurovision, opening the doors for a myriad of queer personalities in the years to come: in 2007, Danish drag queen DQ; in 2019, French influencer Bilal Hassani; in 2021, makeup artist Nikkie de Jager — who became the first transgender host of the contest.
Despite an overwhelmingly positive queer presence, LGBTQ+ themes at Eurovision are still met with a level of animosity. In Europe, Turkey’s TRT cited Conchita Wurst’s 2014 victory as a reason for their withdrawal from the contest, meanwhile the now-suspended Belarusian broadcaster BTRC submitted an entry to Eurovision 2021 which included suggestively homophobic language.
Elsewhere, China’s Mango TV censored Ireland’s Eurovision 2018 contestant Ryan O’Shaughnessy’s “Together” performance, which featured two male dancers portraying a same-sex couple. China’s broadcaster refused to air the performance in line with their policy against promotion of “non-traditional” lifestyles. The EBU made swift sanctions against Mango TV, revoking their broadcasting rights and claiming: “[Censorship] is not in line with the EBU’s values of universality and inclusivity and our proud tradition of celebrating diversity through music.”
However sinister these actions may be, censorship and hate speech did not damage the queer spirit of Eurovision. The contemporary Eurovision not only welcomes queerness but celebrates the LGBTQ+ community in its full glory, as performers grace the stage their true unapologetic selves.
Into the future: A new age of LGBTQ+ celebration
“Make us equal, legal, and heard
Would you rather see us suffer
Then open up your mind and stop being so ignorant”
Tone Sekelius, “My Way”
At the modern contest, acceptance is the norm and allyship is commonplace, even from the most unexpected sources. In 2021, as Russia’s Manizha performer her radical anthem “Russian Woman”, the Tajikistan-born singer featured videos of a drag performer and a transmasculine person in her mosaic-like LED backdrop. In a world where transgender and gender-non-conforming people are abhorrently antagonised, such boldness — from a performer whose country outwardly opposed the so-called promotion of LGBTQ+ lifestyles — was recognised and celebrated by fans around the world.
Since Dana International, four winners — Serbia’s Marija Šerifović, Austria’s Conchita Wurst, Netherlands’ Duncan Laurence and two members of Italy’s Måneskin — have been openly queer. The waves also ripple through national selection shows. At Melodi Grand Prix 2020, Lisa Vassilieva bid to sing “I Am Gay” for Norway at Eurovision. Then in 2022, Melodifestivalen welcomed Tone Sekelius, the first openly transgender contestant to compete at the Swedish pre-selection show.
Next year, Eurovision will celebrate its 67th edition following Ukraine’s historic win with Kalush Orchestra in Turin, Italy. But now, there is more than just music to celebrate. As the EBU calls on millions of fans to Share The Moment, Open Up and Celebrate Diversity, LGBTQ+ themes and performers now make up a greater slice of Eurovision contender pool than ever before. The song contest will continue to serve as a platform to amplify and bolster the LGBTQ+ community. Eurovision is, always has been and always will be a space for queer voices.
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