By Carla Diot
On May 23rd, 2015, millions of people tuned in to watch the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest. The song competition, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, brings countries from both inside and outside of Europe to present performances hand-selected by each competing country. The final brought 27 countries together to compete for a trophy and the opportunity to host the competition the next year. Receiving 365 points total, Sweden emerged victorious, with its energetic and uplifting performance of “Heroes,” by Måns Zelmerlöw.
The song contest was initially conceived as a light-hearted means of bringing countries together after the divisive and destructive World War II. Countries who joined the European Broadcasting Union were eligible to participate, including countries outside of Europe’s geographic borders, leading to entries from Morocco, Turkey, and newcomer Australia. However, with its 60th anniversary, it seems appropriate for the European based song contest to return to its roots by honoring the theme “Building Bridges.” The theme is timely, given the state of Europe in 2015. The theme comes at a time where Greece and Great Britain’s possible exits from the European Union have become common points of speculation among the European press, and the European Union is fighting to keep those bridges from burning. Furthermore, instability in Ukraine has inflamed tensions between Russia and the European Union, causing Ukraine to withdraw from the 2015 edition.
While Eurovision is seen as a campy celebration that has brought viewers dancing babushkas, monsters singing metal, and an Ukrainian disco ball, it has also been considered a significant indicator of the political conflicts rocking Europe. Songs with political messages are explicitly banned from Eurovision, but countries often use song titles or other symbols to evoke political messages. The most recent example of this comes from Armenia, which has launched a campaign for political recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The discourse on the recognition of the genocide seeped into the Eurovision contest after the Armenian entry for this year was forced to change the name of its song from “Don’t Deny” to “Face the Shadow.” This was due to accusations from Turkey and Azerbaijan that the song title was a direct reference to their denial of the Armenian genocide. The official music video also garnered controversy for featuring images of individuals in World War I attire disappearing. The group performing the song, Genealogy, includes artists who are reportedly descendants of survivors of the genocide. The group, as well as the head of the Armenian Eurovision delegation, have denied the song’s political involvement, stating instead that its themes of genealogy and family instead focus on love and unity. Regardless, the performance was controversial, and Armenia was awarded only 22 points (compared to Sweden’s victory, consisting of 365 points total).
One of the characteristics of Eurovision has been its inclusion of LGBT audiences and performers. A first milestone for Eurovision was transgender singer Dana International’s performance in 1998. Her performance of the song “Diva” dominated the contest, as she secured a victory of 172 points. Last year’s contest saw the victory of drag queen Conchita Wurst. Overnight, Conchita Wurst, né Thomas Neuwirth, became a sensation, being invited to return to Eurovision to perform. Wurst was also able to use her fame to launch a political platform, addressing the European Parliament on the subject of discrimination across Europe. She was also invited to perform at the United Nations Office in Vienna. The timing of Wurst’s victory was poignant, considering that it came in the midst of debate over Russia’s law banning the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships, a law that was interpreted as clearly targeting the LGBT population. Even after Wurst’s rise to stardom, she faced opposition from the Russian government. A parade honoring Wurst organized by Russian fans was banned by the Russian government, who argued that the parade would result in clashes between activists and their opponents. Subsequently, speaking in Saint Petersburg, President Putin claimed that while Wurst had the right to live as she pleased, her manner of portraying herself was aggressive and against traditional values.
The controversy over Russia’s anti-LGBT law and further debate over inclusive rights for LGBT populations across Europe continued to make its presence known in Eurovision’s 2015 contest. In Vienna, the city celebrated its tolerance by installing traffic lights that displayed images of gay and lesbian couples ahead of the contest. Wurst returned to Eurovision as a co-host, inciting another round of criticism from Russian politicians. When Polina Gagarina, the Russian entry, posted an Instagram photo posing with Wurst during the semifinals, she faced backlash from Vitaly Milonov, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg and anti-gay activist who argued that Gagarina had no right to speak for Russia.
The contest itself attempted to discard the anti-gay controversy, installing sound reduction technology in order to prevent booing of Gagarina’s performance. This came after Russia’s entry, the Tolmachevy Sisters, were booed during their performance in 2014. This year, Gagarina’s performance was immensely popular, securing 303 points. Despite the stunning results, hosts reminded the audience not to boo Russia, by stating that the results were about the music, as opposed to the politics. The contest continued to include symbols of acceptance, with Lithuania’s act including same-sex kisses during their performance. Although same-sex acts have been legal since 1993, the move was seen as progress towards acceptance of LGBT populations in Lithuania.
This year’s Eurovision was incredibly competitive, with Sweden, Russia, and Italy going head to head against one another. In the end, Sweden secured a victory with Måns Zelmerlöw’s performance of “Heroes.” The victory was seen as controversial among LGBT circles, however, as they had noted that Zelmerlöw was responsible for homophobic comments in the past, including an infamous appearance on a cooking show, where he deemed homosexuality abnormal. Zelmerlöw has since apologized for the comments, and demonstrated his support for the gay community through acts such as hosting events specifically for the LGBT community. In his acceptance of the Eurovision trophy, Zelmerlöw thanked his fans in an inclusive speech, stating in reference to his song that “we are all heroes, no matter who we love, who we are, or what we believe in”. Regardless, his victory stirred debate among LGBT circles.
Since its inception, Eurovision has developed into a safe-space for the European LGBT community. Europe has since seen a positive movement towards the protection of rights for sexual and gender minorities. In April, a groundbreaking law came into effect in Malta that recognized gender identity as an inherent part of a person. This provided transgender and genderqueer people with procedures that would allow them to change their gender identity on government documents. In the same month, the Council of Europe passed a resolution on transgender rights, encouraging members of the council to pass laws that would protect transgender individuals from hate crimes, provide them with adequate health care services, and allow them the opportunity to have their gender recognized by the state. Most recently, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage via a public referendum, with sixty-two per cent of voters supporting the initiative. Although these can all be seen as victories for the provision of rights for sexual minorities, there are steps remaining. However, it is clear that despite Eurovision’s attempts to remain apolitical, its tolerance has allowed it to become a safe and accepting space for the LGBT community.
Photo by European Parliament