Exploring the queer politics of Eurovision

Eurovision has always held a special place in my heart. Every year, we are treated to the campest performances from across the continent (and Australia, for some reason). Last year alone featured daring sets from a Finnish man in a spiked choker and green jacket covering only his arms singing an annoyingly catchy techno ‘Cha Cha Cha’, to two Austrian women singing about being possessed by American writer Edgar Allen Poe. Typically, we see the most untypical, and most queer, songs do the best at the competition. But aside from the bright costumes and synth beats, Eurovision is a staple of queer culture and quietly involved in its politics. 

Eurovision has not always been as openly queer as it is today. For most of its history since its founding in 1956, gay symbols and acts were heavily discouraged or in some cases outright censored, reflecting the deeply homophobic and transphobic mood of the time. Queerness, like in real-life, had to be hidden and alluded to, but was always present subtly. Luxembourg’s winning entry in 1961 was about a same-sex couple that couldn’t be together, though kept quiet through the use of neutral language. Jean-Claude Pascal, the performer, sang about when “the time will come when I will be able to love you without anyone talking about it” – a heart breaking reality for so many queer people then and today. 

Russia’s entry in 2003, t.A.T.u, danced the line between acceptability and censorship, embracing their image as a young lesbian couple, despite their queerness being a marketing strategy. They were told that if they dared kiss on stage their backup performance would be used and they wouldn’t be able to perform. This was only the beginning for (albeit performative) queerness on stage. Later years saw, despite Eurovision’s rules on remaining apolitical, kisses among two men, two women, even a camply depicted lesbian wedding in 2007 from Serbia. It is from this point that the messages for gay and trans liberation became more open, and more politically charged. 

Today, queerness is not the exception for Eurovision, but the norm

Russia, in 2014, banned “gay propaganda” to “protect children”. That year, Austria sent the now-famous bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst to the Eurovision song contest, which she won as the first openly gay man. Conchita sung a song of defiance, banding together against oppression, while the Russian entry was booed by the crowd. Eurovision had become not just a celebration of different cultures and peoples, but a platform for advocating for equality, tolerance and acceptance – especially for the queer community, who through these daring performances, had now adopted Eurovision as a place for them. 

Today, queerness is not the exception for Eurovision, but the norm. Queer politics have always, in some way, been involved in Eurovision, especially with its central message of acceptance and peace. While now queerness is accepted on the Eurovision stage, we mustn’t forget the real struggle across Europe and the world for true acceptance. This year the UK are sending queer artist Olly Alexander to the finals in Sweden, and while hoping that he can give the UK a long-awaited Eurovision victory, I hope that his and every other queer performance, especially in light of today’s increasing tirade against trans people, will show that queer people are visible, proud, and must be accepted. 

Image credit: Thomas Hanses (EBU), Guy Levy / © BBC 2015, via Wikimedia Commons

Image description: Graham Norton and Petra Mede waving in front of a glittery screen with the Eurovision logo, presenting the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest