‘The Gay World Cup’?: the Eurovision Song Contest, LGBT equality and human rights after the Cold War
This is an adapted version of a talk I originally gave as part of LGBT History Month at the University of Hull in February 2014.
This post starts with thinking about a phrase that gay journalists in Britain have started to use to refer to the Eurovision Song Contest: the ‘Gay World Cup’. The comparison that Benjamin Cohen (the founder of Pink News) and Scott Mills (the BBC Radio 1 DJ who now commentates on Eurovision semi-finals) have made between Eurovision and the World Cup in recent interviews is only one of several nicknames that imagine Eurovision as a ‘gay’ version of a ritual celebration: for a German journalist quoted in Peter Rehberg’s essay on ‘queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest’, Eurovision is the ‘gay Christmas’ (Rehberg 2007: 60), and one of the gay men Dafna Lemish interviewed during her research on Eurovision fandom in Israel similarly called it ‘Passover for the homos’ (Lemish 2004: 51, £).
All these other events are mainstream social celebrations – heteronormative celebrations – that have traditionally contained very little space for queer people and their relationships. The predominant culture around men’s football is one of straight masculinity; the centrality of family reunion to the contemporary Christmas also makes it, for many queer people, an uncomfortable time. (The queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote that Christmas is ‘the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice’ to shape Christmas in the image of the family.) For Eurovision to be the ‘gay World Cup’ or the ‘gay Christmas’ is suggesting that it’s had a special place in some LGBT or queer cultures, at least among gay men, as an annual focus for reunion and celebration, as of course it has.
By the 1980s, Eurovision had already become the basis of a transnational fandom created largely, though not entirely, by gay men, celebrating the kitsch aesthetic to be found in many Eurovision performances as well as the diversity of European languages and musical cultures that the contest has contained. (One among dozens of possible examples, Salomé’s performance of ‘Vivo cantando’ in 1969, is below.)
In the past 15 to 20 years, however, the creators of some Eurovision entries and even the organisers themselves have begun to acknowledge Eurovision’s importance in gay culture and to use Eurovision performance to openly advocate for LGBT equality. This pulls Eurovision into a wider contemporary context: the international politics through which ‘LGBT equality’ started to become a symbol of European identity, sometimes even a matter of national pride, after the Cold War.
But to steer clear of a simplistic progress narrative, we also need to think critically about those things.
Integration and enlargement
When the European Broadcasting Union, an association of national television broadcasters, founded the Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, it showcased the new broadcasting technology that made it possible to relay TV signals live from one broadcaster’s territory to another, but also reflected other initiatives for co-operation between western European countries that were underway in the mid-1950s.
Economic and political organisations such as the European Coal and Steel Community (founded 1950), the Western European Union (founded as a mutual defence pact in 1954) and the European Economic Community (founded 1957) aimed to connect European states, especially France and Germany, so tightly together that they could not go to war. Though separate from these intergovernmental organisations, the EBU’s song contest was a cultural counterpart to them – showing that the different popular musics and languages of European nations were part of a shared European entertainment culture.
The seven founding member broadcasters at the 1956 contest were all from Western Europe (Italy, France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland). By 1959 Sweden and the UK were participating, and by 1961 Eurovision had sixteen participants including Yugoslavia, the only Communist country to take part (one of many ways that Yugoslavia aimed to demonstrate how different its Communism was from the Soviet bloc, as Dean Vuletic has shown in book chapters which unfortunately aren’t online). The parameters for EBU membership, accepting broadcasters from any country with a Mediterranean coastline, meant Israel could join in 1973 (one North African country, Morocco, has also taken part – but only in a year, 1980, when Israel was absent).
Eurovision’s greatest expansion, however, came after the Cold War, when broadcasters in post-socialist eastern Europe wanted to participate. The disintegrations of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the USSR increased potential competitor numbers further. In 1993, seven ex-Communist countries including three of the new ex-Yugoslav states applied, pushing the total number of entries to 29 and forcing the organisers to introduce a pre-qualification round through which the new east European applicants had to pass. After experiments with relegation systems in the 1990s where the worst-performing countries would have to sit out a year, the EBU in 2004 introduced a semi-final so that every broadcaster expressing an interest would be able to take part. At this point – the same year that the European Union was adding ten new members of its own – Eurovision had 36 countries involved; further new participants, including Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, have taken the record to 43 in 2011.
Although not an identical timeline to European political integration, the expansion of Eurovision does parallel the transformation of the EU through gradual eastwards enlargement.
From subtext to text?
Many of the popular music genres that broadcasters showcased at Eurovision lent themselves well to camp – a way of seeking out and celebrating the overdone, exaggerated and extravagant in popular culture that had already inspired gay fandoms for opera (the origin of the diva) and musical theatre.
Watching Eurovision through the ‘lens’ of camp originally meant projecting new readings, hidden readings, even resistant readings, on to what was happening on screen. In the late 1990s, however, the queerness of Eurovision began to move from subcultural camp to open visibility – a development that can’t be separated from the improvements in the social and legal position of lesbian, gay and bisexual people (as long as they were cisgender) in many European countries. In a book chapter on LGBT equality and Eurovision, Robert Deam Tobin points out that the European human rights framework, especially the European Court of Human Rights but also resolutions by the European Parliament, was frequently a catalyst for this legislative change (for instance, ruling against unequal ages of consent in a case brought against the UK government in 1997).
In 1997 and 1998, queerness at Eurovision became not just implied but visible. Paul Oscar, who represented Iceland in 1997, was the first out gay man to take part in Eurovision (with the most sexually suggestive staging of any Eurovision performance until then). Iceland, which legalised homosexuality in 1940, was one of the first European countries in the 20th century to do so; the idea of Iceland as a European leader in LGBT equality is now part of the country’s national historical narrative, as is the case for other Nordic countries and the Netherlands. Oscar’s entry Minn hinsti dans (My Last Dance) only came 20th, but represented a landmark for gay visibility at Eurovision.
Dana International’s Eurovision victory in 1998 was even more significant, as a landmark for trans visibility – not just at Eurovision itself, but in many of the countries where Eurovision was broadcast. By 1998, Dana had been a well-known singer in Israel for several years, and her participation in Eurovision was the biggest news story in the run-up to the 1998 contest (though often reported in a sensationalistic way). Her song Diva – doing as much as possible to communicate with diverse linguistic audiences despite the rule at the time that most lyrics had to be in countries’ official languages – was amplified by the personal narrative of overcoming prejudice to succeed that many viewers would already have known about before the performance began.
Open acknowledgement of queer identities in Eurovision performance continued taking contested steps in the early 2000s. Sestre, a transvestite cabaret group from Slovenia, performed in drag in Eurovision 2002 but had had to face a transphobic media campaign at home, in which the European Parliament briefly intervened. Russia was represented in 2003 by its most successful pop export of the time, Tatu, whose selling point was suggesting to their audience that the two singers were lesbians in a relationship. While the group annoyed producers by turning up late to rehearsals in the week before Eurovision, the focus of media speculation was whether they would try to kiss on stage and whether the organisers would allow them to. (They didn’t.)
Simultaneously, the Eurovision format was undergoing changes: massive increase in audience sizes from theatre-size to arena-size events; larger stages with much more complex backdrops and lighting; first one and then two semi-finals, eventually extending the televised Eurovision over three nights of a week, in order to accommodate the growing number of participant broadcasters; and in the background, a change in executive supervisor, so that since 2004 the post has always been held by a male Scandinavian broadcasting executive (first Svante Stockselius from Sweden, later Jon Ola Sand from Norway).
The international politics of equality and human rights as seen from Scandinavia thus become directly relevant to how Eurovision as an institution has approached LGBT equality over the past ten years, given the framework of values and public ‘common sense’ in which Stockselius and Sand were used to working before they became responsible for an international event.
Ukraine’s 2007 entry Dancing Lasha Tumbai, by Andriy Danilko’s comic character Verka Serduchka, epitomises a contemporary mode of Eurovision camp made possible by the new technical possibilities for creating a performance there – even though, Galina Miazhevich argues (£), it would be more accurately interpreted through a lens of post-Soviet self-irony than Western kitsch.
(Verka would like you to know that she was, under absolutely no circumstances, singing ‘Russia, Goodbye’.)
Marching towards Pride?
By the mid-2000s, in many western European countries, the institution of Pride with a capital P had shifted from an oppositional event fighting for queer people’s presence in public space, towards an officially recognised event celebrating our presence there. However, a critique goes along with this institutionalisation of the Pride march or festival as a cultural form: in such circumstances, is there a risk that Pride becomes a celebration of how tolerant ‘we’ are as a nation while silencing more radical viewpoints on the relationship between queer people and the state?
At Brighton Pride in 2012 (in a city where LGBT equality has the same kind of symbolic value in Brighton’s urban identity as it does in Scandinavian nationalisms today), for instance, the march organisers forced the Queers Against Cuts group to move to the back of the march, where they had to march surrounded by police. This, and the direct participation of police forces and the military in many western European Pride marches, is a long way from the early Pride marches which were expressly protesting against the police and the state.
For some, this is a sign of true equality; for others, a sign of the state finding a way to assimilate lesbian and gay people while leaving intact as many other norms as possible.
The most successful queer performance on a Eurovision scoreboard since Diva, however, did not come from Scandinavia or the Netherlands but from Serbia, where LGBT rights have been a much more controversial question. Although Marija Šerifović had not spoken publicly about her sexual orientation when she won Eurovision in 2007 (she came out as a lesbian in 2013), the performance of her song Molitva (Prayer) clearly steered viewers towards understanding it as queer:
LGBT equality, and campaigners’ right to hold marches in Belgrade, has been one of the issues that polarises contemporary Serbian politics most – with the Serbian Orthodox Church and far right movements openly opposing campaigns, and the Serbian authorities generally preferring to ban or obstruct Pride parades rather than commit to protecting them from far-right attacks. Beneath this polarisation is a narrative about Serbian national identity that in a way both sides share: that Serbia has always been a nation faced with the choice to turn towards Europe and democracy or away from them, towards tradition and Orthodox Christianity. In this framework too, LGBT rights become a symbol of Europeanisation and modernity, as Marek Mikuš shows in his research from the last successfully held Belgrade Pride in 2010.
In the mid-2000s, Serbia’s national broadcaster had been striving to use Eurovision to promote the idea of a new, European Serbia, which had moved on from the era of nationalism and Slobodan Milošević. Molitva confirmed that this self-representation appealed to Eurovision audiences. As Šerifović continued to celebrate her victory in and for Serbia, however, she was assimilated by (and assimilated herself into) discourses of national unity rather than becoming a figure of radical subversion.
Winning Eurovision in 2007 meant that the 2008 contest would be held in Serbia. At that time, Pride campaigners in Belgrade had not been able to hold a march since 2001, when skinheads had broken up the first attempt. The hope of the organisers, and of many fans who visited Belgrade for the final (such as Monty Moncrieff in this blog post from last year), was that Eurovision would help to spotlight the issue of LGBT equality in Serbia, and in more recent host countries – Russia and Azerbaijan – where foreign media similarly placed the authorities’ repression of LGBT people on to the agenda before the contests began. (Moscow authorities had not permitted a Pride march for three years before Eurovision was held in 2009, and a small march on the day of the final was broken up by police.)
This has presented Eurovision organisers with a similar problem to that faced by the International Olympics Committee in dealing with repressive regimes – indeed, as Paul Jordan notes, the BBC commentator Graham Norton described Moscow 2009 as ‘the Beijing Olympics of Eurovision’ during the broadcast – except that the right to host Eurovision goes to whichever broadcaster has won the last contest, giving organisers far less control over where the next edition will take place.
Concentrating on the Baku contest, Milija Gluhović argues that Eurovision has come to ‘offer an arena for advancing demands for the recognition and social inclusion of LGBT people in Europe, especially countries […] where the position of these sexual minorities remains precarious’ (2013: 200). At the same time, however, he recognises a new ‘rhetoric of sexual democracy, in the form of LGBT rights and freedoms’ in post-9/11 western Europe that amounts to ‘a new sexual nationalism’, directed particularly against Islam (2013: 196). He therefore offers a caveat for equality and human rights campaigners, including those in Eurovision:
We should remain wary of an uncritical acceptance of this language of freedom, including sexual freedom, considering the paradox that human rights and humanitarianism can be seen to operate as tools and strategies of contemporary imperialism. (2013: 198)
Ding dong! The transnational symbolism of equal marriage
For mainstream lesbian, gay and bisexual campaigns today, the primary symbol of progress is equal marriage – first introduced by the Netherlands in 2000, and now available in ten European countries, while many others recognise forms of civil partnership. (How far equal marriage benefits trans people depends on whether they are easily able to obtain gender recognition, including, in England and Wales, on the individual impact of a ‘spousal veto’ on gender recognition that was written into the new equal marriage law.)
In the USA, equal marriage was the theme of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s 2013 hit Same Love, the song that the producers of the 2014 Grammys turned into an on-stage mass wedding. (Brittney Cooper’s critical reading of Same Love and the Grammys performance argues that Macklemore has presented himself as a lone progressive voice in hip-hop in a way that erases African-American rappers who have already been pursuing similar themes.)
The Finnish representative at Eurovision 2013, Krista Siegfrids, performed a marriage-themed song, Ding Dong, which she also intended as a message to the Finnish audience before an upcoming referendum on equal marriage in Finland. Eurovision performance and Anglo-American chart music have now converged to the extent that everything on stage, including the Desperate Housewives-like Americana, could equally have involved Katy Perry. The number of Scandinavian pop composers and producers now working with US stars suggest that it isn’t a matter of Americanisation as such but a more two-way exchange, even if the amount of cultural and economic power on each side is unequal.
Unlike in 2003, nothing stood in the way of Siegfrids kissing another woman on stage during her performance in Malmo.
Equal marriage returned as a symbol of progress and tolerance in the interval, when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede performed a cabaret act poking fun at national symbols and stereotypes of Sweden. Along with the elks, meatballs, and allusions to Swedish films, her act included a moment where she played a minister marrying two grooms. (The very next lines happen to be ”follow our example, come and try a sample of our Swedish smorgasbord’.)
In 2014, when Copenhagen is hosting Eurovision, Copenhagen Pride will be heavily involved in organising activities, and the City of Copenhagen will arrange wedding ceremonies for foreign tourists during Eurovision week to promote the fact that Denmark allows lesbian, gay and bi people to marry.
With Scandinavian broadcasters very much in the forefront, over the past ten years Eurovision has found itself transformed into an institution that explicitly aims to promote human rights, including LGBT equality.
Good luck to everyone out there in Sochi
The idea of LGBT equality as a national value was in the foreground of advertising in countries such as the UK, USA or Canada during the Sochi Winter Olympics, with rainbow colours turning up in sponsors’ images where during most Olympics one would expect to see a national flag.
By using the rainbow in ads celebrating national Olympic teams, these advertisers were ostensibly challenging the state homophobia of Putin’s Russia, which passed a law banning the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ in 2013. They also reinforce the idea of LGBT equality as something that ‘we’ have and ‘they’ don’t – reducing the complex politics of queer rights in any of these countries to a simple national us/them.
In the run-up to Sochi, the UK’s Channel 4 did not miss an opportunity to make fun of Vladinir Putin: its chat show The Last Leg has been mocking Putin since last summer, when the host Adam Hills started suggesting that Putin (of camouflage pants and topless photos fame) should be taken up as a gay icon.
The day before the Sochi opening ceremony, Channel 4 started showing a new ident, Gay Mountain. With the punchline ‘Good luck to everyone out there in Sochi’, Gay Mountain operates musically as a rearrangement of the Russian (and formerly Soviet) national anthem, but in every other respects is meant to be as un-Russian as can be:
Gay Mountain invites its liberal British audience to participate in the idea that Russia is somewhere Other, with different values, which can be liberated through the power of camp and irony and rainbows and disco. There’s a problematic narrative of western rescue here, and also the same message about national identity that has come through the rainbow advertising: the reason LGBT equality is in the foreground for that team at the Sochi Olympics is because Russia doesn’t have it. (Though, ironically, Gay Mountain makes me think of nothing so much as a Verka Serduchka video.) In a way, it’s reminiscent of the superpowers’ representations of each other during the Cold War, where both blocs were anxious to prove that they were the leaders in human rights and quality of life and that the opposing bloc was failing in those things.
In contemporary Scandinavia and the Netherlands, in Canada, in the USA and the UK, advances in LGBT equality have become a matter of national pride.
On the face of things, this would be worth celebrating. In an article on queerness in Eurovision, Peter Rehberg asked in 2007: ‘Is the Eurovision Song Contest […] a rare occasion where queer people have access to a sense of nationality?’ From the point of view of 2014, such occasions, in Europe, in Canada, even in the USA, might not even be so rare.
But these celebrations are still masking marginalisation.
For one thing, the idea of ‘LGBT’ equality, even of one common LGBT struggle against oppression, is an idea that aggregates several different forms of oppression, some of which are much more socially visible (and, in contemporary Western society, much easier to challenge) than others. I found it very difficult to recognise bi visibility properly when I prepared the talk this post is based on – there’s still been no canonical ‘first bi performer’ in the history of Eurovision, let alone a first bi performance. The specificness of being bisexual, rather than being gay with a capital G, has never had its own space in Eurovision or the subculture around it.
Moreover, mainstream lesbian and gay or even LGB campaigning today often fails to recognise the interests of trans people and sometimes actively works against them (an ongoing difficulty, for instance, with Stonewall UK, at least under its previous leadership). The Eurovision interval act from Malmo 2013 contained an unfortunate example of its own: a couple of minutes before the marriage scene, another segment included Petra Mede singing the words ‘In all of our cities, though men don’t have titties they can still stay at home to raise the kids’ – erasing at a stroke the fact that trans men do exist and some trans men do have breasts.
This matters because when state authorities take action based on the same cissexist ideas, it causes harm to trans people. Even though Sweden has made so much of LGBT equality as a national value, until 2012 the Swedish state required trans people to be sterilised before it would recognise their gender. Denmark similarly came very close to deporting Fernanda Milán, a Guatemalan trans woman seeking asylum, whom the Danish authorities had initially housed in the men’s section of a refugee camp.
Is LGBT equality more of a symbol than a commitment on the part of contemporary European states? That’s the implication of what several authors such as Sarah Bracke and Fatima El-Tayeb have written about Dutch public discourse on LGBT rights after 9/11. In the Netherlands, right-wing politicians have argued that a Dutch tradition of gay rights is now under threat from homophobic Muslim immigrants (Bracke); when the Dutch state interacts with queer Muslims, it only seems to recognise a white Dutch model of sexuality as legitimate, leaving queer Muslims in the Netherlands in a very difficult position (El Tayeb). The Netherlands, as well as the UK, regularly deports queer asylum seekers to their countries of origin where they face persecution. Racism, Islamophobia, cissexism and the politics of border control all limit the commitment to queer rights that these countries show; yet LGBT equality comes back into the foreground when the nation needs to present itself as progressive in relation to the rest of the world.
This kind of dynamic is what the theorist Jasbir Puar has called ‘homonationalism’: the transformation of LGBT equality into a Western benchmark for evaluating whether or not states or peoples are modern enough to be allowed their own sovereignty or treated as real citizens. In particular, as Sara Ahmed also notes, this involves an opposition between sexual freedom and Islam. Sarah Schulman, in the same vein, described Israel’s self-promotion as an LGBT-friendly state as ‘pinkwashing’, which she defined as ‘a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life’.
During the Sochi Olympics, the feminist blogger Flavia Dzodan, who lives in the Netherlands, wrote on Twitter: ‘Why I speak abt homonationalism? Bc while EU media is spinning wheels of gay rights in Russia, queer asylum seekers are summarily deported’.
Eurovision takes place within the same global politics of competition, spectacle and celebration as the Sochi Olympics, or indeed the World Cup. As an institution, it has embraced the idea of LGBT equality much more than the organisers of any other international event, because of the history through which Eurovision became an annual celebration for a particular gay culture in the first place.
The same states that now heavily promote LGBT equality as a symbol regularly fail to back it up through policy. To make equality, let alone liberation, more than a symbol, Eurovision’s organisers will need to actively challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic remarks by commentators and contestants (something that will need particular vigilance this year when the drag artist Conchita Wurst competes for Austria). But they will also need to go further: to be sensitive to the international politics of equality and activism, and to recognise the separate forms of oppression that sit underneath, and sometimes operate between, the letters in the LGBT umbrella.
 Though not quite the first drag performers in Eurovision after all: Ketil Stokkan had two members of a Norwegian drag troupe as backing vocalists in 1986.
 International Relations scholars have been refining and rethinking this concept recently – for instance, Momin Rahman in his new book would rather work with an idea of ‘homocolonialism’ – but it’s still an important starting point for thinking about the global politics of LGBT rights today.