Rising like a phoenix: has Conchita Wurst opened a new chapter in the queer history of Eurovision?
Until September 2013, Austria hadn’t had a particularly significant place in the queer history of Eurovision – or, indeed, in the recent history of Eurovision at all. Austria’s most notable contributions to Eurovision had been in the 1960s, including Udo Jürgens‘s victory in 1966, and exemplified German-language Schlager music at a time when it still had wide European appeal. The Austrian national broadcaster ORF had also been responsible for selecting one of Eurovision’s earliest satirical entries, Schmetterlinge’s Boom boom boomerang, in 1977.
In the 1990s and 2000s, on the other hand, Austria’s part in Eurovision was marginal in numerical terms: it rarely finished in the top ten, was relegated twice on the basis of poor scores, and skipped four of the five years between 2006 and 2010 altogether, before returning to use Eurovision as a platform for new singers from Austrian franchises of talent shows.
Conchita Wurst also first reached the Austrian audience through a talent show (ORF’s 2011 revival of Die grosse Chance, which Austrians had first watched in the 1980s). ORF had first considered her for Eurovision in 2012, when she competed in the Austrian national selection and came second, before committing to selecting her for Eurovision 2014.
As a bearded drag performer, Conchita brought an extra kind of gender variance into the history of drag at Eurovision; although she received by far the most press coverage before the contest, it still seemed her persona might be too challenging to gather the mass appeal necessary to win, and a few months ago her odds had been as long as 50/1.
Conchita is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth, who created her as ‘a statement for tolerance and acceptance’: Conchita’s website describes ‘[t]he private person Tom Neuwirth and the art figure Conchita Wurst’ as ‘two individual characters with their own individual stories, but with one essential message for tolerance and against discrimination’.
In her winner’s speech at the end of the Eurovision broadcast, she brought this message on to a collective level: ‘This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom… You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable!’
This post by Elainovision captures much of the hope in Conchita’s performance and victory:
Conchita won, and that is something well worth celebrating, because overall, this is a good thing. This is a victory. This is a landmark. This is someone who directly confronts society’s rejection of gender-variance, and rejects it in turn, and yet still becomes valued, adored, and respected by a continent. And where she leads the way, others can follow.
So some will write her win off as just a political statement. That’s not true – she can really sing. But it is political, and for all the right reasons. Europe can feel proud this week, and maybe we are slightly closer to a future where gender is as much a thing as someone’s hair – individual, independent, and a statement of identity.
No Eurovision winner has been so much discussed since Dana International, though in some ways Conchita and Dana shouldn’t be too directly compared: Dana International was very clear about her own identity as a trans woman, whereas Conchita as an artistic persona has been created with a challenge in mind: to present audiences with the idea that accepting every person on their own terms is what matters most even if you find their identity hard to understand.
In the last few days, she’s been being celebrated as – in Paris Lees’s words – ‘an ambassador for diversity’ and ‘a mascot for an increasingly large section of society that has little time for other people’s ideas of who we are supposed to be’. However, readers who are cis also ought to be aware that while some trans people have welcomed Conchita’s performance enthusiastically, others have found it very upsetting that Neuwirth has taken on a bearded drag persona when it isn’t Neuwirth or any other cis person who will be most vulnerable to transphobic street harassment and violence based on it. It’s not as simple as Conchita inspiring a community.
A ‘new Cold War’?
Meanwhile, Conchita and her song were already being drawn into narratives about geopolitics and identity in Europe in the run-up to Eurovision, and even more so since she became the winner. The structure of Eurovision has probably made this inevitable: as a televised showbusiness event which is structured as a competition between different nations and their musical cultures, its organisers and many of its participants have consciously used it to communicate messages about what belonging to Europe means or could mean and where Europe’s borders are – both in terms of spatial borders and in terms of values.
Moreover, the finale of one nation being voted the winner by other nations voting in turn invites spectators to project a geopolitical imagination on to any result: ‘Europe’ has voted for this nation rather than that nation; this nation voted for the winner, that nation didn’t.
The geopolitical frame that surrounded this year’s Eurovision was the policies of Putin’s Russia and their implications for Europe. The national-level law against promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ that Russian parliamentarians passed last year had already become an international issue before the Sochi Winter Olympics, to the extent that Western fans, corporations and even some governments displayed rainbow flags to symbolise that their nation belonged to a community of tolerance that represented the opposite of a homophobic, backward Russia.
As reductive as this interpretation might be, its popularity as a narrative meant that much of Eurovision’s huge gay audience would likely have given the Russian Eurovision entry a hostile reception (the two 17-year-old singers representing Russia this year were loudly booed during both their performances) even before Russia’s actions towards Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Who, then, could have been a more symbolic Eurovision winner than a singer who uses performance to invite audiences to accept the gender variance they perceive in her and, through this, to accept anyone as they present themselves? Interpretations of Conchita’s victory as aimed against Putin have abounded in the West. The columnist Cristina Odone, writing in The Telegraph, described Conchita’s win as ‘one in the eye for Putin’:
With her Eurovision victory, the Bearded Lady from Austria unwittingly fired the opening salvo in this culture war. Putin thinks that Westerners will prove a push-over when it comes to defending sexual freedom. I’m not so sure.
The Sun – a tabloid that continues to stigmatise queer and trans people on countless occasions – had no difficulties putting its editorial voice behind Conchita when she could be used to mark out Putin and Russia as the enemy. A bearded male reporter from The Sun dressed as Conchita to be photographed outside the Russian embassy, and the newspaper’s Twitter feed was sure to circulate the photo where he was having his details taken by police.
For politicians in Russia who had already been referring to ‘Europe’ as a threat to Russia’s right to determine its own values, Conchita has also been easy to fit into an existing framework. The discourses behind the ban on so-called ‘gay propaganda’ are not just moral or religious, but also geopolitical, as Cai Wilkinson explains when discussing previous statements by Vitaly Milonov, the politician who introduced a law against ‘gay propaganda’ in St Petersburg:
Russia has cast the adoption of anti-homo-propaganda laws as necessary to maintain the country’s “moral sovereignty”, which is perceived to be under attack from LGBTQ people and their supporters […] Milonov went on to dismiss international criticism of the law as a violation of human rights obligations as the work of an international gay lobby that has inﬁltrated the UN and the European Council, arguing that “this is Europe’s problem; why should we copy European laws? Not everything that they have in Europe is acceptable for Russia”. The implicit message is clear: to be properly Russian is to be Orthodox Christian and against homosexuality.
Milonov has since sent a letter to the Russian national broadcaster arguing that Russia should withdraw from Eurovision because the contest promotes homosexuality. The Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, meanwhile tweeted after Eurovision that Conchita had ‘showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl’.
In contrast, a Europe where Conchita Wurst can win Eurovision with a 52-point margin has the potential to present a European future where a bearded girl fits right in. Philip Bohlman, the scholar of music and nationalism, has responded to this year’s contest by suggesting that the result has helped to bring back Eurovision’s ‘moral compass’ and even that a Eurovision revitalised in this way can point a way towards ‘a nationalism of tolerance and diversity’:
ESC queerness begins to demonstrate the attributes of a historical longue durée, and it is for these reasons that it elevates a music competition to a European level on which it is one of the most visible targets for official Russian homophobia and the violation of human rights elsewhere in Europe. It is a return to that history that “Rise Like a Phoenix” so powerfully signifies.
The fact that Conchita was able to win Eurovision has made her available as a symbol for denoting one side in a new – or revived? – ideological and geopolitical clash, with Russia as the opposite pole. Yet this isn’t a framework that Conchita has explicitly played into: although her winning speech addressed an audience who ‘know who you are’, who ‘are unity’ and ‘are unstoppable’, she has not put her persona into the direct opposition with Putin, homophobia and Russia that the ‘new Cold War’ narrative would claim for her.
Who is unity?
Neither has eastern Europe, or even Russia, rejected Conchita, despite the transphobic remarks that politicians and Eurovision commentators made about her in several countries during and after the contest. Filip Kirkorov, the star who composed this year’s Russian entry, supported Conchita after she had won. Just as when eastern European entries dominated the scoreboards in the mid-2000s, it isn’t possible to win Eurovision with votes from just one ‘half’ of Europe: in the end, only Armenia, Belarus, Poland and San Marino gave her no points at all, and Russia to the surprise of many Western viewers gave her five.
Comparing the jury votes and telephone voting results that each contribute 50% of a country’s points, audiences in eastern Europe supported Conchita much more than the juries of music professionals: evidence, Alan Renwick suggests, of an elite/public divide, at least where Eurovision voting is concerned. Russian televoters put Conchita in 3rd place; in Georgia, where the jury votes were thrown out, televoters placed her second.
Sinead Walsh, a researcher working on feminism and peacebuilding in Armenia and Azerbaijan, agrees that the telephone vote results give a more complex insight into post-Soviet sexual politics than many western European viewers might have expected:
It’s also a timely reminder that this story we’re being spoon-fed, the new Cold War saga (“now with gay people!”), is far from the simple tale it’s made out to be – that of civilised, tolerant Europe versus the savage Russian bear-people. Yes, there is a insidious attempt going on, as exposed here and here by Ukrainian NGO Gay Alliance, to manipulate sexual politics for the sake of nationalist agendas. Homophobic attacks, physical and verbal, do go virtually unchecked in this part of the world. Many people grow up feeling ashamed of their sexuality, eventually facing the choice between emigration or living in a kind of internal exile. Thankfully, there are also many people who see this situation for what it is, and refuse to play into the hands of the hetero-political entrepreneurs over something as silly as a song contest. Perhaps they are fighting a losing battle – but perhaps we can help by beginning to realise, and act on, the interconnectedness of all things, and the correlation between sexual freedom and freedom from injustice and corruption.
At the same time, there are good reasons to be sceptical about claims that nationalisms in Europe have become perfectly accepting of diversity – a point I discussed at more length in my last post on Eurovision and ‘LGBT’ rights, where I suggested that celebrations of LGBT equality as a national value still have the potential to mask the marginalisation of undocumented migrants, Muslims and trans people.
This year’s Eurovision included its own uncomfortable failures of inclusivity, such as a white woman wearing mehndi-inspired designs on her arms as part of her costume (cultural appropriation?), and an interval act which seemed to finish on the idea that it was completely to be expected for a white Dane to get China and South Korea confused. Conchita’s own persona, where her biography states that she was ‘born in the mountains of Colombia, and raised in Germany’, seems to play on stereotypes of Latina women immigrants that Neuwirth as a white man has not been harmed by. Liberalism based on tolerance still dismisses these kinds of exclusion too often.
Even in the domain of ‘LGBT equality’ itself, it could be seen as troubling that one of this year’s Eurovision presenters, the actor Pilou Asbaek, appears to have been told he would not be allowed to wear a rainbow symbol on stage, or so he told The Wall Street Journal in March:
Maybe, Asbæk says, he took his impression of the contest as a political event a bit too far in the preparation process. As a big part of the Eurovision fan base are homosexuals, Asbæk suggested to the organizers that he would wear a rainbow flag t-shirt onstage.
“I asked whether it would be funny if I did it,” he says, “but (the suggestion) was refused.”
The story resurfaced when he was interviewed by The Guardian before Eurovision, when he also suggested that the organisers had had the sensitivities of east European broadcasters in mind:
I offer that Eurovision’s definition of Europe is fluid enough to allow all comers, too. Everyone is welcome. “EXACTLY!” he shouts. “That’s IT! Everyone’s welcome. Hispanic lesbian woman, welcome. Little Jewish gay guy, welcome. Everybody, as long you like music and like to party, you’re welcome. I love that. You can see in the world right now that people are becoming more and more afraid of sexuality. That’s so weird. It doesn’t make sense.” He glances at my Dictaphone. “But I’m not allowed to be political. Because east Europe is such a big part of Eurovision. They just need to chill the fuck down.”
But Eurovision is inherently political, surely. He shakes his head. “I asked them if I can wear rainbows. No. We’re not allowed to be political. It’s about music, not politics. But music and politics, you can not divide them. Not in my mind. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland always give each other top points in Eurovision. If that’s not politics, I don’t know what is.”
Compared to last year’s contest – where the interval celebration of Swedish culture included a scene where the presenter played a minister at the wedding of two men – should this year’s organisers have been prepared to stand by the symbol? Or would it have had the problematic effect of reinforcing the narrative about a new cultural Cold War?
Rather than reading Conchita and her popularity as ‘one in the eye for Putin’, her performance can and should challenge viewers to question their own prejudices rather than the prejudices of others. There’s much to be said here for the environmentalist slogan of thinking globally but acting locally: even though the platform was a song contest between national broadcasters and states, the purposes that Neuwirth and Conchita have ascribed to the performance weren’t to do with constructing and reinforcing geopolitical divisions. The ethical imperative that Conchita aims to promote can’t be restated often enough: as Judith Butler stated in a recent interview, ‘[n]o matter whether one feels one’s gendered and sexed reality to be firmly fixed or less so, every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives’. Ensuring that right, wherever each of us is, begins at home.
 But thanks to Juha Repo for reminding me of ORF’s support for AIDS LIFE and the Vienna Life Ball: ‘Just a thought – I have felt that Austria has had some queer elements in their Eurovision output before though. I think already 2004 the boyband Tie-Break sported red ribbons in support of the Wien AIDS charity Life Ball, if my memory does not fail me. And in Helsinki their song Get A Life, Get Alive with Eric Papilaya was definitely also the Life Ball anthem of that year and the set decoration was also in the same theme. I know it is not strictly queer only, but I for one have long felt that the Austrian broadcaster has been making statements with their entries before and them selecting Conchita was just a culmination of many years of work for awareness?‘