Under the rainbow arch: hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision

In May 2007, just before Helsinki was about to host its first ever Eurovision Song Contest, a group of media and performance researchers gathered at the University of Helsinki for a symposium on ‘Queer Eurovision!’, later written up as a special issue of the Finnish queer studies journal SQS.

The aim of the symposium, wrote its co-organiser, Mikko Tuhkanen, was to take stock of the ten years since the ‘open secret’ of gay and queer presence at Eurovision had moved from a private subtext behind the show to an inescapable part of the text, starting with the first performance by an out gay man (Páll Óskar from Iceland) in 1997 and written into Eurovision history when Dana International won in 1998.

Many young, and some older, trans viewers of Eurovision were able to see in Dana International’s confidence and glamour the first aspirational representation of trans femininity that film and television had ever offered them. To Eurovision’s much larger number of cis viewers, meanwhile, her identity as a trans woman and her roots in the Tel Aviv’s gay nightlife – at a historical moment where LGBT activists were starting to win limited but important victories by lobbying European institutions – seemed to confirm: yes, Eurovision was gay.

Or as Tuhkanen wrote: ‘With Dana International, the disclosure was complete.’

A few days later, Marija Šerifović would win Eurovision 2007 for Serbia with a performance that the symposium’s other co-organiser, Annamari Vänskä, would persuasively read as an example of ‘lesbian camp‘. Šerifović’s victory took Eurovision 2008 to a country where the government’s failure to provide sufficient security for Belgrade Pride marches to take place had become a symbol, both at home and in European politics, of how far ‘European values’ were or were not embedded in Serbia.

Eurovision 2008 would open up a new chapter of the international politics of queerness and LGBT rights at Eurovision – one where queer people’s equality and security in host states would be heavily scrutinised when the contest took place in postsocialist, eastern European countries (but taken for granted during contests that were held in ‘the West’), and one where sexual orientation and gender identity were becoming matters of foreign policy for many countries in the global North and some (like Brazil and Argentina) in the South.

Šerifović’s victory, in other words, marked the start of another new phase in the queer politics and history of Eurovision – one where, increasingly outside Eurovision as well as inside, tolerance and respect for LGBT rights were about to become a new symbolic boundary in the imaginative geography of ‘East/West’ divisions of Europe that dated back even further than the Cold War.

Of all the contributions to ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the one most often cited in the subfield of ‘Eurovision research’ that itself started growing like a snowball after around 2007 and 2008 is Peter Rehberg’s article ‘Winning failure: queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest‘. Rehberg had noticed that the celebrations of queer (above all, gay) identities at Eurovision were an almost unparalleled occasion where fans and viewers did not have to choose between their queerness and their nationhood in order to experience belonging – a rare thing when nationalism, as an ideology, had historically been so hostile to homosexuality and transgressions of traditional gender roles.

(That past tense matters: by the mid-2000s, ‘LGBT-friendliness’ was itself becoming a symbolic value in some accounts of national identity, helping to define nations such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Britain in terms of cultural differences from supposedly ‘more homophobic’ parts of the world – a new way of expressing Europe’s imaginary east/west divide, and sometimes even of creating a troubling, simplistic hierarchy setting ‘the West’ above ‘Islam’ or ‘Africa’.)

Rather than fans celebrating their membership of a transnational gay or queer community instead of nationhood, Rehberg argued that Eurovision allowed them to celebrate as people with queer identities and as members of nations – ‘a rare occasion,’ in his most-quoted line, ‘for simultaneously celebrating both queerness and national identity’ (p. 60).

Ten years on from ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the song contest and queer geopolitics have become even more tied together.

As I’ve written here before, the years between 2008 and 2014 enmeshed Eurovision in the same political struggles over international events, LGBT rights and human rights that are most familiar from controversies over the Beijing and Sochi Olympics (which themselves book-end 2008 and 2014): Belgrade’s hosting of Eurovision in 2008 followed by Moscow in 2009, where the mayor of Moscow sent in police to break up a ‘Slavic Pride’ march on Eurovision final afternoon; the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, again accused of complicity with a repressive and homophobic regime when Baku hosted in 2012; London’s attempt to distance itself from Beijing through how it performed national identity at the 2012 Olympics echoed at Eurovision by Malmö 2013’s self-presentation as the antithesis of Baku 2012, with equal marriage among the many symbols of Swedishness celebrated in the interval; moments of celebrity activism like Krista Siegfrids’s on-stage kiss with another woman, beamed out across Europe while sending a more specific message to Finns before a parliamentary vote on an equal marriage referendum; and, after the Russian parliament criminalised the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s in June 2013, the cycle of Europe-versus-Russia representations around that symbolic boundary of LGBT rights that ran organically from the human rights campaigns before the Sochi Olympics into the meanings of ‘Europe’ and Eurovision when Conchita Wurst took part.

The hinge between queerness and nationhood that Rehberg found at Eurovision would widen in some countries, at least conditionally, with expansions of marriage and family rights and even – after much more struggle – tentative improvements in mechanisms for trans people’s gender recognition: provisions that add up to a greater sense of ‘citizenship’, or the ability to actually exercise the same rights as other citizens, for queer people, or at least those queer people whose race, ethnicity, nationality or religion don’t remove them from that sense of citizenship in other ways.

And yet frictions between the celebration of queerness and the sovereignty of nationhood would persist at Eurovision itself. In 2016, the EBU embroiled itself in unnecessarily awkward dialogues with LGBT fans over whether or not rainbow flags would be allowed in the Eurovision arena (if they were being used in a ‘political’ way, leaked instructions to security staff at the arena suggested, they shouldn’t be allowed – and yet the rainbow flag’s origins in political protest are still, for many but not all LGBT people, inseparable from its meanings in the present), and expected the more specific identities symbolised by the wider family of pride flags (like the bi and trans flags) to be accommodated in the all-encompassing rainbow.

Meanwhile, it had to be aware both that its Russian member broadcasters were under LGBT-phobic pressure to withdraw from Eurovision – so that Russian families wouldn’t have to watch examples of ‘Western decadence’ like Conchita Wurst – and that the very celebrations of queerness many viewers would expect from Eurovision, indeed be disappointed if the contest didn’t show, might now be ruled illegal to broadcast in Russia under the laws that a coalition of neo-traditional politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church had steered through parliament with Putin’s approval in 2013.

Since 2007, in other words, that hinge between queerness and national belonging that Rehberg had found one expression of at Eurovision had acquired three new dimensions: its vulnerability to being instrumentalised as a way of constructing tolerant and progressive Western and European national identities against backward cultural ‘others’; the hardening of a symbolic boundary between ‘Europe’ and ‘Russia’; and the realisation, as Russian queers saw in 2013 and Western queers themselves have had to come to terms with after seeing the Obama presidency’s steps towards LGBT equality reversed in a matter of weeks, that the greater sense of national citizenship and belonging that some LGBT people have been able to win can always be assaulted and lost again.

Come into me from within, we can be as one in the sin

The vagaries of Eurovision qualification – where almost 40 entries will take part in two semi-finals and only 20 go through to the grand final on Saturday – mean that this year’s most interesting example of how queerness and nationhood can combine at Eurovision, Slavko Kalezić’s ‘Space’, has already gone out of contention. Hidden away in the Tuesday semi-final, the 2017 entry most conscious of, and most adapted to, the homoerotic male gaze of gay spectatorship didn’t come from any self-imagined north-west European stronghold of gay rights, but from Montenegro – and depended on specifically post-Yugoslav ways of reinventing masculinity rather than any denationalised model of the ‘global gay’.

The presentation of Kalezić’s preview video for ‘Space’ in March left no doubt this was a song and performance aimed at the gay and bisexual male viewer in the sense that their likely pleasures are more embedded in the song than any other. Entering through a neon galaxy (with echoes perhaps of Lady Gaga’s ‘Mother Monster’ phase), the camera takes viewers to a dark disco and a dramatic rocky landscape where Kalezić is dancing shirtless, often singing directly to the viewer in extreme close up, as we hear lines like ‘Wet dreams, wild nightmares, I surrender / Come into me from within / We can be as one in the sin’.

The rest of the lyrics are filled with callouts to ejaculation and orgasm, mixed with a fluidity of gender roles (‘I’m Venus and Mars of the hour’), and fans were quick to interpret a line about ‘I’ve got my suit on, no need to worry’ – ostensibly, of course, about a space suit – as standing for using a condom during safe sex.

Even as Eurovision entries go, ‘Space’ is remarkable in its commitment to the codes of double entendre. Moreover, the lyrics put Kalezić in a receptive role, the riskier and queerer position for a man who has sex with men to take in many binaries of male sexuality that view receiving penetration, as opposed to giving penetration, as a much more threatening act for masculinity (thus feminising and stigmatising passive sexual role): it’s the thought that men can enjoy being penetrated that really unsettles many homophobes.

While Kalezić’s unabashed enthusiasm for male/male sexuality has rough Western equivalents – a Frankie Goes To Hollywood or, especially, a George Michael – ‘Space’ is far from an import of Western gay aesthetics – and that needs saying all the more loudly when so much public and state homophobia, the ideology behind the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ laws or the far-right and Church mobilisation against LGBT activism and Pride marches in Serbia, Ukraine, and many other countries, is grounded in imagining that the authentic masculinity of the nation can never accommodate being gay or taking pleasure in sexual acts performed by other men.

Throughout the introduction of LGBT-phobic legislation in Russia, the current persecution of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, or the ongoing harassment and violence of LGBT activist movements and Pride campaigns, discourses of nationalism and sexuality hold that – supposedly – it’s against the authentic morals of the nation for men to behave like this. Opposing moves to recognise LGBT rights as human rights as the United Nations, the Russian government has argued that the West has sought to impose LGBT equality on Russia in the face of Russia’s authority to determine its own moral code: in the Russian nation as Putin imagines it, ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations should stay out of sight.

The hostile comments Kalezić received from Montenegrin social media users after his video was published similarly included references to ‘Western decadence’ or the remark that ‘Njegoš would be ashamed.’ The epics of Njegoš, the 19th-century prince-bishop and national poet of Montenegro who wrote (with graphic violence) about the heroism of Montenegrin highland clans fighting the Ottoman Turks, are at the core of Montenegrin myths of national masculinity.

In response, Kalezić told the Montenegrin web portal CDM: ‘if Njegoš were alive, he’d actually support me. Those of you who are mentioning him, if you’ve read The Mountain Wreath or A Night Worth A Century [his two major works] should know that in fact he was an exceptional thinker and empath. Full of symbolic energy and the energy of life.’

Beyond queering Eurovision or queering the nation, Kalezić was doing something even more threatening to Montenegrin heteronormativity: queering Njegoš.

Moreover, the way Kalezić – in his video more than his Eurovision performance – embodies genderfluidity and male/male sexual desire reflects a tension for queer people across most of the globe: how to find modes of sexual difference and gender non-conformity that don’t require total separation from national tradition, that is, how to situate oneself in the linguistic and cultural material of a nation to which one should be able to belong.

The questions are the very stuff of global queer politics – including in Montenegro, where (as Danijel Kalezić writes in his contribution to Bojan Bilić’s recent volume on post-Yugoslav LGBT activism) non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people question whether their activism and organisation necessarily needs to follow the Western European and North American model of Pride, why anyone should expect queer identities to develop with the same categories or timescale they have in the West, and where there might be Montenegrin queer histories to reclaim.

‘Space’, on video, contains visual nods to Byzantine iconography and also, in the whirling of Kalezić’s robe and hair, something of Sufi tradition: a reference which, at least to me as a spectator, brings to mind another gender-non-conforming post-Yugoslav singer from Bosnia, Božo Vrećo.

Vrećo, seen here in his own enrobed whirling through a dramatic landscape, has succeeded in what Tea Hadžiristić described in an article for Balkanist as ‘queering sevdah’. In singing and writing this form of traditional Bosnian folk music, Vrećo speaks both as a woman and as a man. His gender expression, both in and out of performance, actively reuses Bosnian traditions across gender boundaries: among his tattoos, for instance, are symbols on his hands that Bosnian Catholic women used to tattoo as protective bridal charms. Vrećo neither uses nor needs Western or Anglophone categories of sexual and gender variance to present himself. As a result, Hadžiristić writes:

Vrećo eschews ascribing Western-style identity categories to himself that allows him to be celebrated by Bosnians as a star and emblem of Bosnian talent, while at the same time enacting his own brand of queer gender presentation. Outside of a context where LGBT rights are seen as part of a modernization package leading to EU accession, his queerness is accepted because it is seen as Bosnian rather than a threat coming from the ‘outside’. In itself, this has radical potential because it demonstrates that queerness is not a Western import and that it can and does exist naturally in Bosnia and jive with ‘Bosnianness’. A Bosnian queer is possible.

So, Kalezić shows, is a Montenegrin queer. So is a Serbian queer: Marija Šerifović, Serbia’s Eurovision winner in 2007, came out in 2013 (after years of public speculation about her sexuality during which she was only photographed with one boyfriend, Slavko Kalezić), and in gender expression is indistinguishable from male stars in the same field of Serbian pop – though doesn’t subvert dominant ideologies of Serbian nationhood in other ways (after all, Serbian women, or women anywhere else, are not necessarily left-wing committed anti-nationalists just because they’re queer).

The aesthetic codes that ‘Space’ as a video depend on are already well-established in Belgrade-based popular music production for the post-Yugoslav linguistic and cultural area: in fact, its director, Dejan Milićević, is none other than the foremost video director for Serbian pop-folk music or what’s still sometimes called ‘turbofolk’.

Milićević’s videos employ what Balkanist‘s pop blogger Eurovicious (in his ‘Queer as Turbofolk’ series) calls a ‘tricky balancing act’ in which ‘the queer subtext must be subtle enough to pass over the heads of the straight audience, but explicit enough to maintain the interest of the gay male audience’. This example, for a Danijel Djokić video in 2012, is as good as any:

Milićević’s signature devices of lingering on the exposed male body and visualising the male singer’s inviting gaze back at the viewer – all filtered through the conventions of fashion photography – are an established aesthetic in post-Yugoslav music. For Marko Dumančić and Krešimir Krolo, in fact, they help to suggest that the Belgrade school of pop-folk music has produced a – however commodified and objectified masculinity that differs importantly from how the same music used to celebrate the masculinities of paramilitarism and organised crime.

The Milićević aesthetic taken into Eurovision sees a localised homoerotics, in which queer men in and around Serbia and Montenegro are already taking pleasure, meshing with other queer, and straight, gazes situated elsewhere. Indeed, Macedonia’s preview video for Tijana Dapčević’s entry in 2014 relied on the same presentation of the male body and the same scopic pleasure of looking at the male body even though it was directed by a different director, Mert Arslani:

For better or worse, the Macedonian team didn’t bring the video’s homoerotics of the Macedonian Air Force into the live performance (or even get Tijana to wear the white glasses that she’d showed to every journalist who met her during Eurovision week) – and Eurovision viewers didn’t get to see half as Montenegrin a setting for ‘Space’ as Kalezić’s preview had been able to conjure.

The braid stays, but the robe is off within less than fifty seconds (Kalezić is wearing sparkly jeans underneath), and the high-resolution video backdrop is showing galactic patterns or blow-ups of Kalezić’s body rather than the mountain landscapes that Montenegro’s preview videos can be guaranteed to show off: I do wonder whether the more localised elements from the video (even if many viewers elsewhere in Europe would just view them as ‘more Balkan’) might have helped the song stand out better in a semi-final that contained at least one other south-east European pop song based on astrophysics and the return of Moldova’s Epic Sax Guy.

Once the EBU releases the semi-final results and the breakdown of how expert juries and the public voted in each country, it’ll be interesting to see whether Kalezić’s points were simply relatively low all round or whether he encountered the obstacle that made even Conchita Wurst’s scores not as high as they might have been: that five music professionals per country have more influence than a member of the public, by a magnitude of thousands, over whether a performance that plays on queerness as much as Kalezić or Conchita is going to get any points. Both homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on the part of a juror, or pressure from the broadcaster or elsewhere, can have a disproportionately high impact on the votes a jury gives.

Indeed, this isn’t just a problem of the 2010s: Páll Óskar’s ‘Minn hinsti dans’, in 1997, scored only 18 points and came 20th out of 25th – but 16 of the 18 points came from countries that were experimenting for the first time with a public televote, Austria, Sweden and the UK.

Conchita, in 2014, didn’t suffer a mass rejection among public voters even in Russia, but expert juries ranked her noticeably lower than the public, leading to eastern Europe countries appearing to have given her relatively fewer points than the West.

With Kalezić out of the running for the grand final, however, the most significant hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision 2017 are likely to be behind the scenes rather than on stage.

Repainting the rainbow arch

Ukraine’s public diplomacy, since 2014, has striven not only to inform the world that Ukraine still has sovereignty over Crimea and eastern Ukraine but also to show that Ukraine belongs to a different, European community of values than Putin’s Russia – a political and cultural separation not unlike the move with which Croatia in 1990-5, before and during its war of independence, sought to separate itself (sometimes coercively) from Yugoslavia.

One of several important differences between the Croatian case and Ukraine’s, however, is that there was no incentive for the 1990s Croatian regime not to double down on homophobia in its political compact with the Catholic Church. For Ukraine, on the other hand, being able to demonstrate progress on what diplomats take as the benchmarks of LGBT rights (such as whether Pride marches are being held safely) could – at least when LGBT rights were the foreign policy issue that they were under Obama and still are to some governments – help to create a clear moral boundary in Western eyes between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.

If Russia had not withdrawn from Eurovision after Ukrainian security services banned the Russian contestant Yuliya Samoilova from entering the country (in 2015 she had visited Crimea without first legally entering Ukraine), public awareness of the organised disappearances, torture and killing of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya could well have elicited more hostile reactions from viewers than Russian competitors faced even in 2014, the first Eurovision since the ‘gay propaganda’ law went into force, or 2015 – perhaps not even a contestant able to win as much goodwill from fans as Sergey Lazarev would have been able to do much to hold it off.

The potential diplomatic value of publicly performing support for LGBT equality sits uneasily with the patriarchal homophobia of the Ukrainian far right and paramilitary movement – a potential insurgent force that continues to overshadow the Ukrainian government.

The impasse was symbolised by the outcome of an initiative to repaint the Arch of the Friendship of Peoples, a Soviet monument built in a large Kyiv park in 1982. The Arch is among the monuments that the Ukrainian government now plans to remove under a ‘decommunisation’ law introduced in May 2016 (bringing Ukraine, two and a half decades after the collapse of the USSR, closer to the memory politics of early post-Yugoslav Croatia).

First, however, Kyiv city council decided to repaint it in rainbow colours as a temporary Arch of Diversity in time for Eurovision and Kyiv Pride – as if taking up the street-art aesthetic that since 2011 has regularly been seeing Sofia’s Monument to the Soviet Army repainted so that the soldiers are wearing American superhero costumes, bright pink uniforms or even Ukrainian flags.

The rainbow symbol, and ‘diversity’ itself, contain a non-specificity and deniability which often frustrates queer and LGBT people who want their identities and experiences to be named as such; ‘Celebrate Diversity’, the slogan of Eurovision 2017, is so broad it could be celebrating nothing at all (while performing a celebration of diversity, as Sara Ahmed writes, is so often a substitute for institutions actually making the difficult structural changes necessary for their workforce to be meaningfully diverse). That very slipperiness, however, also creates the space of manoeuvre in which the painting of the Arch of Diversity could take place without the city council having to openly name the rainbow as queer.

archofdiversity
Painting the Arch of Diversity in Kyiv, April 2017

The arch was in a half-painted state last week when members of far-right groups including Right Sector and Svoboda threatened municipal workers and ordered the painting to stop – calling the rainbow ‘gay propaganda’, in the same terms as LGBT-phobia in Russia. On 4 May the mayor of Kyiv, Vitaliy Klitschko, announced, in what was widely seen as a symbolic concession, that the rest of the arch would be filled in with ‘a Ukrainian decorative pattern.’

The bands of orange, yellow, green, blue and purple that currently rise from the base of the arch, leaving blunt interruptions of grey metal near the top, could as an aesthetic choice have captured the viewer’s gaze and forced them to think about why the progress was incomplete, better than the full rainbow would have done: in that sense, designing such a rupture into the arch might have expressed the contingency of queer politics better.

Enforcing the rupture from outside, however, means that the unpainted metal of the present arch and the traditional national pattern of its future – likely based on the same handicrafts that have given Eurovision 2017 much of its visual identity – also represent the material power that the far right in Ukraine can exert over what degree of LGBT equality, visibility or public presence they are prepared to allow.

The half-rainbowed arch under which many Eurovision fans, of different genders and sexualities, are photographing themselves this weekend in Kyiv is not only, therefore, a symbol of transnational ‘rainbow’ politics or an instrument of national public diplomacy. It is a sign of the contingency and insecurity of queer existence: the knowledge, as immediate or distant as it seems, that even official commitments towards equality can still be met with violence and still bargained away.

The idea that time’s imaginary arrow can go backwards – that even if you can belong more to your nation than you used to do, the time may still come when the nation and its state turns on you again – is not just an experience of queerness in Russia or Ukraine: it is one that queer people in the West are also confronting, after only a few years where it started to feel possible to forget.

There’s a moment, or many moments, in Belgium’s performance at Eurovision this year where, even though the singer Blanche as far as anyone knows isn’t queer, the song captures a mood of insecurity and doubt that queer, and feminist, politics in 2017 knows very well.

In a voice so uncomfortable that a lot of viewers – including myself the first time – initially heard it as stage fright, yet selling the song to enough voters for it to qualify from the semi-final, Blanche keeps returning to the same refrain: ‘All alone in the danger zone / are you ready to take my hand? / All alone in a flame of doubt / are we going to lose it all?’

Rather than fulfilling the same storytelling momentum that recent Eurovision winners have increasingly been able to convey through digital staging that sometimes seems to tell an almost mythological story of command over nature or technology, ‘City Lights’ is caught in indecision. It doesn’t offer the climax of the young-adult dystopian narratives it seems to draw from, where we know that sooner or later the young heroes will make their break, escape the city and join hands; instead, it cycles back to hesitation.

Its last seconds, where Blanche repeats the same line three times before the lights and music suddenly drop out as she crosses her arms, would be an even bleaker winner’s reprise than the end of Jamala’s ‘1944’ – and yet, for some viewers, the words are already on their minds:

‘Are we going to lose it all?’

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