LOUD & PROUD: The Gayness, Or Otherwise, Of The Eurovision Song Contest, And Why It Matters

HuffPost UK has turned Loud & Proud. This fortnight, we're celebrating gay culture in all its forms across the entertainment industry.

We couldn't run this project without tipping our hat to the grand extravaganza that is the Eurovision Song Contest, that fanfare of fun, frolics and fine music since 1956.

The Contest may have been originally billed as entertainment for all the family, but there’s a big pulsating gay message at its heart – for those who want it, according to one highly enthusiastic academic.

According to Dr Peter Rehberg, Associate Professor in European cultures at the University of Texas, when someone like the inimitable Conchita Wurst uses her victory speech to say “We are unstoppable”, we can take it two ways… “You could see this as a general mantra, or you can stop to notice it’s being said by a drag queen with a beard whom Russia did not want in the contest, and it becomes quite clear.”

For Peter, the key year to a broader understanding of the influence of Eurovision on wider culture was 1998, with the victory of Israeli Dana International. “The gay fan culture existed before that, but it was almost an unspoken thing. With a transsexual winning the competition, Eurovision had its coming out.”

Dana International's victory in 1998 was Eurovision's 'coming out', says Dr Peter Rehberg

Peter points out what happened to the competition after that, with other countries acknowledging it, following suit and sending similar acts, even Russia with its proto-lesbian duo T.a.T.u. in 2003, the Ukraine sending Verka Serduchka in 2007. “She was a hybrid between a nurse and a robot,” he remembers. “She ended up second. The storyline was she was a Ukrainian comedian, but it was queer on so many levels.”

He chuckles, “In the press centre, 98% of the journalists are gay men. It’s become Gay Pride funded by European tax money.”

For Peter Rehberg who can recall his own first ESC experience in 1975 – “I missed ABBA by a year” – the ever-growing international audience, as well as list of participators, is the natural legacy of lots of people now in their middle age who had a childhood in front of the TV.

"We are unstoppable," said Conchita in 2014 - whatever that meant

“Eurovision is such a conventional family format,” he explains, “but with all these funny, extravagant, outrageous performances on stage, which dawning gay youngsters react to, they find this Utopia in the middle of this show. I can testify, it made you realise there’s a different world out there, it triggers your emotions, fantasies and dreams.

As a respected academic, Peter has dug deep into the significance of the event as a way of looking at recent European history, an exercise he describes as being legitimised by what happened in Europe in the early 1990s.

“Eurovision culture changed so strongly,” he remembers. “We didn’t have 18 or 20 countries any more, the voting system changed, the culture changed, the songs changed.

“Eurovision became a scene where a cultural mobility in Europe could be seen and learned. This is when academics from sociology, cultural studies took an interest in it. It could be a device for teaching and understanding what was going on in Europe.”

T.a.T.u were Russia's answer to Dana International - a proto-lesbian duo performing in 2003

Lest we consider this wishful thinking on the part of any self-confessed Eurovisio-phile wanting a research grant to study their favourite topic, Peter gives me an example.

“You think about paranoia in certain parts about immigration, migrant workers, the question of whether Eastern Europe taking over, and then look what happened to the contest. Eurovision became this scene, where the countries of Western Europe began to act very strongly, sometimes in alliance, against Eastern Europe. It was like they were asking themselves, what is Europe?”

Verka Serduchka - Ukraine, 2007 - was "a hybrid between a nurse and a robot, and queer on so many levels"

Of course, with such emotion comes controversy including, most recently, Russia’s attempt to have the bearded wonder of Conchita banned from the contest before she’d sung a note, and the ensuing reactive booing of its own entry, two confused and tearful young girls. Peter Rehberg is not so horrified by this.

“Of course you can think about the two poor girls and the EBU is not in a position to encourage that, but it is legitimate,” he insists. “Political feelings are part of the show.”

Similarly, is it ok for the contest to take place in countries where homophobia is basically state-sanctioned? Does it encourage civil rights groups in those countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan or does it give the state a leg up in their claim for international standing?

“You have both,” says Peter. “I would say, yes, go there, it triggers the conversation. But we need to be cautious, too, about creating a too rigid east-west division. Germany and Austria aren’t very high up the league table of gay rights, with an eastern country like Croatia doing better.”

So, with so much political and cultural significance wafting around, is there anything left for your heterosexual viewer who just likes a good show?

“Every year is quite different,” he affirms. “We have these great queer moments but, if you look at the years prior to Conchita’s victory, it was all very hetero-normative, for example, boy-next-door Alexander Rybak and his folk tune. That’s another essential part of Eurovision, a very straight fantasy.” I seem to remember Mr Rybak having his own extremely healthy gay fanbase, but I get Peter’s point.

Six decades after the competition made its debut, Peter Rehberg has one more joyful point to make.

“I don’t want to be naïve, but one of the beautiful things is the lesson in loving your neighbour. You can’t vote for yourself, and you are put in a position where you have to deal with Europe, and think about who you like. It is an inclusive event. Gay people have a certain dominant voice, but it doesn’t exclude other voices.”

This year's Eurovision Song Contest is on Saturday 14 May, taking place in Stockholm.

HuffPost UK is turning Loud & Proud. Over the next fortnight, we'll be celebrating how gay culture has influenced and, in turn, been embraced by all fields of entertainment, inspiring cinema-goers, TV audiences, music-lovers and wider society with its wit, creativity and power of expression.

Through features, video and blogs, we'll be championing those brave pioneers who paved the way, exploring the broad range of gay culture in British film, TV and music and asking - what is left to be done? If you’d like to blog on our platform around these topics, please email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with a summary of who you are and what you’d like to blog about


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