Of Sequins and Suppression

by Joe Bolognese:

Eurovision fans remember 2008 for the anti-gay riots that almost cost Belgrade the honor of hosting the contest. They remember 2009 for police brutality. “I had my arms severely twisted up my back and my wrist crunched to pinch the nerves,” recalled London-based LGBT activist Peter Tatchell. In contrast, 2010 was memorable mainly for Germany’s first win as a unified country. It was the first time the event took place in a country that concurrently recognized same-sex marriage. The face of Eurovision is changing.

While practically unknown in the United States, the Eurovision Song Contest, first held in 1956, is the most televised non-sporting event in the world, with some 125 million viewers worldwide. Each participating country performs a song and votes on the other countries’ entries. The nation with the most points, and thereby the most popular song, wins and hosts the following year.

With 125 million viewers annually, Eurovision is the world's biggest non-sporting event. Screenshots from the 2007 contests in Helsinki pictured here. (Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons/Rafael Nogueira)

Despite its founding idea of unity, the Eurovision Song Contest has become a fountain of political tension. With the breakups of Yugoslavia and the Soviet union doubling the number of competing nations, bloc voting and point exchanging out of friendliness, not entry quality, left many claiming the contest had been hijacked. Western countries began to lose interest, leaving a fan base with the gay community at its core. The string of eastern hosts meant throngs of gay fans invading cities much less tolerant of homosexuality, places like Riga, Istanbul, Kiev, Belgrade, and Moscow. Where no gay community existed, Eurovision simply brought one with it, highlighting homophobic trends in these areas and sparking discussion on a previously taboo topic.

Until this year, the events surrounding Eurovision seemingly garnered as much attention as the actual song contest. Obraz, a Serbian fascist group, promised a violent welcome to the many gay fans descending into Belgrade for Eurovision Week 2008. After the President of Serbia promised to protect the visitors, especially sexual minorities, Belgrade kept its right to host. Serbia’s record on gay rights began to improve; homophobic rioters were arrested, and a few months after the contest, the Ministry of Culture even helped fund a web portal on LGBT issues in Serbia.

The worst contest on record was Moscow in 2009. While terrorist groups were at the center of Serbian events, Russia’s homophobia was completely institutionalized, with Mayor yuri Luzhkov openly proud of his city’s lack of pride. “Our society has healthy morals and rejects all these queers,” claimed Luzhkov. Police Chief Vladimir Pronin added that any pride participants would be “torn to shreds.” Nicolas Alexeyev, a Moscow gay rights activist, was undeterred in organizing the first Slavic Pride Parade. Eurovision gave him the coverage and support needed to bring attention to the plight of the LGBT community in Eastern Europe. Luzhkov’s plan to suppress gay rights ultimately backfired, as coverage of gay rights flooded the media for weeks after the contest left Moscow, raising awareness in this largely homophobic part of the world.

A change in contest rules, though, could mean the end of Eurovision as a spotlight on gay rights. In 2009, a voting system was introduced calling for points to be based not only on televotes, but also on the adjudication of a “professional jury” made up of industry insiders. These rules inspired the West to rethink the contest, as the new jury system would check bloc voting. Eurovision 2010 came to Norway, a leader in gay rights. The forecast for next year looks similar—Germany is among the most progressive nations of the world. Performances rich in sequins, pyrotechnics, and bare-chested men will not be disturbed by the anti-gay riots or arrests of years past.

While Eurovision has raised awareness of gay rights issues in its host nations, it has often brought the downside of making what should have been leisurely vacations absolutely terrifying for the many traveling gay fans. With Eurovision alive again in Western Europe, fans and critics alike can now focus on the contest itself rather than personal safety and petty politicking. The chart success of this year’s winner, Lena, across Europe suggests the contest is reemerging in mainstream consciousness. Perhaps, finally, the Eurovision Song Contest can fulfill its vision of being a contest of song and not a battle of ideology.

Joe Bolognese ’12 is an Economics and Mathematics major in Pierson College. Contact him at joseph.bolognese@yale.edu.