Photo by Thomas Hanses
Earlier this month, the Austrian bearded drag performer Conchita Wurst triumphed in Copenhagen, becoming, I dunno, probably the ninth most unusual contestant to win the Eurovision song contest with her song "Rise Like A Phoenix" (she’s no match for these normcore kids, or this bunch of freaks).
Conchita first dropped her video, which includes a homage to American Beauty’s infamous rose petal scene, back in March - but it was her Eurovision entry that brought her to global attention.
After Conchita's win, fans in Russia planned a parade through Moscow’s streets celebrating her victory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the current climate in Russia, the security department in Moscow decided to shut the event down. A representative said the decision was made because he was concerned there would be an outbreak of violence between “gays and their opponents” - the use of the word “opponents” reflecting a cultural war that conservative Russians are fighting against their LGBT population.
The official later gave up the pretence of public safety concerns, saying the celebratory march had been banned because the “morality of the youth” would be affected. This came shortly after Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Leader of the Democratic Party of Russia, declared that Wurst’s Eurovision victory marked “the end of Europe” (two weeks earlier he also told an aide to rape a pregnant journalist, so he seems like a nice guy).
Depressingly, Conchita, the alter-ego of Thomas Neuwirth, has long been subject to politically-sanctioned homophobia across Europe, with one pressure group’s petition to the Belarus government claiming her inclusion in Eurovision would turn the contest into a “hotbed of sodomy”. An anti-Wurst Facebook page with over 37k likes was set up after it was announced she’d be representing Austria at this year’s competition.
Organisers of the Moscow parade have tried to reschedule so it merges with the Gay Pride march on May 31; an event which faces many difficulties of its own, having been subjected to repeated violent attacks from anti-gay protesters. In 2012, Moscow's top court enlisted a hundred-year ban on gay-pride marches.
Conchita’s appearance at the Eurovision isn’t the first time Eurovision has exposed Europe's reactionary tendencies; in 1998, when transexual Dana International won the right to represent Israel at Eurovision, members of the Israeli Parliament lobbied to have her entry revoked. Sixteen years later, homophobes are still trying to attack LGBT performers.
Some believe it’s time for LGBT Russians to start fighting back. Oliver Preston, who was planning to attend the march and runs the influential Facebook group Support Gay Russians Taking Part in Moscow Gay Pride, told me: “when the anti-gay protesters start throwing punches at them, they should belt them back twice as hard. It’s the way of the world - LGBT groups have used physical violence to force the enemy to respect their rights. And, besides the Conchita Wurst fans, the LGBTs should ally themselves with other groups, such as feminists, atheists and anarchists. They all share similar grievances, so an alliance should not be too hard to forge. Unity brings strength”.
Physical violence is not necessarily the view upheld by the majority of LGBT activists but Oliver is quick to point out that fighting fire with fire has proved successful in resolving issues in the past. “A good example of this is the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in NYC. The gay rioters not only forced the NYPD riot squads into full retreat, they burned down the offices of a homophobic newspaper the day after. Overnight, LGBTs went from cowering in the closet to being out and proud like they should.”
While Oliver's potted history of gay rights in America seems to miss out a few key points, his anger is reflected across the LGBT community in Russia and across the world. Larry Poltavtsev, who is the President of the Spectrum Human Rights NGO in Washington, believes big change is on the way. “Once the regime is taken out, it'll take a few years to slowly change people's mentality. Unfortunately, we may see another Russian revolution soon. Hopefully with no or little bloodshed”.
What can be done in the meantime? “What non-homophobic Russians should be doing is pointing out the fact that homosexuality was not taboo in the pre-Christian cultures indigenous to what is known today as Russia. The notion that homosexuality is “sinful” and unnatural is an ancient Middle Eastern belief that was imported to Russia.”
Of course, the LGBT movement in Russia has struggled for decades against a ultra-conservative government. The tensions recently received international attention in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. Conchita is just one more way in which to rally the cause and garner attention.
Yet there is one positive from this. It has been revealed that telephone votes from the citizens of Russia, Armenia and Belarus - three nations which the BBC said all objected to Wurst’s ambiguous presence in the song competition - voted in their droves for Conchita to win. The figures show the Armenian public decided Wurst was their second favourite contestant out of the 25, while Russians ranked her third - and Belarus gave her fourth place.
Conchita ended up with low scores from those countries because the public vote is averaged with a judging panel. In all three nations, the judges voted against her. She received 5 points from Russia and none from Armenia and Belarus.
That phone vote remains a small act of defiance. Whatever the outcome of the Pride march on May 31, her victory is a small win against Putin. The Danish paper Politiken pitched it most brazenly: “Europe Won - Putin Lost”.
Follow Lev on Twitter: @LevHarris1