Look, I know what you're thinking. “Eurovision is the campest thing since Fred Nile’s head was carried up Oxford Street at Mardi Gras! How can it be 'not easy' being gay?” Despite all the glitter, shiny Lycra, hunky barely clothed dancers, wind machines and disco balls, there are real issues with being out for many at Eurovision. For some, it's a matter of life and death.
It’s all ABBA’s fault. Winning in 1974 in an explosion of brightly coloured tight-fitting satin, silver chains and button badges, they unleashed the camp atmosphere which had been simmering away since a barefoot Sandi Shaw pulled everyone’s “Puppet on a String” at Vienna in 1967. The LGBTQ community, primarily gay men, have worshipped the Swedish quartet and played a large part in their (ongoing) revival since 1992.
Going hand in hand with that was the gradual freeing up of the Eurovision Song Contest to be more of a “fan fest”, complete with a plethora of flags, pop concert screams, and performers and songs to match. Guess who was at the forefront enabling that popular culture revolution?
And yet, having openly gay performers at ESC is one thing that has fallen behind the times. Several countries, while not having laws that criminalise homosexual behaviour, are not welcoming of sexual and gender identities that diverge from heteronormative society. Living openly and expressing yourself on European (and worldwide) television is one path the rainbow flag hasn’t totally cleared.
Páll Óskar, who represented Iceland at Dublin in 1997, was arguably the first openly gay male contestant in ESC history. Óskar had a previous career doing drag and brought everything a good drag show should have to the staid ESC stage with his song “Minn hinsti dans" (My Final Dance). The old "stand, sing, emote, smile, bow" edict was blown away by his performance - the last on the night, directly after eventual winner Katrina & The Waves. Óskar cracked open a doorway for other performers to follow, however it wasn’t easy - he received significant homophobic commentary on his performance.
At Birmingham the following year, a major blow for diversity and the modernising of the contest occurred. Dana International brought glamour, contemporary dance beats and a “shocking” past - she was the first transgender person to compete at ESC and came from a perceived conservative country, Israel. Problem was: Israeli religious groups were appalled and campaigned to have her removed as their entrant. But Israel is a country of many facets - Tel Aviv is considered by some to be gayer than Sydney!
Not every reaction to Dana was homophobic. Even the fairly conservative Dana Scallon, who won Ireland’s first ESC at Amsterdam in 1970 with “All Kinds of Everything” and after who Dana International took her name, gave a typical Irish summation: “I was shocked, yes. Because her legs were better than mine!”
From there, several performers have been open about their sexuality to varying degrees of success. Slovenia sent Sestre, a group of three drag queens, to Tallinn in 2002, with protests in the streets against the entry and questions even asked in the European Parliament.
In 2007, Denmark's entrant, Peter Anderson, performed as his persona, DQ, but “Drama Queen” failed to get into the grand final. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s answer to Dame Edna Everage, Verka Serduchka, nearly caused a boil over, with “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” finishing second.
Ultimately, it took a young gay boy, Tom Neuwirth from Austria (performing as Conchita Wurst, the “bearded lady” character he created), to claim a win at Copenhagen in 2014 with “Rise Like a Phoenix”. Like Dana International before, the less progressive parts of Europe were in self-righteous uproar. However, nearly all those countries overwhelmingly voted for Conchita, suggesting the people are more enlightened than their political leaders appear to be.
In Stockholm last year, there were at least three gay male singers - two were somewhat open, one was absolutely not (although it was an "open secret" at the competition). Of the two open contestants, Hovi Starr from Israel was the most flamboyant and fierce. Starr acknowledged the problems Israeli gay men can face, but felt it more important to be as true to his nature as possible on this massive platform on which he found himself.
The other, Deen from Bosnia & Herzegovina, is an ESC veteran. First appearing in Istanbul 2004 with “In The Disco”, his bleached blonde spiky hair, pink singlet, lithe body and suggestive moves with his female dancers - similar to what Páll Óskar had done seven years before - didn’t really suggest a raging heterosexual Balkan male.
Twelve years later in Stockholm, he’d teamed up with three other Bosnian performers (female singer, male rapper and female cellist – eclectic!) and projected a very different appearance – shaved head, sharply shaped beard and a more solid physique. Still, he couldn’t say he was openly gay back home in Sarajevo. “Hiding in plain sight” was the best he could hope for and he wasn’t overly confident that situation would change soon.
Meanwhile, also at Stockholm in 2016, The Netherlands' Douwe Bob almost laughed when asked about coming about as bisexual. His response? “I never knew I was 'in'. I’ve always been 'out'.”
For all the gay, queer and trans performers at Eurovision, only three have won – a trans woman (Dana International), a gender illusionist character (Conchita Wurst) and one solitary lesbian. Marija Šerifović from Serbia, wearing a simple black suit jacket, white shirt, black trousers and sneakers, sang “Molitva” (Prayer) and reminded everyone in Helsinki in 2007 that this is a song contest. How long before a proud, openly gay male can join that esteemed list? Montenegro’s Slavko Kalezić is in the frame this year - his song “Space” is worth watching.
The Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast over SBS’s Eurovision weekend - Friday 12 May, Saturday 13 May, and Grand Final Sunday 14 May at 7.30pm on SBS with LIVE early morning broadcasts begin Wednesday 10 May at 5am on SBS.