• Conchita Wurst representing Austria performs the song "Rise Like A Phoenix" after winning the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 Grand Final in Denmark. (AFP (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images))Source: AFP (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
"Watching Eurovision was one of the first and most open ways that I could talk about, and be exposed to, LGBT+ people and pro-LGBT+ sentiments," writes Thomas Dryburgh.
By
Thomas Dryburgh

12 May 2017 - 2:27 PM  UPDATED 14 May 2020 - 10:57 AM

“Good Evening Europe.”

Sitting down to watch Eurovision with my family was an annual tradition in my childhood home. It began with some skepticism on my part, and was at the insistence of my parents. As the birthplace of ABBA, I was quickly instructed that it warranted my attention.

While I may have initially responded with confusion and uncertainty toward the contest, this soon transformed into a passionate devotion that has withstood the test of time.

Eurovision is a love for me for two reasons; one, because of the fun associated with the over-the-top nature of the show, mixed in with awkward hosting and the infamous internet drinking games which have added a whole new element of entertainment once I was of age, but also for something much deeper.

Despite the contest almost mocking itself for its obsession with the themes of love and peace, it seems important to acknowledge that this isn’t a bad legacy to hold.

Established as a cross-cultural project to bring Europe together after years of instability and conflict, the Eurovision Song Contest has flourished to become a spectacle of proportions far beyond those its founders could have ever comprehended.

While the rules prohibit overt political commentary within the performances, Eurovision is undeniably political, and always has been. From subtle references within song themes, such as the 2016 Ukrainian winning song ‘1994’ by Jamala, dealing with the deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union, to the more obvious, as was demonstrated by the 2009 Georgian entrant with the song "We Don’t Wanna Put In", which was disqualified for its alleged attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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The decision by this year’s host country, Ukraine, to ban the Russian entrant from participating in the contest has been pursued on the grounds of the artist’s unauthorised entry into Crimea, but it seems hard to deny this isn’t a politically motivated decision.

Similarly, the voting system used in Eurovision, (which I believe requires a doctorate to fully comprehend), is notoriously driven by regional voting blocks and always reflects the political sentiment in place at the time. A telling example of this was shown in 2014, when mounting hostility aimed at Russia following the Ukrainian Revolution, intervention in Crimea and its treatment of LGBT+ citizens, resulted in their entrant - The Tolmachevy Sisters - being booed throughout their performances, and the delivery of the Russian vote. Their final result of 7th place with 89 points was far from the triumphant win of Austria’s Conchita Wurst on 290 points, and indicative of the negative sentiment surrounding the political activities of the nation.

With an audience of more than 200 million viewers worldwide, it’s clear that the Eurovision Song Contest has a truly influential platform. What is said on that stage and what it presents to the world matters. I know this personally because it mattered to me, and still does.

Watching Eurovision was one of the first and most open ways that I could talk about, and be exposed to, LGBT+ people and pro-LGBT+ sentiments.

I was fortunate my family never expressed hostility toward the queer community, and even more so, that when sitting down to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, they could acknowledge and praise the pride with which LGBT+ acts carried themselves.

Despite coming before my time, acts like Dana International, who in 1998 became the first openly trans person to win the contest, amid controversy and death threats, paved the way for making Eurovision the inclusive celebration we know and love today.

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While the path toward a Eurovision more comfortable with its identity and that of its supporters was a gradual one, there is no doubt that the bravery of Dana almost 20 years ago contributed positively toward shaping the contest and the social attitudes that dictate its outcome each year. This allowed a unique and flamboyant act like Conchita Wurst and her unforgettable voice to take out the title in 2014; however, still amidst a shameful controversy. It was publicised at the time that legislators in Russia felt it necessary to attack Conchita and the European Broadcasting Union for her participation in the contest, likening her act to gay ‘propaganda’.

Despite this retaliation, from those who would rather the world be neatly ordered and placed into identical boxes, Eurovision champions individuality. This show sends a message of liberation to all people, regardless of sexual orientation, reminding us to let go of our inhibitions. For those three nights, Europe beams diversity, equality and a world united by a common sense of humanity into living rooms across the globe, and for a closeted teen enjoying this spectacle on the couch with their family in rural Australia, this is something of great significance.

Regardless of a person’s individual views, Eurovision has the rare ability to unite us all, making entertainment from those flamboyant and even cliché acts. This creates a universal sentiment that all people have the right to express and enjoy themselves. It also highlights the importance of not worrying about how others define who you are, and above all, having fun - even if your definition of fun is being blasted with cyclonic wind machines while dancing across a stage in death-defying high heels!

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For someone in a similar situation to me while I was growing up, young, closeted and enjoying an innocent family tradition in front of the TV, Eurovision offers a window into a world less hung up on gender norms and how people are ‘supposed’ to be, and instead celebrates people enjoying themselves.

It gives hope that the future is one of love and equality, and promises to continue making this the dominant theme of every single contest until it is realised. LGBT+ fans of Eurovision carry this with them and are encouraged by it to live their lives unapologetically in knowledge that a society of acceptance is not out of the realm of reality.

As per usual, I cannot wait for this year’s contest and while I mourn the departure of Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang as our commentators, I am very excited to see Myf Warhurst and Joel Creasey taking the reins, and I know they’ll do us proud.

As a gay man who has dreamt of having the honour of Australia’s Eurovision commentary for over a decade, Joel is living out my dreams and for now, I’ll live vicariously through him.

When seeking to identify what Eurovision offers for the LGBT+ community, and what it means to me, I think Conchita summed it up perfectly in her 2014 victory speech:

“This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity. And we are unstoppable.” 

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter @TomDryburgh

Following the unprecedented cancellation of the Eurovision Song Contest this year, SBS is holding a week-long festival of Eurovision from 10-17 May, culminating in brand new alternative programming for Eurovision 2020 this weekend.

We celebrate the 2020 artists and songs with SBS’s very own Eurovision 2020: Big Night In! premiering Saturday 16 May at 7.30pm. SBS invited Australia to vote for their favourite three 2020 Eurovision acts from all competing nations (voting has now closed) - watch as we countdown the results over three big hours, and catch performances from some very special guests. 

Join the conversation on Twitter and have the chance to see your tweets and lounge room party pics on screen during Eurovision 2020: Big Night In! by using #SBSEurovision #BigNightIn. 

Airing on SBS on Sunday 17 May at 8.30pm will be a special two-hour program Eurovision: Europe Shine a Light from the Netherlands.