Austrian drag star Conchita Wurst famously won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest with the soaring ballad Rise Like a Phoenix (Photo: Albin Olsson License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
The 2023 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted in Liverpool, England on 13 May, was watched by 160 million people worldwide. Matt Weaver looks at why it continues to have an enduring and passionate LGBTQ+ following.
In 1956, seven European countries – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and West Germany – gathered in Lugano, Switzerland for the first ever Eurovision Song Contest. The competition was only broadcast in select countries, meaning only a small number of viewers watched Swiss entry Lys Assia win the grand prize with the song Refrain.
Over the years, the contest has become a glitzy, kitschy spectacle of both the beautiful and the bizarre, drawing in over 160 million viewers at last year’s event. In 2023, Eurovision returns to the UK (last year’s runners up) on behalf of 2022 winners Ukraine for the first time since 1998, a day few anticipated after years of zero success.
As well as the contest’s overall transition from small show to huge spectacle, Eurovision has also developed a dedicated and passionate fandom over the years, many of whom are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
I have always been a huge follower of the contest. Eurovision is a perfect unity of my own fanhood and my research interests surrounding contemporary LGBTQ+ representation and visibility. An international media event that places LGBTQ+ people centre stage deserves celebrating.
In a recent BBC article, journalist Jamie McLoughlin labelled Eurovision a “safe space” for LGBTQ+ communities, noting how Eurovision consistently lays a “thoroughly supportive hand” on LGBTQ+ people in Europe. LGBTQ+ fans have affectionately likened Eurovision to other major events, with descriptions such as “Gay Christmas”, “the Gay World Cup” and “the Gay Olympics”.
In the BBC TV special Eurovision Calling, Jason Manford interviewed several LGBTQ+ Eurovision fans, including Lewis Thorp, who described how Eurovision helped him come to terms with his sexuality.
Camping it up
But why is Eurovision so popular amongst LGBTQ+ communities? Many have related LGBTQ+ (particularly gay male) admiration for Eurovision in its “camp” nature and reliance on excess. In Susan Sontag’s seminal piece Notes on Camp, she describes camp as more than just the effeminacy of gay men – it is a sensibility that represents the “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”.
The performativity and extravagance of Eurovision undeniably represents this notion of camp, with vibrant performances and over-the-top presentations. This contrasts with Eurovision’s early days when there was very little LGBTQ+ visibility in music or on television.
Camp can represent the sense of subcultural community through the “gaying” of straight culture. Although there was no actual representation in the beginnings of Eurovision, LGBTQ+ communities adapted for their own purposes and needs, using the joy of the song contest as a means to celebrate diversity.
In recent years we have been introduced to many LGBTQ+ participants in an age of increased visibility in both music and television. In 1998, Dana International made history as the first transgender winner for Israel – an incredible achievement considering the lack of trans representation at the time.
In 2007, Ukranian drag queen Verka Serduchka impressed audiences with the catchy Dancing Lasha Tumbai, placing second in the grand final. In fact, the art of drag would continue to be popular with Eurovision audiences, when Conchita Wurst won the contest for Austria with Bond-like ballad Rise Like a Phoenix in 2014.
There have also been a number of memorable moments of LGBTQ+ representation during the event. In 2013, Finland’s entry Krista Siegfrids kissed a female dancer during her grand final performance of Marry Me, a protest against her government’s rejection of same-sex marriage.
In an interview afterwards, Siegfrids declared that the performance was structured to promote “love and tolerance”.
Drive for change
Although politics is mostly banned at Eurovision (Ukraine’s President Zelensky has been barred from addressing the event this year), Siegfrid’s performance demonstrated how Eurovision could represent a platform of protest, and how it can be used as a potential drive for political and cultural change.
It is evident that LGBTQ+ people have taken centre stage at Eurovision. It is not just an extravagant spectacle of camp, but a place to be seen, a place where LGBTQ+ performers can be successful, accepted and supported by an array of fans.
This is particularly notable when there are still anti-LGBTQ+ policies in existence in many European countries (including Russia, Belarus, Turkey and Hungary) and some countries are becoming increasingly hostile environments for transgender people (including the UK). Turkey departed the contest in 2012, with Turkish broadcaster TRT stating LGBTQ+ prevalence as a key cause of their withdrawal.
In 2014 drag artist Conchita Wurst was heavily criticised for taking part, with Russian politician Vladimir Zhiriovsky labelling her win as “the end of Europe”. Wurst has since been hailed by Eurovision fans as an LGBTQ+ icon, whereas Russia is now banned from entering the competition following its invasion of Ukraine.
Eurovision producers are clearly aware of their prominent LGBTQ+ fandom, and are actively working to ensure it is a safe and welcoming place. And this was no different during Liverpool’s turn as host this year.
The Eurovision committee planned a number of events, such as Queerovision, an online event showcasing the best of Liverpool’s Queer fringe, as well as a number of gay club events and after parties.
This year’s slogan, “United by Music”, predominantly refers to the UK hosting on behalf of Ukraine, but it can possess wider connotations: the unity of Europe and LGBTQ+ people. Whether Eurovision exists as a camp and glitzy spectacle, a major platform of LGBTQ+ visibility and representation, or a beacon of self-expression amongst fans, the contest’s impact on LGBTQ+ communities around the world is abundantly clear.