May 11, 2009

IconEurovision: is the world’s campest contest ready to get serious?

For thousands of people across Europe this Saturday, Eurovision will be a few hours of silly fun, writes Milly Shaw. But for the hundreds of people protesting in Slavic Gay Pride, Saturday will be a rare and perilous opportunity to reveal Russia’s hypocritical homophobia to the world.

What is Eurovision

It’s difficult to explain Eurovision to anyone who’s never seen it. Put simply, it’s an annual competition to see which country can come up with the best song. Singers from all the countries perform their songs, and then one by one each country gives points to whichever song they liked best.

Of course it’s far more than that. The Eurovision Song Contest has been around since 1956 – five decades to grow into a peculiarly lovable mixture of high camp, low talent, embarrassingly earnest patriotism and a surprisingly useful education on some of Europe’s lesser-known countries. (And, for some reason, non-European countries. Hello Azerbaijan!)

The gayest contest

Let’s be clear – this is not the Olympics of the singing world, and the United Kingdom doesn’t watch it for the songs. In fact we pretend to hate Eurovision.

We Brits think we’ve got the joke. We roll our eyes and laugh smugly at our less-evolved European neighbours as they wave their flags unironically at Latvian folk power ballads. Then we complain bitterly when we don’t win with our ironically awful entry, before remembering to pretend that we didn’t care anyway.

Most people in the UK are frightened to like Eurovision because they’re afraid it will make them gay. Indeed it possesses awesome gay power. The glamour, the glitz, the glitter, the glory – totally gay.

And Eurovision is gay in content as well as context – quite aside from the hundreds of tight-shirted, beautiful twirling men who have performed over the years, the queerest Eurovision of all was of course in 1998 when the winner, Dana International, was Israel’s openly transgender entry.

Protesting for gay rights

And so it comes as a massive shock to learn that while all this singing, dancing gaiety will be taking place inside the 80,000 capacity Olimpiyski venue, ordinary gay men and women are probably going to be attacked and arrested just outside as they protest for the most basic human dignities.

Russia does not like gay people. Homosexuality was made legal in Russia in 1993, following pressure from the European Council, but LGBT people in the country have no legal rights or protections.

Just 14-20% of Russians believe that homosexuality is acceptable, gay men are often confused with paedophiles in the press, and in 2007 Moscow’s mayor Yuri Luzhkov called gay rights protesters “satanists” and “perverts” who “destroy morals”.

Not that protesting is easy, or legal – Moscow has always explicitly banned any kind of gay rights march. Protesters who do turn up to speak out for gay rights face abuse from neo-Nazis, right-wing Christians and the police, as British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell discovered in 2007:

“At Moscow Pride in 2007 I was beaten almost unconscious by right-wing extremists, while the police stood by and watched. They then arrested me.” says Tatchell.

“I spent several hours in police detention before being released without charge. My attackers have never been arrested, even though they were clearly identified in photos and film footage.”

Eurovision 2009

For Russian protesters desperate to draw attention to the plight of LGBT people in Russia, Eurovision is a golden opportunity.

Despite the threats from Moscow officials – including a promise from the police chief Vyacheslav Kozlov that protesters will be treated “toughly” – protesters are hoping that Europe’s gayest event, held on the gayest weekend of the year (May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia) will be their chance to show the world Russia’s injustice towards gay people.

But will the broadcasters and audiences acknowledge the struggle of the Slavic Gay Pride protesters just outside the venue, or will they fix their eyes on the stage and see only the officially sanctioned, heavily sanitised version of gay life? Can Eurovision rise above its tacky superficiality and actually make a difference?

Wogan, Norton and the BBC

The situation doesn’t look good – just last week former UK commentator Terry Wogan said that Eurovision was not about politics or national pride, and that nobody should see it as more than “fun, light entertainment.”

Wogan has of course stepped down after 38 years commentating on the contest, with the openly gay comedian Graham Norton taking over this year. Norton has never publicly shown an interest in supporting gay rights, but he and the BBC must be aware of the controversy.

Will the BBC dare to show the Slavic Gay Pride protests? Will Graham Norton dare to talk about gay rights and the everyday oppressions facing millions of Russians? Or will we all just believe that the noises outside are just screams of excitement and concentrate on the kitsch dancing?

Tune in on Saturday 16 May to find out…

Eurovision will be shown in the UK at 8pm, Saturday 16 May 2009 on BBC1.

2 Responses to Eurovision: is the world’s campest contest ready to get serious?

  1. Martijn says:

    It is said that one of the Dutch singers will not sing in the finals (which I doubt he’ll get into) if Russia is going to suppress the demonstrations. That would be something very interesting to see, especially if more countries would say the same thing.

  2. becky says:

    Keep up the protesting! And have a look at the ESC live-remix site:

Milly Shaw


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