Music Editor Talia Andrea on the clash between the politics and performance of gender in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Every May without fail, almost everyone who owns a TV licence crawls out of the woodwork and onto Twitter to share their comments, questions and concerns about the latest series of the Eurovision Song Contest: a competition hailed for its glorious (or tasteless, depending on who you ask) refusal to conform to what is generally considered socially acceptable in the worlds of music, fashion, dance, and virtually every other subcategory of entertainment.
Its refusal to conform doesn’t stop at just entertainment, however. The contest, which has been described as a “high camp” celebration of “brazen queerness“, is popular with the global LGBTQ+ community for the wide scope and visibility of LGBTQ+ artists it has championed since its inception, and especially since the turn of the 21st century. Since Icelandic singer Páll Óskar became the first openly gay artist to perform at Eurovision in 1997, LGBTQ+ representation in Eurovision has only been on the up — to mixed reception from some countries. Twenty years ago, Slovenia’s representative band Sestre drew international attention for being the first ensemble to perform on the Eurovision stage in drag. This later sparked anti-gay protests in Slovenia, a discussion of the performance in European Parliament, and a review of whether or not Slovenia’s future membership within the European Union should be revoked as a response to the outpouring of homophobic sentiment. Just over ten years later, Turkish broadcaster TRT refused to broadcast the 2013 series of the competition, allegedly because of Finnish singer Krista Siegfrids’s onstage kiss with a female backup dancer during the performance of her song “Marry Me”. Even now, as countries such as The Netherlands proudly fly the LGBTQ+ flag beside their country’s flag during the semi-final qualifiers, and the same-sex kiss makes a triumphant return for the opposite sex (during Achille Lauro’s 2022 performance for San Marino), it is clear that the presentation of gender and sexuality on the Eurovision stage can have political resonance beyond each performance. The backlash received by Tajik-born Russian representative Manizha last year, following her representation of the country with the feminist ethnic-electropop single “Russian Woman”, is proof enough that this hasn’t yet changed.
While some artists use the song contest’s stage as a platform to celebrate their own or others’ “queerness”, others have used the conventions of camp as little more than an entertainment factor. While this is generally all in good fun, with no intention other than to tip the televoting in the relevant country’s favour, some such performances have not been so benign. Russian pop duo T. A.T. u., who were chosen to represent their country in 2013, were alleged to have been initially selected to “counter accusations of Russian cultural conservatism,” an endeavour helped along by their carefully-crafted “lesbian image“. Neither of the two singers, Lena Katina and Julia Volkova, are actually lesbians, and Volkova has since spoken out about how she “wouldn’t accept a gay son”.
Once you look past all the glitzy masquerade masks, it becomes yet more evident that the performances of gender and sexuality in the Eurovision Song Contest might hide a more sinister side. Examples of yet more countries with whom LGBTQ+ performativity is convenient for the popular vote within the competition, but not the country’s own population, are rife. Lithuania’s entry from last year, “Discoteque” by THE ROOP, might have all the dressings of a camp performance — from the banana-yellow suits to the sensual, avant-garde dance moves — but Lithuania still maintains a law which bans the sharing of information about the LGBTQ+ community (which they dub “gay propaganda”) to those under 18. Romania, whose 2022 entry “Llámame” features male crop tops galore, hip-swinging in tight, glossy vinyl trousers, and lyrics such as “Love cannot be stopped by anybody / ‘Cause it’s so true / I show it to the world, ’cause I won’t hide it […] What if they’re gonna find out? / Nobody’s gonna like it,” passed a similar law in the same month as this year’s contest. The result is a strangely isolated, Judith Butler-esque view into gender, where “unconventional” expressions of gender and sexuality are acceptable as long as the audience is aware that it is limited to the three to five minutes of a performance.
Stranger still was the choice for singer Efendi to enter Eurovision 2020 with a song which opens with blatant LGBT-pandering lyrics (“Cleopatra was a queen like me / Just like me, yeah, just like me / Straight or gay or in between,”) to represent Azerbaijan, which was named “the most anti-LGBT+ country in Europe“ just one year before, in 2019. And San Marino’s attitude to LGBTQ+ partnerships is about as performative as recent representative Senhit made it seem with her 2020 psychedelic disco-pop music video for “Freaky!”, which continuously teases at same-sex desire between women without manifestly displaying it; the country’s parliament proposed a law in 2018 which “would allow same-sex marriages of foreign couples to be performed in San Marino, with the aim of encouraging tourism”, while same-sex couples native to the country are still limited to civil partnerships and banned from marriage. One can only wonder whether the decisions for each of these songs to represent their respective countries were acts of protest, or propaganda.
As inclusive as the Eurovision Song Contest appears to be (and often actually is, to give credit where it’s due), it is evident that certain member countries’ attitudes to gender and sexuality can be performative at best, and appropriation at worst, when they choose to use LGBTQ+ identity as a convenient tool to make a grab for global popularity on the (literal and figurative) world stage, despite their local laws telling a far different story. It might be time to reexamine the use of gender and sexual fluidity as little more than an entertainment factor in these cases — the implications that presentations of gender and sexuality outside the heteronormative binary are only appropriate (or convenient) for a stage, which is broadcast by mass-media once a year, are too harmful to ignore.