In the 1997 Israeli film Ba’al Ba’al Lev (Gotta Have Heart), a gay teenager obsessed with the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) expressed pity for his LGBTQ brethren in the United States. “The Americans are so miserable — they’ve got everything: New York, McDonalds, Madonna, Clinton’s daughter Chelsea,” he said. “But what is it all worth if they don’t have the ESC?”
For its legion of gay fans, Eurovision has long been more than a song contest. The glitter-slicked, pan-European singing spectacle that unfolds each May has become a symbol of diversity and tolerance — all set to a euro-pop beat. In their pursuit of international stardom, the contest’s outré performers, from transgender divas to drag queens with beards, have given visibility to people across the LGBTQ spectrum — and raised important issues in countries where tolerance hasn’t always been so manifest.
As Eurovision veterans perform at gay pride festivals from Madrid to Stockholm this summer, we recount five memorable LGBTQ moments at Eurovision.
Israel Puts Forward the First Ever Trans Contestant (1998)
Israeli pop star Dana International underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1993. Five years — and three successful albums — later, she won the right to sing for Israel at Eurovision. The Orthodox religious community threatened to topple the government over the male-to-female transsexual, who they described as “an abomination.”
But Dana — and her legions of gay fans — marched on. The contest, held in Birmingham, England, would feature a public televote for the very first time, and supporters began to see her potential success as a statement on gay power. The lyrics of her song “Diva” reiterated that she was a woman — and one who had grown strong through struggle: “She is all you’ll ever dream to find/ On her stage she sings her story/ Pain and hurt will set her heart alight/ Like a queen in all her glory.”
Her victory transformed her into a national icon to gay and straight fans alike. “My victory proves God is on my side,” she said afterwards. “I want to send my critics a message of forgiveness and say to them: try to accept me and the kind of life I lead. I am what I am, and this does not mean I don’t believe in God, and I am part of the Jewish Nation.”
She returned to the contest in 2011 with a song cheekily entitled “Ding Dong.” It didn’t cause quite the stir — owing to the awareness she had raised 13 years earlier.
Serbia Shares the Joys of Lesbian Love (2007)
She didn’t come out as a lesbian until 2013. But in her stirring performance at Eurovision 2007 in Helsinki, the Serbian singer Marija Šerifovi? had viewers reading between the lines — even if they couldn’t understand the Serbian-language lyrics.
Standing center stage, with her boyish haircut and a disheveled tuxedo, she played with gender stereotypes and nodded to lesbianism with her squadron of all-girl backing vocalists, who frequently caressed her. “Falling in love frightens me/ Days are like wounds/ Countless and hard to get through,” she sang. The performance ended with her holding another woman’s hand. Their point of contact revealed a painted red heart.
Marija didn’t just capture the passion of a same-sex romance. As the daughter of a famous Romany singer, she also reminded the world that LGBT people come in many shades and from many backgrounds.
A Straight Ally Calls for Same-Sex Marriage in Finland (2013)
In 2003, Russia’s faux-lesbian duo t.A.T.u. planned to kiss on stage — a move the contest’s organizers actively discouraged during rehearsals. But ten years later, Finland’s Krista Siegfrids decided to give the same-sex kiss another go at the contest in Malmö. Krista, a straight ally with a male fiancé, deemed the move a public protest over Finland’s failure to extend equal rights — including same-sex marriage — to gay people.
Singing a frothy piece of pop called “Marry Me,” she wore a wedding dress as she pleaded for her beloved to pop the question: “Baby I feel like a sinner/ Skipping dinner to get thinner/ Where is my proposal?” But the gender-neutral lyrics never revealed the sex of her imaginary partner, who only came into focus at the very last moment when Krista kissed a female backing vocalist.
Turkey’s state broadcaster decided not to broadcast the show at the last minute, claiming it would receive low ratings. But Turkey’s LGBT activists suggested it had more to do with upsetting social mores. China’s leading music channel CCTV-15, which aired the show five months later, cut the kissing sequence from its broadcast.
Austria’s Bearded Lady Preaches Perseverance (2014)
When Austria’s state broadcaster selected the bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst for the contest in Copenhagen, plenty of Austrians were outraged. Haters described the character — portrayed by gay male singer Tom Neuwirth — as “foolish” and “disgusting”, and some members of Austria LGBTQ community said she was casting them all as freaks. The most repeated takedown was that Austria had made the “wurst” decision possible. In Belarus and Russia, social conservatives filed a petition calling on their governments not to show Conchita’s performance, which would turn Eurovision into “a hotbed of sodomy.”
But Conchita, who wears a beard as a statement that “everyone deserves a fabulous life,” only grew stronger during her Eurovision campaign, calling out a fellow contestant over his transphobic statements in a series of interviews. During the final she delivered an emotional and visually arresting performance of her song “Rise Like A Phoenix,” which preached perseverance — and at a time Putin’s anti-LGBT laws were still grabbing headlines. She won, delivering one of the most iconic victory speeches ever: “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom,” she said in her hip-hugging gold gown. “You know who you are. We are unity. And we are unstoppable!”
Croatian Singer Accused of Homophobia Sees the Light (2017)
He’s a Croatian pop star best known as a mentor on his country’s edition of The Voice. But entering Eurovision 2017, Croatia’s Jacques Houdek carried some pretty heavy baggage. In 2011 LGBTQ rights group Zagreb Pride nominated him for “Homophobe of the Decade,” owing to controversial statements he had reportedly made in 2005, telling Tena magazine that gay men and lesbians “cannot be equal with other citizens because it means a return to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
But Houdek made the bold decision to compete at Eurovision 2017 in Kiev anyway, and in a year where organizers had chosen the theme “Celebrate Diversity” — with its obvious nod to gay rights. He launched a digital campaign celebrating friendship and gave interviews to media outlets with large gay followings. His bonkers — but totally endearing — performance of “My Friend” saw him singing a duet for one, with him covering both the operatic baritone and soaring falsetto sections as he encouraged listeners to “see the light and find your way.”
It ended with Jacques standing before a sea of sunflowers — all set beneath a mammoth digital rainbow. Many read the poetic ending as a statement of reconciliation, and an apology aimed at Croatia’s gay community.