When Conchita Wurst, the bearded drag alter ego of Austrian Tom Neuwirth, won the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 it was a very clear two-fingered salute from the rest of Europe to Russia.
The harsh way that Russia has been applying their law to prevent “the promotion of homosexuality to minors” – effectively banning any public show of same-sex affection or tolerance – has caused outrage across the rest of Europe and the world. The situation in Ukraine has won them few friends to the west of that area either.
On the night of Eurovision it seemed that if their own country wasn’t going to win then almost everyone wanted Conchita to win. Her song was good by Eurovision standards, and well-delivered, so there was certainly every reason to champion her, but the strength of support inside the arena and out clearly showed that it was at least partly what she represented that was being supported.
This was further underlined by the boos that Russia’s entry received and the heckles that were repeated every time they received any points during the voting. Theirs was also an above-average entry, delivered well by the pretty, wholesome-looking, 17-year-old Tolmachevy twins. Politics aside, there was much to like in the entry and certainly nothing that could have caused such enmity within the performance itself.
I supported Conchita too on the night, for all the reasons above. But as Conchita gave her emotional winner’s 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,” I couldn’t help but wonder if this had been handled in the best possible way. Would this help any Russian citizens suffering under the current regime? Would it help change the opinions of any conservative-minded Russians about how LGBT people should be treated?
The answer came in the Russian press the following day. Joining in with modern tolerant Europe would lead inevitably to their sons abandoning their wives, putting on dresses and discussing which shade of eye-shadow complements the highlights in their hair. All this to the back-drop of a whole arena of crew-cuts and white t-shirts waiving their rainbow flags and jeering at the doe-eyed Tolmachevy sisters.
Conchita herself says she isn’t transsexual, she doesn’t want to be a woman, she’s a man who enjoys wearing dresses. And that’s fair enough. But she isn’t an all-encapsulating example of why people are fighting Russian homophobia. We want people to have the same respect and rights no matter who they love or what gender they identify with. So while Conchita is certainly covered by that I fear that this has just given further ammo to the Russian hard-liners and not eased the situation in the country one iota.
So is it right to stand up to bullies? Yes, I believe so. But if you also have aspirations of reforming that bully then I think a bit more tact is necessary too. Eurovision was more about westerners letting off steam and nothing more than a gnat of annoyance to Russia. We are safely beyond the rule of the Russian authorities but if we pique them it will be their own LGBT citizens they will turn round and slap.