It ain’t so queer. The success of Conchita Wurst across continental divides.

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Some Russians shaved off their beards in protest, church officials objected and right wing (and main stream) commentators in a number of countries, including Serbia and Croatia, are offended and offensive at the success of Conchita Wurst because of her deliberate blurring of gender boundaries and sexuality.

In an insightful blog, Alan Renwick noted that while there is a clear east-west divide in terms of the overall vote for Conchita Wurst last Saturday, the variation is insignificant among the voting public, while the jury displayed greater variety. His argument might be even low-balling the small variation. There is a selection bias among those who vote for the Eurovision contest. In many Western European countries there are strong fan constituencies who enjoy the contest for its odd performances, the meeting of ‘banal nationalism’ with a European public sphere and the horrendous music. In other countries, in particular in Europe’s East, Eurovision is more serious business. States invest heavily into winning the contest and its participation is a away to afirm Europeanness (no were more so in countries whose Europeanness is challenged such as Turkey, not participating this year, Azerbajian, Georgia and Armina). Thus audience and voters are likely to be from a broader social background less than those where the viewers take a more ironic distance to event and the voting. Thus, the gap might even be smaller than the voting spread would indicate.

All of this would suggest that the opinion makers, from jury members and politicians are more homophobic and upset by the Austrian victory than the broader public. This seems not implausible. Jury member vote in public and thus in homophobic, patriarchal and authoritarian contexts might either worry about voting for an act like Conchita or might in fact be selected to represent the ‘official’ taste.

The more intriguing question is whether voting for Conchita Wurst is a sign of greater tolerance. At first glance the answer would appear to be yes. Voting for a drag queen with a beard seems hard to reconcile with stereotypical gender roles (for that there was the Polish entry to this year’s Eurovision). However, one should not jump to conclusions. Eurovision itself as a long history of giving more space to openly gay and lesbian performances than the general public in most states would accept. Dana International won for Israel already some 16 years ago. Consider also Serbia where gay pride parades have failed repeatedly and homophobic attitudes remain social acceptable, Marija Šerifović, the Serbian winner of the Eurovision contest in 2007, was not only lesbian (while she did not openly acknowledge this years later, it was not secret to tabloids) but also a Roma (and that did not stop her for endorsing the Serb Radical Party, not particularly enlightened on either groups).

More importantly, even fairly homophobic and patriarchal societies have been tolerant of gay and lesbian or gender-bending entertainers. Take two cases. Azis in Bulgaria. Azis has been one of the most successful singer of chalga music, the widely popular musical genre that combines (pseudo-)traditional music with Western pop like turbofolk (I am aware of the problems of the terminology) in former Yugoslavia or Arabesque in Turkey. Azis, who is also of Roma decent, has been playing with gender roles just as much as Conchita (see here). Similarly in Turkey has had extremely successful performers who challenged gender roles: Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren. Carol Silverman in her wonderful book “Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora” carefully analyses the success of Azis and his performance, playing with gender stereotypes and the image of the Roma and the oriental. To some degree the combination of the exotic and the bending of gender roles made both more easily acceptable. However, Bulgaria and Turkey remain among the countries in Europe least tolerant of homosexuality, thus suggesting a disconnect between the success of openly homosexual or transsexual performers and popular attitudes.

Not unlike elsewhere it being was ok to be gay or lesbian in the world of entertainment, but not in “normal life”. As the world of entertainment is unreal, artificial even when not playing with gender roles, there is more space for those who might not fit into the conventional societal expectations. In fact success in entertain can compound certain gender roles that perceive gays and lesbians as flamboyant, and, well, entertaining. Of course, earlier gay, lesbian and transsexual entertainers were able to flourish through ambiguity and not openly acknowledging their homosexuality, but Azis in Bulgaria became popular in Bulgaria despite open references to his homosexuality (on the boarder implications of Conchita Wurst on LGBT rights see, Catherine Baker’s blog).

What is more striking is the politicization of performance. On the one side the interpretation of Conchita Wurst’s success as a victory for diversity and tolerance, as she herself stated during the victory speech. Similarly LGBT organisations and political parties (rightfully) push for greater rights for gays and lesbians in terms of marriage and adoption (in particular in Austria after her victory was widely celebrated, including by the conservative party, but not by the xenophobic Freedom Party). On the other side is the visceral criticism and rejection by conservative and nationalist politicians, particularly in Europe’s East. This reflects a broader discovery as homophobia as a potent topic for the nationalist and conservative right in Russia (such as the law banning “homosexual propaganda”), but also in Southeastern Europe. While gay and lesbian rights used to be low on the list of issues for conservative groups to rally around more than a decade ago, the violence at Serbia’s first gay pride parade in 2001 was symptomatic for what has become an issue for the right to define itself around.

The politicization also takes on a different dimension. Not only Russian clowns who happen to be called politicians use the victory of Conchita Wurst to juxtapose their own identity with a hedonistic, sexually confused Europe. In Russia at the moment such rhetoric comes as little surprise (just as some argued that the victory of Conchita Wurst as some kind of anti-Russian statement), but also on internet fora in many countries in Southeastern Europe homophobic messages are mixed with skepticism towards the EU (along the lines of ‘this is not the kind of Europe we want’ see here, here and here).  Of course, such different views can be found in every country from the winner of Eurovision onwards, what differs is the balance between the views and their intensity. It would be important to not allow latent or open homophobia to justify views as those promoted by the populist right in some European countries (such as Wilders in the Netherlands) that use homophobia to justify their own xenophobia.

 

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