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May 29, 2014

What Really Happened at Eurovision

Russia’s crackdown on LGBT people is having a spillover effect as neighboring countries enact copycat homophobic legislation. Conventional wisdom holds that leaders such as President Vladimir Putin persecuting LGBT people for political gain, an easy route to public approval as popular sentiment in those countries already appears predisposed to homophobia.  
 
But reactions across the region to Conchita Wurst—the openly gay man from Austria who daringly defied gender norms in his performance at the Eurovision Song Contest with the song "Rise Like a Phoenix"—suggests the picture may be at least a little more complicated.  
 
Predictably, extremist politicians masquerading as populists held up the performer as the enemy of traditional values; as a symbol of all that is wrong with the West and the EU. In Russia, protesters decried Ms. Wurst of creating a “hotbed of sodomy” and elected officials suggested that it was time for countries opposing the “collapse of the European Union’s moral values” to begin their own song contest.  
 
Beyond the headlines, what really happened at Eurovision?
 
First, it is important to understand the complicated rules for choosing a winner.  Basically, each country has an official panel of judges who cast a vote for other countries’ performances. Additionally, hundreds of millions of viewers contribute their votes. Lest anyone think that national politics don’t play a role in this process, consider the scores of Armenia and Azerbaijan, bitter enemies that rated each other dead last in every single judge’s score as well as in popular vote.  So, taking into account the political stance of many of the countries on the LGBT community, how did Conchita Wurst do?
 
Unsurprisingly, the official judges for countries whose authorities regularly spout homophobic rhetoric placed Conchita low in the standings. Except for Ukraine (which may have had bigger things to think about), the judges scores from former Soviet states that have not joined the European Union were remarkably low. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus and Russia scored Conchita an average of 20.5 out of a possible low score of 24. 
 
But the people didn’t follow.  In these four countries the popular vote for Conchita was an average score of 3.  Georgia, which only had a popular vote, placed him at 2. 

We certainly shouldn’t make the leap into saying these nations are filled with people who passionately believe in equal rights across the board but are held back by their homophobic leaders.  What can be said is that people had the opportunity to vote however they wanted, and they didn’t vote for hatred and didn’t shy away from celebrating difference.  Perhaps there is a larger degree of openness than we typically assume. In countries where homophobia has become legitimized through legislation such as anti-propaganda laws, LGBT equality has been reduced to ashes. If we have learned anything from Conchita Wurst’s reception amongst the people, however, it is that they may rise from them.