Conchita Wurst, a drag performer, became the most recognizable face in Europe this past weekend – and not just because of her beard. On Saturday, Wurst won the annual Eurovision songwriting competition viewed by an estimated 180 million people worldwide, with her song “Rise Like a Phoenix.”
Representing Austria, Wurst competed against acts from 37 other European nations. Scores were determined in large part by viewer call-in votes from each participating country. The fact that the European populace overwhelmingly supported a gay man in drag indicates that LGBT rights have gained popular, even if not total, support.
The significance of the victory was not lost on Wurst, who seemed genuinely surprised and overwhelmed to come in first place. “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom – you know who you are,” she said while accepting her trophy. “We are unity and we are unstoppable!”
It was a just-subtle-enough message of LGBT progress for an event that bills itself as being apolitical. Obviously, no such international competition is actually free of politics, which is made evident by Russia’s hyperbolic post-show reactions.
Despite most of Europe largely supporting Wurst, Vladimir Zhirinovski, a Russian prime minister, called the result “the end of Europe.” “Fifty years ago, the Soviet Army occupied Austria… we should have stayed there,” Zhirinovsky said, adding, “There is no limit to our outrage!” Another Russia politician, Vitaly Milonov, has called on his country to boycott Eurovision in the future, labeling it “blatant propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay.”
Once again, however, the general citizenship of Russia has demonstrated itself to be far more tolerant than its own leaders. In polls that clearly weren’t rigged by the government, Russia call-in voters ranked Wurst third overall and currently “Rise Like a Phoenix” sits atop Russia’s iTunes chart. No amount of bluster from Russian politicians can hide the fact that many of the country’s own people are fans of Wurst like the rest of Europe.
Addressing these controversial stances, Wurst took the high road in a press conference. “I really dream of a world where we don’t have to talk about unnecessary things like sexuality, where you’re from or who you love. This is now what it’s all about,” she said. “I really felt like tonight, Europe showed that we are a unity full of respect and tolerance.”
It’s certainly a large step toward respect and tolerance anyway. Surely, Russia’s reaction wasn’t surprising to Wurst given the pre-show reaction. Both protesters in Russia and Belarus tried to prevent Wurst’s performance from airing in their respective countries altogether. There was also some controversy when Aram Mp3, the artist representing Armenia, made a “joke” that Wurst should have to choose whether she is a man or a woman. Aram was able to make amends with Wurst before the show, however.
Wurst wasn’t the only Eurovision act to promote tolerance – Pollaponk, the band representing Iceland, wore colorful suits and performed the song “No Prejudice,” which ultimately finished in 15th place. The message clearly was not lost on Europeans – if a queer bearded lady can be named Europe’s top musical act, love and acceptance seems inevitable.