Austrian beauty: Conchita Wurst, Austria's 2014 entry for Eurovision who has caused controversy in Russia.
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Can a bearded Austrian drag queen give Putin the bird?

Austria has incited anti-gay and transphobic rhetoric in Russia by entering Conchita Wurst into Eurovision. Can she do for drag what Dana International did for trans people?

It’s probably safe to say the Eurovision Song Contest is no stranger to camp – both witting and unwitting – nor has it had a dearth of openly LGBT contestants in the past. Indeed one of the contest's most famous winners, and perhaps the apogee of all Eurovision, was the Israeli transgender superstar Dana International in 1998 with her hi-NRG anthem “Diva” (her second entry for Israel, “Ding Dong”, in 2011 fared less well). And both singer and song were not without controversy, with many Israeli Orthodox Jews and other conservatives fiercely opposing her participation; on arrival at the contest in Birmingham, she needed a constant police escort.

This year's Eurovision entry for Vienna, the 25-year-old drag queen Conchita Wurst, is performing a song, “Rise Like a Phoenix” that has more than a nod to “Diva”, with a touch of Bond theme. And while Wurst (real name Tom Neuwirth) is emphatically a gay male performer rather than being trans, his look is perhaps Eurovision’s most genderqueer yet: he’s a drag queen with a beard. This is not the comedy butch bloke in a frock look but something altogether more striking (and apparently hard for many people compute); Conchita’s look is what might be termed in the trade as “femme réal”, except for his face fuzz: feminine, alluring, pretty (his dark wig and smoky make-up also perhaps a homage to Dana International). 

There is a healthy history in gay culture of this kind of gender-bending, hetero-confusing, razor-lite alt-drag, from the Cockettes in San Francisco in and Bloolips in London in the 1970s to some of Kenny Everett's characters in the 1980s to the drag performer Jonny Woo today. You can probably find the filtered down, mainstream “drag queen with a beard/bearded gay hipster in a wig” in any European drag bar or gay club these days, so to most people on the scene Conchita’s appearance will be a familiar trope. Not so much to our LGBT-loving friends in Russia it seems, though. 

According to Reuters, online petitions, one calling the competition a “hotbed of sodomy” have already been started in Russia (which passed a law last year banning “gay propaganda”), as well as Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia, to have Wurst removed from the competition or edited out of broadcasts in their countries, something that illustrates the ever more stark cultural differences within Europe and the widening gulf in attitudes to homosexuality. 

Whatever you think of the song, which you can listen to below, a vote for Wurst on the night is another vote against Russian homophobia and transphobia, and a win would send out a strong message of defiance eastwards. Will Wurst be the best and get the Royaume Uni’s Douze points? 

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era