The Eurovision Song Contest is the biggest entertainment show on TV – with close to 180 million viewers around the globe. Originally developed in the 1950s by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) as an opportunity for national broadcasters to produce landmark television on a smaller budget, the contest is now synonymous with kitsch, glitz and camp. Over the decades Eurovision has built up a dedicated gay fanbase across the continent, with live finals in host cities taking on the celebratory atmosphere of a Pride parade.
According to the historian Catherine Baker, the story of how Eurovision became so beloved by the LGBTQ community “starts with the fans”. When I met her at the Museum of Liverpool, next to the city’s Eurovision village, she explained: “If you go back to the 1970s in some countries Eurovision already had a reputation as something to watch and have a party around. Queer fans and especially gay men at the time would use it as an occasion to have an annual celebration – in gay bars and in private homes.”
Perhaps the contest’s appeal to LGBTQ viewers lies in its unashamed celebration of camp. GJ Kooijman hosts a Dutch podcast about Eurovision and is one of the presenters on OutTV, a European LGBTQ TV channel. He agrees that camp is central to its popularity. “It’s about artists showing their extravagance to the utmost,” he said. “It is showing your artistry in the biggest way. And I think that’s something that queer people relate to a lot because we always get told to tone it down. And we’ve now learned to accept it and to live in that power, in that creativity that makes us authentically queer.”
It wasn’t until 1997 that Eurovision had its first out LGBTQ contestant, Paul Oscar, for Iceland. The following year perhaps the show’s most famous queer performer took to the stage and took the crown. Israel’s Dana International triumphed with “Diva” in Birmingham, the last time the UK hosted the contest. Since then there has been more queer representation on stage.
[See also: How the UK has dropped down the European ranks for LGBT equality]
Serbia’s Marija Šerifović challenged traditional gender roles with her performance of “Molitva” in 2007, dressed in a masculine tux with short hair – though Šerifović was not out at the time, she has since acknowledged her relationships with women. For Baker, this was a central moment in Eurovision’s queer history. “I think it was incredibly important. I think also the fact that it was not in English, it was in Serbian, and it was talking about themes of faith as well, that’s also important. One of the criticisms of international LGBTQ+ culture can be that sometimes it promotes a very commercialised, Western, English-speaking, middle-class, secular way of being queer. That’s not the only way of being queer, by any means – not even in Western European English-speaking countries, let alone the rest of Europe or beyond.”
Over the years the contest itself has become much more confident in celebrating its LGBTQ audience and performers. In 2013, when Sweden hosted in Malmö, the interval act included a celebration of same-sex marriage, a hotly debated issue in Europe at the time. In Copenhagen in 2014 the Austrian bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst won, much to the consternation of Russian politicians. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of Russia’s Liberal Democratic party, said at the time: “There’s no limit to our outrage. It’s the end of Europe.” Despite calls within the country to boycott what other politicians had called a “Europe-wide gay parade” Russia continued to participate. The catalyst for it to leave Eurovision was instead the invasion of Ukraine, after which Russia was expelled from the EBU.
Liverpool is embracing Eurovision’s queer side. Andi Herring is chief executive of the Liverpool City Region’s Pride Foundation, which is hosting Eurovision’s first Pride House, a safe space in the heart of the city for LGBT people. It has a café and bar, exhibitions and events, including yoga, a workshop in polari – a slang used in queer subcultures – and a poetry writing group. He thinks Liverpool’s decision to highlight its diverse identity contributed to the success of its bid to host the contest. “We are super proud of being such a diverse city,” he said. “Often, we’re guilty of looking inwards, but actually this is our opportunity to look outwards and to say hey, here’s Liverpool. It’s a safe place. It’s a welcoming place and here you can be yourself.” Alongside the contest itself, Liverpool is hosting a city-wide cultural festival, which also involves “Queerovision”, promising to put queer culture at the heart of the Eurovision celebrations.
On stage, one act is putting pride front and centre in his performance. Gustaph, from Belgium, will perform his song “Because of You”, which was strongly influenced by 1980s house music and written to perform at Pride festivals around the Benelux region. It was a surprise winner of Belgium’s Eurovision selection show. “We wanted to have something that was really direct and really made you feel instantly good about yourself,” he told me in a break from rehearsals for his semi-final performance on Thursday 11 May. “The song is about self-empowerment and self-confidence, thanking the people who were there before you. I think as a queer person, you realise that you do that a lot by choosing your own little tribe… You find people who have common ground with you, who went through the same thing as you did. You find solace and strength in each other, and you lift each other up.”
On stage he includes a voguing performance by the New York entertainer PussCee West. “From the moment I knew I was going to do the national final in Belgium, it really became for me about highlighting certain elements of queer culture that wouldn’t necessarily be brought to the attention of the mainstream, especially in Belgium,” Gustaph said. “It’s an open country, but I don’t feel a lot of people in the mainstream know about ballroom culture or drag culture.” It had to be authentic: “I’m very honoured to include someone like PussCee who is really of the culture to bring it to the Eurovision stage. I think even if people don’t know about queer culture, even if there’s someone watching who doesn’t necessarily understand what they’re seeing, the fact that it’s so joyful, that it’s so positive will translate well.”
From Celine Dion to Sonia, Gina G to Conchita Wurst, Eurovision has always had its queer icons. Now the contest is finally putting a message of diversity and equality centre stage. In Liverpool, a city known for its ability to throw a party, the atmosphere is more celebratory than ever.
[See also: The church’s gay marriage ban is politics, not Christianity]