Here’s Why a Cross-Dressing Diva Is a Lens Into Europe’s Political Conflicts

Conchita Wurst won the hearts of many Europeans with her performance, which has more significance than it may seem.

Conchita Wurst, representing Austria, poses with the trophy following a press conference after winning the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 Grand Final in Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 11, 2014. (Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

May 15, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

An evening of campy performances and blithe entertainment, this year’s Eurovision Song Contest became a contentious ode to tolerance when Austria’s bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst sang her way to victory.

In spite of its humorous and well-loved kitsch, it’s not hard to understand why a nearly 60-year-old competition that includes dozens of European countries is politically charged. After all, the European Broadcasting Union originally conceived of the contest in hopes of unifying a war-torn continent after World War II.

The process of each country putting forth their competitors is often perceived as a reflection of the political climate between the countries, and this year’s show was no exception as the Tolmachevy Sisters of Russia were booed wildly after their performance and ultimately placed after Ukraine.

But the clear winner was Conchita Wurst, who was greeted with a roar of applause after performing the ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix,” and cheers grew louder during the presentation of votes cast in her favor across Europe.

Wurst breathlessly acknowledged the theme of tolerance as she accepted her trophy: “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable.”

Not all viewers greeted her triumph with a massive outpouring of support, with angry cries mounting from Russia’s far right. It may be awkward for her Russian haters, but Conchita Wurst’s winning anthem is now the second most downloaded song on iTunes in Russia, while the Tolmachevy Sisters’ track is at number 19.

It appears state-sanctioned intolerance can’t compete with her epic song, but we rounded up some choice responses to Wurst’s win to take the temperature of European politics.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, was perhaps the most incensed. “It’s the end of Europe. It has turned wild,” he said. “Fifty years ago, the Soviet army occupied Austria. We made a mistake in freeing Austria. We should have stayed there.”

Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, expressed his disgust on Twitter by declaring that Eurovision “showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl.”

Russian rapper Alexander Stepanov dramatically shaved his beard and filmed it for his Instagram account, challenging his followers to do the same while giving them the bird.

Prior to her win, a petition started by the All-Russian Parent Meeting urged broadcasters to remove Eurovision from their schedules, claiming that thanks to Wurst, the show had become a “hotbed of sodomy.” Similar petitions circulated in Armenia and Belarus.

Sandy Rios of the conservative American Family Association described Wurst on the Right Wing Watch radio show as a conqueror who is “under a delusion and will not prevail.”

But while politicos spouted venom, others voiced support for the groundbreaking win. Simply put by Boy George on Twitter:

In Moscow, gay activists undeterred by 2013’s ugly federal law to prohibit the distribution of “gay propaganda” have filed an application to the mayor’s office notifying officials of their intent to host a “Conchita Wurst march of bearded people to open the gay parade season.” The march will take place on May 27, the 21st anniversary of abolishing criminal prosecution for homosexual relations in Russia.

British newspaper The Sun decided to respond to Russian intolerance by sending one of its reporters to the Russian embassy dressed as Wurst.

Paris Lees, British journalist and transgender rights activist, dissected the public’s confusion about Wurst’s gender identity, concluding that what mattered most is that she is an ambassador for “gender fluidity,” diversity, and inclusiveness:

Across Europe, gay, lesbian, bi and trans people are disowned by their families, often to be beaten, humiliated and locked away by society. Write Conchita’s victory off as novelty nonsense if you like, but you’ll be sniffing at the millions of people now finding inspiration in her Eurovision ashes.

Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch called it plain and simple:

Jen Hyatt of London expressed relief as a parent on Twitter. “I am so glad that my kids live in an era where it is #conchita and not Hitler that represents Austria in Europe.”