It must be that time of the year again... As winter draws to a close, the snowdrops begin to blossom, people pack the gyms because it'll be beach time fairly soon, and that bastion of spring-time that is the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) looms closer and closer with national song selections being finalised.With the singing kermesse now breaking into new territories, namely the US and China - its authentic blend of camp, unmitigated gayness has never been more popular. Though to be fair, it's a strange brand of popularity: avid fans on one side, and avid haters on the other. Eurovision haters say that it's not 'real' music, just tacky pop. And we say - what's wrong with that? Must life be 'serious' all the time?
But whatever people may say, it is a huge event on the calendar - and not just the gay one. Maybe its success is in having the same positive message since its inception sixty years ago - that we're a lot better off being good neighbours. Wise words today, as in 1956. Especially in these times of Brexit, Frexit, Grexit - and assorted wall-mongering.
Even though, in reality it's all about politics - ask the Russians who were the bookies' favourites last years but lost against a highly political anti-Russia song by Ukranian singer Jamala...
Politics aside, having attended last year's contest in Sweden, we can vouch for the friendliness and good-nature behaviour of the public. There may be a lot of furious national flag-waving, but it's all very innocuous. We've seen people waving other countries' flags. Maybe they liked them more than theirs? We are not sure. But it's not like some football games where the thought of waving the 'wrong' flag may lead to an early death...
If you can't be in the audience at Eurovision that's too bad, but you may want to join a bit of furious flag waving in your local gay bar. Or why not organising a Eurovision party? We've had quite a few ourselves at our place and still remember the roar when Conchita Wurst won for Austria in 2014 - I think the whole neighbourhood heard us...
Why is it so gay?
Now that we have the basics out of the way, let's get to the main question – why and when a show originally billed as a 'family, continent-unifying singing contest' became so iconic in its gayness. In fact so blatantly gay that Russian lawmakers have repeatedly called for a boycott of the show, which they dubbed as 'the Eurovision of Sodom'.
Well, there are different opinions here. It's always been pretty cheesy, even in the 70s when the gay identity as we call it now was still being defined. And besides, everything in the 70s was mighty cheesy anyway, like fondue and gammon steaks with pineapple. The combination of tackiness, cheap stage props, 'love-me / love-me-no-more' lyrics and colourful outfits did the rest.
The 90s brought a huge change as many former Soviet-bloc countries entered the contest. At the same time a big revolution happened in 1998 with the victory of Israel's Dana International, a transsexual woman. It was a bit like a 'coming-out moment' for the LGBT Eurovision community. The gay-factor increased exponentially from that point on.
After that defining moment many other contestants with a gay flavour followed, from Russian lesbian-esque entry duo T.a.T.u. in 2003, Verka Serduchka for Ukraine in 2007 and of course the gorgeous bearded Conchita Wurst, winning the contest for Austria in 2014. And if it isn't gay in name – it is certainly gay in every other sense, cue muscly stage dancers, hot men in hamster wheels, bare-chested gymnasts, guys in full leather and tons, two girls kissing, literally tons of glitter liberally scattered around. All of the above have been seen on the Eurovision stage.
And in parallel with the gay flavour, some entries have exceeded in pumping up the kitsch factor, from dancing grannies to Polish busty milk-maids, from scary monsters to ADHD-hyper twins. And some very bad singers, though we have also seen some really outstanding voices too.
What's it like to be in the audience
Well, for the lucky ones able to get hold of tickets to the Eurovision shows, finals, semi-finals and rehearsals (they fly like gold dust when released to the public), there is a wonderful atmosphere to be enjoyed at the event. People may complain that the public televote is politicised, that countries vote for their neighbours (or sometime don't, depending on how much they like/dislike each other), but in the arena it's all another story – everyone is ever so friendly and truly wanting to have a good time. It's like a football match, but everyone is on good terms with each other – unlike in most football matches, to be honest, where fans of opposite sides are generally kept apart by fences and riot police.
An Intro (for ESC novices)
I know, I know… this is pretty much superfluous for anyone in Europe (and some other countries down under) but I am sure some readers out there will be wondering why there's so much gay-hype about a corny song contest… so here are a few facts about Eurovision (and why it's possibly the gayest event in the world).
1. It started in 1956 in Switzerland, with 7 contesting countries (each submitting not one but two songs) and styled upon the existing San Remo Italian music contest.
2. It is organised by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which was set up in 1950, a group of national TV broadcasters.
3. Today there are over 40 participating countries. There are two semi-finals and then the grand final is played between 26 qualifying countries. The 5 largest countries in the EBU (Italy, UK, Germany, France & Spain, also the biggest financial contributors to the EBU) qualify by default, together with the previous year's winner.
4. Participating countries have to be active members of the EBU (the area is not exactly matching the European continent, which is why countries like Israel for instance are allowed). Or they have to be 'invited' by the EBU i.e. Australia, where the contest is very popular.
5.The contest's TV audience is over 200m, not just in Europe as it's now broadcast in faraway places like China and the USA. It is also streamed live on the internet.
6. The country winning an edition traditionally hosts the following year's contest, although on five occasions the winning countries declined to host due to financial reasons.
7. There is a jury vote and a public vote since 1998, which once combined elect a winner. Until 1998 it was a jury vote to determine the winning entry.
8. Some huge musical careers were launched at Eurovision. Abba and Celine Dion, anyone?
An important message...
This is why Eurovision is a great story to tell, especially today that Europe is increasingly torn apart by the rise of extreme political views and other social malaises. I was lucky enough to be in Stockholm for this year's edition: to be in a city and then in a stadium with tens of thousands of people from all over the continent and beyond having fun together, enjoying a night of music, singing each other's songs peacefully and happily left me with a nice warm feeling and hope in a European-wide future of peace and harmonic coexistence. One that I do struggle to find in the news today.
In the end the spirit of Eurovision is and has always been to unify, to show that there are more things that unify our peoples, rather than divide them. And this is it – spot on the founding message, sixty years later and counting.
For those LGBT people living in less liberal countries and/or away from main urban centres, the contest is also hugely important, because often the gay-friendliness they see displayed on the Eurovision night is pretty much all they're going to see throughout the rest of the year on their TV screens. Whether this encourages the growth of LGBT-awareness and movements in the local communities and beyond can be debated, but this is surely an important factor in making this competition so relevant today.
What about this year's contest?
As Ukraine lifted the trophy in Stockholm in May 2016, the contest this year will be held in Kyiv between 9 and 13 May. It is undeniable that the current political situation in the region has been of some concern to potential travellers.
The venue selected for the festival will be Kyiv Exhibition Centre, with a total capacity of 10,000 (7,000 seated and 3,000 standing), the stage design by Florian Wieder and even the theme - Celebrate Diversity, which is definitely a good auspice in a country like Ukraine, lagging a bit behind on the LGBT rights curve. Finally the tickets for the various performances (rehearsals, semi-finals and final) have gone on sale on Tuesday 14 February, after a very lengthy delay that had many people worried (and EBU officials sweating).
The hosts for the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest have been announced as Oleksandr Skichko, Volodymyr Ostapchuk, and Timur Miroshnychenko. The appointment marks the first time in the history of the contest that the event will be hosted by three men; all of whom are familiar faces on Ukrainian television.
It has been confirmed that this year's contest will see 43 countries participating, with the welcome return of Romania and Portugal (and the demise of Bosnia Herzegovina - boo!).
The countries are progressively selecting their entries for this year - we have our favourites, of course - but the bookies' favourite at the moment is Italy's Francesco Gabbani with his catchy 'Occidentali's Karma'... Will he stay top of the list?
Updated on 27 February 2017.