“Eurovision” Song Contest: Building Bridges between West and East

Building Bridges, the motto of the “Eurovision” Song Contest, is all about uniting the east and west. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities from this year’s host country, Austria, and abroad used the opportunity of the world’s biggest LGBT-friendly music event to make the statement that Europe must improve the rights of its LGBT* people.

The Executive Director of the national LGBT* rights organization LGL, Vladimir Simonko, marched together with over 200 people through downtown Vienna on the 23rd of May, 2015 to spread the message of tolerance and acceptance. Carrying a 40 meter (131 foot) banner made up of flags from more than 70 countries where homosexuality is forbidden or the death penalty is imposed for LGBT* people, demonstrators called on lawmakers in all European countries to enact legislation that would allow LGBT* people to have the same access to anti-discrimination laws as heterosexual people, as Angela Schwarz, co-organizer of the To Russia with Love march, explained.

To Russia with Love, the organization behind the rainbow march, says that while all European countries need to improve their protection of LGBT* rights to varying degrees, its biggest concern is the extent to which minority communities lack basic rights in Russia.

Moscow’s membership in the Council of Europe, its signature on the European Convention on Human Rights and the political significance of each stand in stark contrast to the homophobic legislation imposed in Russia. As the organization explains, a law was passed in June 2013 that allows for the imprisonment of those who circulate information to minors about “non-traditional sexual orientation.”

To Russia, with love from your fans

With Moscow’s heavy-handed laws for LGBT* individuals continuing to be condemned by the international community, organizers of the “Eurovision” Song Contest had pre-recorded applause on standby for the semi-finals’ live broadcast in case the audience showed any animosity toward Russian contestant Polina Gagarina.

The decision was reached after “Eurovision” 2014, when Russian contestants—the 17-year-old Tolmachevy Sisters—were booed both before their dress rehearsal and during their live performance, which was done in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay propaganda laws.

But, the pre-recorded sound was not needed. Instead, rainbow colored flags—the symbol of the LGBT* community—were waved in support of the singer, who says that the song she chose to perform at Eurovision, ‘A million voices,’ is about love: “We all speak one language, the language of love. It doesn’t make a difference who we are. We can build bridges.”

The “Eurovision” communications coordinator, Jarmo Siim, said that due to Polina’s positive reception during the first semi-final, the show’s producers decided to air the audience’s live reactions from the venue instead of a pre-recorded applause. “Looking at the response the Russian contestant has received, we are confident she will be cheered with the same enthusiasm [at the final],” Simm commented.

Despite her government’s anti-LGBT* stance, Russia’s Polina seems to have won the hearts of the LGBT* community not by singing an LGBT-friendly song, but also by sharing a photograph earlier this week on Facebook of herself with last year’s Austrian winner and LGBT* icon, Conchita Wurst.

But the LGBT* community was worried about Russia potentially winning the “Eurovision” final.

Simon Hill, who was in Vienna with his partner Steve Cannon for the song contest, said that if Russia wins, he does not think he could travel to Moscow and feel safe.

“If the state does not lock me up, then the people in Russia might beat me up,” Hill added. Cannon says that it is important to use events like “Eurovision,” especially when Russia is participating with a hugely popular song, to send a “loud and clear message that it is not acceptable to have homophobic legislation in Europe.”

Darian Michtits, a political science student from Vienna, echoed this sentiment.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to Russia. I don’t want to be attacked. We have to change that so people can feel comfortable in the whole of Europe so they don’t have to fear for their lives.”

Lit-up lovers guide the way

And it is not just the music that’s getting people around Vienna to talk about LGBT* equality. 49 pedestrian traffic lights across the Vienna Ring, a famous boulevard right in the middle of where the song contest is being held, display a powerful message: the little green and red men who normally provide inform pedestrians of when to cross are no longer just male stick figures, but couples. Some lights flash a man and a woman holding hands, others two men, and others two women.

The new LGBT-friendly traffic fixtures have become so popular with locals and tourists that they are set to stay as a symbol of tolerance and acceptance. “As this year’s Eurovision host, Vienna did not miss the chance to present itself as an LGBT-friendly European capital for tourists,” concludes the Executive Director of LGL, Vladimir Simonko.

During his visit to Vienna, Mr. Simonko was actively involved in supporting Amnesty International’s social campaign, #RespectDiversity, which aims to promote tolerance, respect, and diversity in society.

On the 17th of May, 2015, which was celebrated throughout the world as the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), Vladimir Simonko was among the few lucky fans invited to the red carpet event, and had the chance to get an up close look at the “Eurovision” contestants, who came from over 40 countries.

LGL’s leader invited the stars to support Amnesty International’s campaign for tolerance (#RespectDiversity) by taking photos with the campaign slogan. Representatives from Lithuania, Latvia, Australia and Austria enthusiastically took the opportunity to promote this message of tolerance. The representatives of Lithuania at the “Eurovision” Song Contest, Vaidas Baumila and Monika Linkytė, performed in the Austrian capital, scoring a “Eurovision” first with not one, but two same-sex couples sharing a kiss on stage.

The Executive Director of LGL, who closely followed V. Baumila’s and M. Linkytė‘s performance during the semi-finals of “Eurovision,” expressed admiration for Lithuania’s performance. “Their performance reassured me with its sincerity. I saw the supportive reaction from fans coming from Israel, Norway and Australia. Most of them knew the lyrics and sang along. It was difficult to rouse the audience, yet they absolutely managed to do it,” Mr. Simonko warmly comments. He is convinced that the Lithuanian team’s message of tolerance achieved more than all the efforts from politicians to change the country’s homophobic image.

Before the show he had met with a lesbian couple from Vienna, who was asked to leave one of city’s cafes because of an open kiss. “The kisses representing the rights of same-sex couples on the “Eurovision” stage means a lot to them”, assures Mr. Simonko.