When I was a kid, Ireland won the Eurovision four times in five years (between 1992 and 1996). In retrospect, those were the golden years, leading us into the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger and the political windfall of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. I remember ditches filled with primroses; I remember waking up to find cows wandering around the garden and staring in our front window. But it was also a time of uncertainty and change. I remember hearing the heady debates on the car radio, as Ireland squeaked towards a referendum on divorce – our second attempt, and one which only passed by a margin of less than 10,000 votes. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a novel about a battered woman (as they were then called), was at that time controversial enough to be discussed by ten-year-olds in the school playground.
To try to sum the rest of it up briefly: I remember the assassination of Veronica Guerin, an investigative journalist, and the shooting of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe; I remember, though I didn’t understand them at the time, the Moriarty, Mahon and McCracken Tribunals; I remember hearing about ‘illegitimate’ babies, born in secret and then abandoned by their mothers (the fathers having abandoned them long before); I remember the ground-breaking TV series that was Father Ted, and the remarkably rapid decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland; I remember when an IRA bomb exploded in a shopping centre in Omagh, killing 29 people; I remember a moment of national crisis when pop star Steven Gately made the sensational announcement that he was gay; in short, I remember a lot of things, and either all of them are connected, or none are.
What brings all this to mind this evening is the fallout from Eurovision 2014. Now, there are those of you who will say that Eurovision is a giant waste of time – a series of mediocre but costly performances designed to give us a false sense of shared identity and to distract us from the less pleasant things that are going on in our communities. There are also those of you who will say that the question of sexuality has been exploited for too long now by European political elites, who merely want to whip up domestic support for their foreign economic and military policies. There is a measure of truth in both these arguments. Yet at the same time, from where I’ve been watching, Eurovision has provided a rare, focused glimpse into the controversies sweeping Europe, from the Atlantic coastline to the farther reaches of the Eurasian steppe. And here, in the small nations of the South Caucasus, which are facing every bit and more of a hard time as Ireland did in the ’80s and ’90s, it has certainly been much more than an evening of questionable musical entertainment with a superficial veneer of politics.
It was almost inevitable that this Eurovision would be billed in advance as a showdown between East and West, or rather, the West and Putin. While the media focus, as during the Sochi Olympics, was predominantly on gay rights, the voting patterns were also somehow expected to reflect public outcry against the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. And so, one by one, each country took its turn to pronounce judgement on a 25 year old Austrian drag queen (with a beard), conscious that this was an opportunity to send a strong message to the Russian president about the enduring nature of Europe’s liberal and egalitarian values, as well as our lack of respect for Russia’s so-called fraternal relations (bratskie otnoshenie) with the unhappy family of post-Soviet nations. In one way, that is exactly what happened. Conchita won, and thousands of people felt, at least for an instant, that they had secured an important victory over the Kremlin’s draconian anti-gay laws (as they are known in the West), or the Duma’s law against the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors (as it’s known in Russia). Everybody went to bed happy; only a handful of Eurovision nerds felt the need to carry out a detailed post-mortem the next day.
At least, that was what happened in one part of the Europe. Here, it’s different. Here, people haven’t yet learned to take Eurovision lightly – or rather, they don’t have that luxury. In addition, the Eurovision spats between Georgia and Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have become notorious over recent years. I woke up with the certain knowledge that my Facebook feed would be flooded with commentary, and I felt that it would be too much of a perfect storm – a rare illustration of the interdependent nature of constructions of ethnicity and gender – to ignore. In the end, my feelings of anxiety gave way to pleasant surprise. I admit that a couple of people had chosen to express distaste, dissatisfaction and aversion over the results. But the rest – the overwhelming majority – were warmly supportive, not just of Conchita’s victory, but of her whole personality. They were also roundly critical of how their own countries appeared to have voted.
Given that a lot of my friends here are active in the sphere of human rights, especially women’s rights, it’s not that surprising that they should be celebrating. But human rights in the Caucasus is not necessarily seen as synonymous with LGBT rights – and many women’s right activists who I’ve met have told me that they feel unable to openly defend LGBT rights, though they support those who do. In any case, some of these who commented late last night and early this morning were people who I had never seen make any kind of online statement about freedom of sexuality – not last week, when LGBT activists in Yerevan marked the two year anniversary of the DIY-bar arson attack, not last January, when a 20 year old gay rights activist in Baku committed suicide, not last year, when a peaceful rally on the International Day Against Homophobia was violently attacked by thousands of nationalists in Tbilisi.
But what was even more surprising was the news that emerged later in the day: that the public vote for Conchita in all three countries had far exceeded that of the juries (the final scores are a combination of the ‘televotes’ texted in by viewers, and a five-person panel consisting of music industry professionals). The disparity between the public votes and the votes by jury is striking: in Armenia, the judges placed Conchita second-last, while the public voted her into the second position overall. In Azerbaijan, judges likewise ranked Austria second-last, but the public voted her into third place, enough to earn her a single point in the final tally. The Georgian vote was different. Last night, I almost fell off my chair when I saw that Georgia had given Conchita ten points (or second place); today that was explained by this message which appeared on the official Eurovision website: “The voting of Georgia in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest was based on 100% televoting. In case of technical issues with jury voting, or in case of a breach of rules and/or procedures, the Rules of the Eurovision Song Contest state that 100% televoting shall apply.” In Russia, just so you know, televoters gave Conchita third place, while the jury ranked her eleventh out of twenty-five.
So, what does it all mean? There are many layers of explanation, and perhaps many different explanations, for what happened. Maybe Eurovision was boycotted by all but a liberal few – I haven’t seen the numbers for what percentage of the population either tuned in or voted for their favourite. Maybe people voted for Conchita as a general sign of protest and rebellion, against Russia, against the Customs Union, against conformity, against injustice, against dictatorship, against oppression. Maybe they enjoyed the act of subversion without necessarily appreciating the radical integrity of the performance. Maybe they see no contradiction between supporting Conchita Wurst in Eurovision, and continuing to marginalise LGBT issues in their everyday lives. Maybe they see the contradiction, but feel powerless to overcome it. Maybe they feel safe casting an anonymous Eurovision vote for a distant, bearded, drag queen, and unsafe taking a public stance against homophobia in their own neighbourhood, school or workplace. As Oscar Wilde once said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Whatever it means, it’s a sure sign that the rhetoric of Euro-Sodom, homo-fascism, liberasty and gaypolitik (yes, those terms are all enjoying great currency in the Russian language press and social media at the moment) does not hold complete sway over the population here. But why, really, should any of us be surprised by that? The average citizen of the Caucasus or Russia, at least in my experience, is just as politically savvy as their western European counterpart, if not more so. The trouble is, they’re also far more cynical, and far more scared of vocalising protest – with good reason. Everyone is so used to internalising their personal and political opinions all of the bloody time here that it’s hardly surprising they should acquiesce when the state or society puts extra pressure on gay people to internalise their sexual orientation.
It’s also a timely reminder that this story we’re being spoon-fed, the new Cold War saga (“now with gay people!”), is far from the simple tale it’s made out to be – that of civilised, tolerant Europe versus the savage Russian bear-people. Yes, there is a insidious attempt going on, as exposed here and here by Ukrainian NGO Gay Alliance, to manipulate sexual politics for the sake of nationalist agendas. Homophobic attacks, physical and verbal, do go virtually unchecked in this part of the world. Many people grow up feeling ashamed of their sexuality, eventually facing the choice between emigration or living in a kind of internal exile. Thankfully, there are also many people who see this situation for what it is, and refuse to play into the hands of the hetero-political entrepreneurs over something as silly as a song contest. Perhaps they are fighting a losing battle – but perhaps we can help by beginning to realise, and act on, the interconnectedness of all things, and the correlation between sexual freedom and freedom from injustice and corruption.
By evoking my nostalgia for 1990s Ireland in the opening paragraph of this text, I don’t mean to draw facile parallels between my country as it was then, and the South Caucasus as it is now. There are as many differences as there are similarities. But all the same, twenty years ago, who could have predicted the transformation Ireland would undergo over the course of a single decade? Who could have looked at what was happening and realised the almost imperceptible links between one thing and another, or how deep an impression all of it would leave on those of us who were children at the time?
One last thing. I don’t believe that the people in these countries voted for Conchita because all their prejudices were suddenly stripped away by the power of her song. I believe they voted for her because they relished the opportunity to show the rest of Europe that there are people here who value freedom and tolerance. Just as the changes in Ireland didn’t happen overnight, but followed decades of painstaking struggle, with the vocal minority often outweighing the silent majority, the changes here (and there will be changes, that’s for sure) are going to be the result of complex, locally-driven processes – with, just occasionally, an unexpected flashpoint occurring around a bearded lady.
 A series of public inquiries into political corruption, usually named after the judges who presided over them. At the time it seemed that they would never end.
 The Russian legislature, as opposed to the personal office of the president.
 A combination of liberal and pederasty, the latter being widely used as a derogatory term for homosexuals in Russia. In Armenia, women’s rights advocates have recently earned the moniker ‘genderasty’ for their troubles.