From Finnish rock bands to Portuguese opera singers, Eurovision is the place where once a year Europeans gather and showcase their unique, sometimes strange, yet always entertaining music acts, and there is a level of mutual respect between countries that always shines through our television screens.
This year Ireland’s entry, ‘Together’ by Ryan O’Shaughnessy, features a homosexual couple dancing through Dublin’s Temple Bar area, and is a beautiful tribute to lost loves. There have been rumours circulating since the release of their promotional music video that Russia, if Ireland’s live performance features the same couple, will ban its broadcast on Russian television as it violates their laws which prohibit such ‘gay propeganda’. In order to take part in the Eurovision song contest, a country must broadcast the live performances of all songs. They do not have to show promotional videos, which is what O’Shaughnessy’s currently is. With the show having taken place last week, Russia in the end did broadcast the Irish performance, but apparently deemed the relationship between the two dancers as a “’strong male friendship’ rather than one of a romantic nature.
A similar situation arose in 2014, when drag queen Conchita Wurst won the competition as Austria’s representative. Many celebrated with her, penning her as a symbol for acceptance and authenticity in Europe today. Notoriously anti-gay Russian politician Vitaly Milonov, however, was not pleased with Wurst’s entry in the competition and eventual victory. He wrote a letter to the Eurovision selection committee asking them not to send any Russian performers to the competition that year, arguing that Russia’s participation would “contradict the path of cultural and moral renewal that Russia stands on today”, calling the competition a “Europe-wide gay parade”. Eurovision has long been on Milonov’s radar, with him calling for a ‘Russiavision’, a competition which upholds the countries traditional values. This could actually be a reality in the future, as Putin has also called for the revival of Intervision, the Soviet version of Eurovision which ran between 1977 and 1981. A revival was called for in 2014 after Wurst’s victory, but was postponed and has not yet been realised. Despite the uproar caused by Milonov, the Austrian performance was broadcast throughout the country and Wurst won a large number of votes from Russian fans.
The answer to why Russia is so concerned with other countries and their Eurovision entries lies not in their threat of competition, but in their gay propaganda law. Russia’s gay propaganda law was brought into play in 2013, and it bans the promotion of homosexuality to those under the age of 18. It has been justified as a means of protection of their youth from the homosexual influence. There has been global outrage at the implementation of this law, the most recent being from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg last year which ruled that the law “reinforced stigma and prejudice and encouraged homophobia” in Russia, and goes against the level of equality a democratic society should possess. They also found that three Russian activists, who staged peaceful protests against the law, were fined and had their freedom of expression compromised. Despite this, Putin continues to defend his law by stating that it protects the countries’ traditional values and shields his citizen’s from the “so-called tolerance” of the West.
This ruling from the Court came amidst news of extreme violence against gay men in the Russian federal subject of Chechnya. Police in Chechnya rounded up, beat and humiliated any men that were suspected of being gay, in an effort to rid them from Chechen society. The ‘purge’ as it has been named started in February 2017 and continued to April, with men being captured and held in secret locations for days and weeks at a time. They were tortured in an effort to obtain information about other men in the community who were known to be gay. While some men are thought to still be in captivity, others were delivered back to their families with their sexual orientations exposed, and the police encouraged the families to commit “honour killings”. These events sound like something that could only come to life in a horror movie, but unfortunately for some this is their nightmarish reality of not being accepted in their own country.
This is not an isolated incident. Since the banning of gay propaganda, hate crimes towards gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities have doubled, with murders topping the list as the most committed crime. Svetlana Zakharova, a board member with the Russian LGBT network, says that these hate criminals have become more offensive and less afraid, as they now feel like the government is on their side. The propaganda ban has stopped gay pride marches, detained gay rights activists as we have already seen, and has increased violence towards a portion of the population who now feel as though they are not protected.
Comparing the seriousness of the situation in Russia to the light-hearted entertainment of the Eurovision, perhaps Putin and his colleagues should put more energy into focusing on the violence and murders happening right under their noses rather than performers across the waters that are trying to promote acceptance, diversity and fun on the global stage.