The homophobes saw it coming. Conchita Wurst, the beautiful bearded drag queen with the mesmerizing voice, had almost been selected to represent Austria at the Eurovision Song Contest before. The run up to Wurst’s May 10 win was predictably nasty, with petitions on Change.org from Russia and Belarus calling for a ban of the popular singing contest in those countries. The three-day competition became something more than a popular showing of national pride and fervor—it became a test of the tensions between the freedom-loving “liberal” West and the archaic “conservative” East. Art won out in the end.
The Belarus petition sized up the East’s concerns. “The popular international contest, which our children will watch, has become a hotbed of sodomy at the instigation of European liberals,” it said. “Belarus is one of the few countries in Europe that have maintained normal, healthy family values, founded on love and the mutual complementarity between men and women!!!”
Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, who originated the infamous “homosexual propaganda” law in St. Petersburg, called on Russia to withdraw its singers and boycott the competition because it had turned into a “pan-European gay Pride parade.” Milonov was flummoxed. “The participation of the obvious transvestite and hermaphrodite Conchita Wurst, on the same stage as Russian singers, on live television,” he said, “this is clearly propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay.”
But 25-year-old gay singer Tom Neuwirth (Wurst’s name when out of drag) had higher hopes for his drag persona. “I created this bearded lady to show the world that you can do whatever you want,” Wurst told reporters at a press conference in Copenhagen. “If you’re not hurting anyone you can do whatever you like with your life and, it’s so cheesy, but we’ve only got one [life].”
Marriage rights for same-sex couples have been legal in Denmark for 25 years, so the show’s fan base is considerably more tolerant than even other countries in Europe. Comments by Armenian stand-up comedian Aram MP3—a competition favorite—that Wurst’s lifestyle was “not natural” wound up boosting the drag queen’s profile, reported Agence France-Presse.
“He apologized by saying his comments were a joke and badly translated,” Wurst told reporters. “I have to say that if it’s a joke it’s not funny ... but he apologized, and that’s fine for me.”
Eastern homophobes were not the only ones uncomfortable with Wurst’s presentation. “A lot of people say, ‘I’m also gay but I don’t need a beard and a dress to express that,’” Wurst told AFP. “I can just say to those who don’t really realize yet if they are gay or not, you know, and a bit scared of this change: I don’t want to scare them. I just want to show them that they can be accepted in any way. They are allowed to do anything.”
But Wurst did add some clarity. “To make it clear: I am not transsexual, but a man, and will remain that way,” she said in an interview with the German BILD. “I’m planning no sex reassignment. I just like to wear women’s clothes, that’s all.”
Wurst’s declaration of personal liberty and the right to self-expression permeated the competition, with a little political backlash thrown in. Cognizant of the anti-homosexual propaganda law, fans in the stadium booed loudly when Russia’s act received a vote.
Wurst sang “Rise Like a Phoenix,” which one reporter described as “an anthem reminiscent of classic James Bond theme tunes.” Going into the finals, Wurst was the favorite to win—in a competition that brought international attention and fame to such acts as ABBA and Celine Dion. In the end, 34 of 37 countries voted for Austria and Conchita Wurst.
“This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom,” Wurst said after winning. “We are a unity and we are unstoppable.”
She repeated that sentiment when asked what she might say to anti-gay Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I don’t know if he is watching this now, but if so, I’ll say it: We’re unstoppable,” AP reported.
Putin might not have been watching, but anti-gay MP Vladmir Zhirinovsky was. In a debate about Wurst on Rossiya-1 Russian state television, he called the victory “the end of Europe. … There is no limit to our outrage,” he said. “It has turned wild. There are no more men or women in Europe. … Fifty years ago the Soviet army occupied Austria. We made a mistake in freeing Austria. We should have stayed.” Russian vice-premier Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that Wurst’s victory “showed supporters of European integration their European future—a bearded girl.”
On the other hand, pop star Filipp Kirkorov, who produced Russia’s Eurovision, told Rossiya-1 television that Wurst’s win could bring a change in Russia’s homophobia. “Maybe this is a kind of protest against some of our views in Russia. Maybe we should have a think. Maybe we shouldn’t have such a categorical attitude to people of different sexual orientations,” he said.
Social media erupted with commentary, too, after BBC Eurovision’s page posted positive comments about the “gender neutral” performer. Some of the backlash was vile, such as “wake up Hitler” and “kill it with fire.”
Hip-hop star Timati took to Instagram to announce that Wurst’s victory was the result of a “mental illness of contemporary society. … I wouldn’t like one fine day to have to explain to my child why two guys are kissing or a woman is walking round with a dyed beard and that’s supposed to be normal,” he said.
“I have very thick skin,” Wurst told AFP about the negativity. “It never ceases to amaze me just how much fuss is made over a little facial hair.”
The “bearded lady” was welcomed home to Vienna in triumph, however, with hundreds of fans singing “Rise Like a Phoenix” swarming Vienna’s International Airport to catch a glimpse of Wurst clutching her trophy.
Austrian President Heinz Fischer congratulated Wurst via the Austria Press Agency, saying it was “not just a victory for Austria, but above all for diversity and tolerance in Europe.”
At a news conference after arriving in Vienna, Wurst noted that Russia had given Austria five points, actually one more than it had given Ukraine. That shows, she said, that “you can’t reduce a country to its tolerance or intolerance.”
“Yesterday was a victory not just for me, but also for those people who believe in a future that functions without discrimination and which is based on tolerance and respect,” Wurst said. “That was transnational and had nothing to with east and west.”
Wurst said that she doesn’t consider herself “the ambassador of tolerance or the example,” AP reported, though she is doing her “little bit.”
“Shoot for the moon, even if you miss,” she said. “You will land among the stars. That is exactly how I’m living.”