LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Irish song about a romance between two men is in the running to win this year’s Eurovision on Saturday, underscoring the show’s transformation from conservative roots to become a key global platform for the LGBT community.
More than 200 million people are estimated to watch the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which activists say shines a light on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, including in countries where they are stigmatized.
That includes Russia, booed at Eurovision for its 2013 law against so-called gay propaganda, and China, where a broadcaster has been barred from airing the show after censoring some songs.
“No country can truly claim to celebrate the spirit of Eurovision if it does not reach out to its LGBT citizens,” the LGBT Foundation’s Andrew Gilliver said.
“For many people in the LGBT+ community, Eurovision is indeed a beacon of hope that reflects a place where we can celebrate whoever we are.”
Starting in 1956 with just seven countries, Eurovision is now in its 63rd year and has been recognized by Guiness World Records as the longest-running annual TV music competition. Ireland has taken the top prize most often.
The show’s main aim when it began was to unite Europe after World War Two, though it has since expanded far beyond the continent.
It was the Israeli singer Dana International who really changed the face of the contest when she won the show two decades ago, say activists.
As the first trans winner, Dana is widely credited with making it more acceptable for subsequent LGBT champions, including bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst in 2014.
Wurst, now a celebrated gay rights icon, has credited the show with being a “bubble of inclusivity and respect”.
“We are pleased that throughout our long history we have been able to offer a platform for artists from many different backgrounds and viewpoints,” said a spokesman for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which produces Eurovision.
Despite strict EBU rules on broadcasting Eurovision in full, a television station in China censored Tuesday’s semi-final, blurring rainbow flags and not airing a performance by Irish singer Ryan O’Shaughnessy that portrays a gay relationship.
The EBU has since terminated its relationship with the station.
Russia has this year aired the full competition, including the Irish entry, after the protests over its propaganda law. In 2009, Russian police broke up a gay march that coincided with the contest’s final.
“The general audience (in Russia) never get a positive message about homosexuality,” Boris Dittrich, advocacy director for the LGBT program at Human Rights Watch, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“When they watch Eurovision ... all of a sudden, their eyes might be opened and they might think hey, you can also be positive about two men falling in love.”
Dittrich, who has grew watching Eurovision, said the show was especially empowering for youth still feeling conflicted about their identity.
The Eurovision final will be held in Lisbon on Saturday.
Reporting by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org